Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Water" and English Language Learners

Many of my adult ESL students have a problem being understood when they say the word "water." They have found it frustrating when they try to order a glass of water at a restaurant. And "water" is just one of those words that is very hard to avoid using!

"Water" is such a simple and common word for most native English speakers, but it really has a lot of complex sounds for English language learners. The "t" is the universally difficult sound to pronounce in this word as it is pronounced as a quick "d" by native speakers (I'm talking about American English, here). The "w" is also difficult, as is the "er" sound.

I had a recent experience with this word that I found more interesting than usual due to my experiences with my ESL students.

I spent a few days with a native English-speaking two-year-old child who supposedly has a speech development delay. He's seeing a speech therapist. The adults around the child were trying to help him out by breaking up certain words into syllables and encouraging him to repeat the words. One of the words was "water."

The interesting thing to me was that when the adults broke up the word into two syllables, they said "wa-ter." The "t" was stressed as a very strong "t" sound. I'm sure the child will eventually pick up the common way to say this important word the American English way, but I'm not sure if the strong emphasis on the "t" sound is helping him at this time. Because of my experience with adult English language learners, I would have said "wa-der," with a "d" sound.

I just find language acquisition at any age and level to be fascinating. In my next life, I'll spend more time studying this subject (as well as becoming a forest ranger).

--end--

1 comment:

John Brezinsky said...

Cool huh? The technical term for that sound U.S. speakers tend to make for the letter 't' between two voiced sounds at the beginning of a syllable is a flap. You can even get it accross word boundaries in phrases like "Cut it out". Those parents wouldn't use a flap when saying the syllables of "water" because they were speaking slowly and because both syllables would be stressed when pronounced in isolation.

The flap doesn't get a lot of attention in most pronunciation courses, mostly because it isn't much of a barrier to intelligibility. I've always thought that it's important for more advanced students, though, who are moving from just being understood towards more native-like pronunciation.