“Thank You, Thank You, Sam I Am”

submitted by tutor Marc Teti

I joined the VEP program and started tutoring Marcos from Colombia in the fall of 2012. Marcos had been working in the US for about 2 years in a professional IT role. This led me to believe that Marcos had advanced intermediate English language skills. As I found out, Marcos has a good vocabulary, Marcos Quito and Marc Tetibut he struggles with pronunciation, and it detracts from his ability to communicate. So after a few sessions getting to know each other we launched into reading the Easy English News. This led to many fruitful conversations about American history, government, and society. However I found myself surprised at how much difficulty Marcos had reading the newspaper and frustrated at how little impact I had on his ability to pronounce English words. It took me a few months to realize that we needed to take a step back and try something different.

The company I work for has a factory in Mexico, so I’ve had business meetings with many Mexican citizens who speak English as a 2nd language. I began to realize that Marcos’ speaking and listening skills were weaker than some of my Mexican colleagues. So I asked myself how can I develop a baseline for Marcos’ speaking skills and from that establish a foundation to build upon. Three things were necessary: 1) to identify common English mistakes made by Spanish speakers; 2) to isolate Marcos’ specific challenges; and 3) to acquire the tools to help Marcos correct these errors.

Addressing the first challenge, the common mistakes Spanish speakers make when trying to speak English, was easy. The VEP office team gave me some good information on this, and I immediately recognized many of the problems that my Mexican colleagues have. And I could see that Marcos had some of these same challenges as well as other pronunciation issues. I struggled to isolate the more subtle issues.

So secondly I wondered how I could I isolate Marcos’ specific challenges? Then I recalled the suggestion at the VEP training classes that we have our students read children’s books. So Dr. Seuss came to the rescue. Green Eggs and Ham, due to the repetition and rhyming scheme, made it clear which sounds Marcos struggled with most. Vowels, diphthongs, consonants and consonant blends are always pronounced the same way in Spanish. However English has many ways of pronouncing single vowels let alone the silent letters in many words. So phrases such as “would you, could you with a goat, would you, could you in a boat” were epiphanies. Marcos was trying to pronounce the silent L in would and could and the silent A in boat and goat. This only became clear with the simplicity and repetitive rhyming of Dr. Seuss.

Third, impressing upon Marcos the unique and subtle nuances of English pronunciation was proving more difficult than I expected. How could the TH sound be so difficult? Then I realized that TH has the forced air TH as in “think” and the voiced TH as in “the.” The answer to my dilemma was on youtube. Youtube has many pronounciation videos but I found Dave Sconda the best. His technique of having the camera zoomed in on his face and his exaggerated style helped to deconstruct the sound. I also found his mispronunciation examples humorous. As an example follow this link to see how Dave teaches the TH sound. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag4qoNzEH4w

With Marcos, I’ve learned that pronunciation makes or breaks your ability to effectively communicate. Vocabulary will come, but the pronunciation foundation needs to be laid so that you appear credible to your English listener. I think Marcos is now on that path.