Would you like a cough?

Cecilia Lemos’s today’s post about the importance of intelligibility when teaching pronunciation made me think it is time I went beyond my two previous posts – where I talked about investigating Brazilian learners’ specific pronunciation needs and tackling their intelligibility problems – and move on to something more specific and practical.

What do we know about what makes Brazilians more or less intelligible when communicating in an international context – i.e., using English as a lingua franca?

According to a small-scale investigation I conducted (da Silva, 1999) using Jenkins’s common core of English phonology (Jenkins, 1996: 17-18), plus a number of anecdotal data I have gathered for many years, there are a few areas where Brazilians in general tend to be less intelligible due to pronunciation difficulties that seem to be quite frequent. In this post, I will focus on one of them, that is mentioned very often by speakers of other languages when talking to Brazilians – our tendency to reduce the vowel sound in final unstressed syllables.

In practical terms, it seems that to a non-Brazilian ear, words like ready often sound like red, office like ‘offs’, coffee like cough, etc., when pronounced by some Brazilians. The first example of this that I came across was from an IH London British teacher who once asked me if I knew why most Brazilian students he’d had would say, for example, that they came to class by ‘tax’ instead of ‘taxi’. That was an eye-opening moment for me, because that sort of problem had never occurred to me. But then more evidence, from other stories people told me, as well as from the investigation itself, seemed to point in that direction. Apparently, that faint intrusive /i/ sound after words (such as when students say things like ‘I likey cakey’) – which we teachers usually cringe at  – doesn’t affect intelligibility so much as the reduction of /i/ where it should be clearly pronounced! It seems that if you are not Brazilian that reduced /i/ is simply not heard, and an entirely different word – or a totally non-sense one – may be perceived in place of the one the Brazilian speaker intended.

What can we do to help our learners overcome this problem if they have it? Here are some ideas.

• Start by making learners aware that in Portuguese we usually reduce the final syllables of words when they are not stressed. Give them a few examples – such as the word ‘bife’, for instance. Make them say it naturally in Portuguese so that they see we hardly produce the final vowel, very often ending the word at the /f/ sound – something like [bifi] Say it yourself, making sure you pronounce it like that. Then tell students we cannot do the same with English words, as people from other parts of the world won’t be able to hear the ending of the words if we do that.

• Show students minimal pairs such as cough/coffee, or tax/taxi, and dare them to pronounce the two words so as to make them sound really different from one another. Make them see that it is not OK to offer someone a cough instead of a coffee, like in the title of this post!

• To raise learners’ awareness you can also use this game, based on an original design by Mark Hancock, specially created for this purpose.

• Be alert to this type of word when you teach new vocabulary. They are a lot more frequent than you think! Many English words follow a O-o or o-O-o stress pattern, which means a large number of final unstressed syllables run the risk of being ‘swallowed up’ or ‘sucked in’ by your students.

• Don’t let your students get away with doing that! Pretend you don’t hear the endings of words whenever they reduce them as they would in Portuguese, and repeat the ‘mutilated’ word with a confused, quizzical look on your face and a question intonation. Then pretend you ‘finally’ got what was meant, and repeat the word, making the final syllable sound as it should. Then get them to repeat it correctly.

I hope you find these tips useful. Please let me know in your comments if you’d like me to share more of these on other intelligibility problem areas.


da Silva, R. 1999. ‘A small-scale investigation into the intelligibility of the pronunciation of Brazilian intermediate students.’ Speak Out!, IATEFL SIG Newsletter 23: 19-25.

Jenkins, J. 1996 ‘Changing Pronunciation Priorities for Successful Communication in International Contexts.’ Speak Out!, IATEFL SIG Newsletter 17, 15-23.


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Ricardo Sili

I’ve been in ELT for longer than I can remember – teaching, training teachers, designing and managing courses, and writing for Learning Factory (Interlink / New Interlink series), then Richmond (English ID Starter) and a few others. I’m fascinated by pronunciation and grammar teaching. And I have an MA in ELT, and an RSA Diploma.

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