This post is about Edward Y. Odisho’s book Pronunciation is in the brain not in the mouth. I’ve basically kept notes of the things I found interesting and shared some reflections on my approach to teaching pronunciation. You will also find a pron-ecdote or two from my own language learning journey!

The book talks about:

  • The cognitive base of language.
  • Linguistic accent and examples of cross-language accent-causing consonants, vowels and suprasegmentals. Odisho identifies pronunciation problems that speakers of other languages have, such as Arabic, German, Kurd, Farsi, Spanish, French, Greek, Italian, Turkish, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and more!
  • Salient features of articulatory settings of a range of languages.
  • Principles of a multicognitive and multisensory approach to teaching pronunciation.
  • Accent remediation techniques.
  • Accent reduction and accent detection.

Some important points

Don’t rely on the auditory modality

Odisho suggests teaching sounds not only  auditorily, but also visually, by drawing attention to facial movement, as well as kinsthetically, by feeling the sensations, movements and contacts of the vocal organs.

An example of teaching visually: To help students see the puff of air that accompanies aspiration of plosive consonants like /p/, put a flimsy piece of paper and keep it pressed under your nose so that it covers your lips. Pronounce the aspirated /p/ and draw attention to the movement of the paper.

By visual, Odisho means getting students to observe the physical movement but also using any pictorial representations, like syllable circles.

Ever since my DELTA days, I try to always record pronunciation features on the whiteboard using syllable circles, capital letters, the phonemic script etc. I recently found out about Gilbert’s prosody pyramid too, which is an interesting visual for teaching stress. You can have a look at this lesson plan to see how I used it.

An example of teaching kinesthetically: To produce /v/, ask learners to bring together the upper teeth with the bottom lip and repeat the contact for several times until the brain registers the contact. Just the physical contact, not the sound.

Teach pronunciation in a dynamic way

Pronunciation should be taught in both directions, i.e.  :

  • a bottom-up approach: from smaller to larger units (i.e., segments to suprasegmentals)
  • and top-down approach: from larger to smaller

This made me think of how I teach pronunciation.

  • Bottom up: Rarely. When correcting mispronunciation of individual  sounds, e.g. /s/ and /z/, or when doing minimal pair drills with young learners.
  • Top down: All the time. Word and sentence stress, intonation, connected speech. I feel this has helped my students decode fast speech, and gradually improve their speech intelligibility, by making it more listener-friendly.
Listen-and-repeat isn’t enough

 Odisho says the mechanical repeat-after-me procedure is ineffective and doesn’t necessarily lead to retention. As Underhill puts it “You can’t repeat your way out of a habit from inside the habit!” Repetition drills bypass two important stages: perception and recognition.

perception : feeling and sensing the presence of a given sound;

recognition: includes perception+ being able to distinguish the given sound from others and, perhaps, identify any  difference(s) from other sounds.

Perception +recognition = awareness

 production: ability to retrieve the sound and reproduce it

When I took a German course some years ago, I was disappointed when I couldn’t immediately produce the sounds the teacher modelled. This repeat-after-me method wasn’t working for me, at least not when learning German which was more difficult for me than Spanish or Italian. I needed more support.

This made me think how my approach to drilling has changed since CELTA:

  • First 3 years post-CELTA: Model (once ) and drill.
  • Post DELTA: Model (2 or three times) and ask students to either repeat or mumble the target language. Whatever they feel comfortable with.
  • After having watched this webinar, I’m even more convinced of the importance of awareness (perception/recognition) before production. Here’s a technique I’ve learned from Lizzie Adams.
  1. Teacher models. Students just listen.
  2. Teacher models. Students notice the difference between written and spoken form, any features of connected speech.
  3. Teacher models. Students listen and imagine saying the sentence.
  4. Teacher models. Students make the physical movement but don’t produce the word/sentence.
  5. Teacher models. Students repeat.

Things I’d like to know more about

There’s no such thing as fossilization

Odisho rejects the use of the term ‘fossilization’ to identify the slowness and imperfection of adults’ mastery of L2 pronunciation for several reasons.

1) the enormous plasticity of the brain 

2) a  multisensory and multicognitive approach can secure significant results

3) the extent and the context of exposure to L2 are crucial in reducing the acuteness of L2 accent.

4) students’  self-motivation.

However, when Odisho refers to his own accent, he says there are still some residues of phonetic accent here and there (mispronunciation that doesn’t cause miscomprehension).

Being “deaf” to certain sounds

Odisho says learners can be psycholinguistically insensitive or, at times, “deaf”  to sounds that are absent in their  language or occur only allophonically. He mentions an example of an Arab friend of his, who was deaf to the sound /ʤ/ and pronounced judge as /ʒʌʒ/ . Odisho corrected him but his friend couldn’t understand what the problem was. He replied: I didn’t say /ʒʌʒ/, I said /ʒʌʒ/! Odisho says it took him a long time to convince his friend that he was mispronouncing judge.

The 10 commandments

Odisho’s written 10 commandments for teaching pronunciation! Here are some of them along with my thoughts.

 Thou Shall Teach Children and Adults Differently

What I do differently is  create more pronunciation games for my young learners and rely heavily on the auditory sense. I also mostly use a bottom-up approach, focusing mostly on individual sounds. Chants are my main top-down activity to practise word/sentence stress.

I use more awareness-raising activities with adults. I try to coach rather than teach, although I’m always prepared to teach pronunciation explicitly if my students ask me to.

Thou Shall be Qualified for Instruction in Pronunciation

Odisho strongly believes that any instructor of adults learning L2 pronunciation should know their students’ L1 and be aware of the sound system of both L1 and L2 to highlight the differences/similarities and the areas where problems would be expected. I think this certainly helps. I was much less confident before the DELTA than I am now. Knowing my learners’ L1 also helped. But is this always possible? Many teachers start working in different countries without knowing the local language. I did not speak Croatian when I taught YLs in Zagreb, Arabic Egyptian or Syrian when I taught adults online, but this was not a huge issue. Also, being a teacher I find that I’m developing my noticing skills and I gradually become aware of my students’ L1 interference.

Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels

Thou Shall Orient Learners Psychologically – instill in them a positive attitude for learning coupled with confidence.

Absolutely. Pronunciation is an intimidating area for both teachers and students. Going beyond the listen-and-repeat and including a variety of activities has raised my students’ motivation according to their feedback :

  • We never did so many pronunciation activities before.
  • I never though I would like pronunciation activities so much.
  • Now I understand why I didn’t understand! Also written by Mark Hancock here!

 Thou Shall Refrain from Insistence on a Learner

I do that – even too much. The last thing I want is to frustrate my learners. I know firsthand that learning takes time, practice, exposure, repetition.

When my Italian father-in-law (also a teacher!) corrects my pronunciation of Italian double consonants, eg, cappello or nonna, it doesn’t help me – it only frustrates me. I know the rule, but in spontaneous speech I hardly ever pronounce these words correctly. I think it’s because I find the double sound a little funny, as it doesn’t exist in Greek and as Odisho says, I might be psychologically reluctant to produce it.

One thing I don’t agree with

Odisho distinguishes between:

  • Phonetic accent: mispronunciation that doesn’t cause miscomprehension.
  • Phonological accent : mispronunciation that can cause miscomprehension.

So, all language learners will have a phonetic accent to a certain degree. I don’t see a problem with that, as long as they are intelligible. Odisho, however, sees this as a failure:

Some learners or speakers of an L2 claim that they do not care whether they manifest an accent in their speech or not. Such a claim is made under the pretext that the speaker wants his accent to reflect his ethnic and linguistic identity. In my view, this is a baseless claim and it is no more than a cover-up for the linguistic failure. Logically and aesthetically, any speaker of L2 should portray his ethnic and linguistic identity through perfect demonstration of his/her L1 rather than through the loading of an L2 with mispronunciations infused through L1.

Share your thoughts

What about you? Do you speak all your students’ L1? Do you think it’s necessary? How do you teach children and adults differently? How have you helped students who are “deaf” to certain sounds? Do you have any fun pron-ecdotes to share? 🙂


Gordon, J. (2012). Extra-linguistic factors in the teaching and learning of pronunciation in an ESL class. In. J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.). Proceedings of the 3rd Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference, Sept. 2011. (pp. 134-146). Ames, IA: Iowa State University.

Odisho, E.Y. (2014). Pronunciation is in the Brain, not in the Mouth. New Jersey: Gorgias Press LLC.

Whipple, J., Cullen, C., Gardiner, K. and Savage, T., 2015. Syllable Circles for pronunciation learning and teaching. ELT Journal, 69(2), pp.151-164.