Not just a pretty picture: getting physical with the phonemic chart

Since spending two weeks of summer in Cambridge at a course run by the great Adrian Underhill on all things pronunciation, I’ve been working hard to incorporate his phonemic chart into regular pronunciation practice with my learners. It’s up on the wall in so many classrooms worldwide, but generally ignored.

If you’re one of the few who don’t have one, download one below and print it out – don’t miss out!

Phonemic chart pdf

Sandy Millin’s post last weekend on her first teaching jobs and what she thought the chart was when (pre-CELTA) teaching in Paraguay reminded me of this, and it pushed me to write this recap on the chart and what a brilliant tool it can be when properly understood and used:

I assumed it was just another pretty picture, like the other posters in the classroom. A couple of months later I found out it was actually Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart – Sandy Millin

So let’s take a tour around the phonemic chart and remind ourselves how much fun pronunciation practice can be when learning is physical, not just cognitive. This can be a revolutionary resource for pronunciation practice, sadly underused at present due to a lack of understanding and/or coursebook attention.

As Adrian said on the course, here are the 44 phonemes of English English; this is the first and last page of the textbook:

phonemic chart

Not sure of the sound each symbol represents? Check here.

Step 1 – Proprioception

The neurological ability of the body to sense movement and position – Collins Dictionary.

Using the phonemic chart effectively is all about being aware of the positions of four ‘pronunciation buttons’:

LIP SHAPE – Forward? Back? Wide? Round? Spread?

TONGUE – Up? Down? Curled? Pushed against teeth? Between teeth?

JAW – Open? Closed?

VOICE – Off? On (larynx vibration)?

four buttons2

The key to developing effective proprioception? Questions, questions, questions! What shape are your lips making? Can you feel where your tongue is? Is your jaw open or closed? Put a hand on your throat – is your voice on or off? Any error with a sound can be fixed not by overthinking it, but by experimenting with adjusting one or more of these four buttons until the desired sound is produced. Trial and error.

The Vowel Sounds

Tongue forward ———————————————-> back

Jaw closed




Jaw open


In Mouth Gym Part 2, back in spring, I wrote about how to train the mouth to produce the sounds based on tongue position. During the course with Adrian, we added several techniques:

  • Contrasts – i: u: i: u: i: u: i: u: Tongue forward and lips spread THEN tongue back and lips forward. Get you learners to feel it for themselves and tell you these differences.
  • Index finger on nose, thumb on bottom of jaw and feel how it opens from i: to e to æ.
  • Act! Have some fun! ə (shwa – everyone’s favourite!) – the idiot’s sound. Switch every button off and make a noise. It’s impossible to look intelligent when doing this. ɜ: – the long idiot’s sound. Can anyone look clever when making this sound?
  • ɒ – You have a satsuma in your mouth – make space (tongue back and down, lips forward)! Enough said.
  • Use the chart on the wall – point, get learners up to point. Gesture to show long and short sounds, clown around a bit. Make pronunciation practice dynamic and fun.

The Diphthongs


  • Made up of two sounds – a + ɪ = aɪ.
  • Point at sound 1 on the vowel section, then sound 2. Sound 1, sound 2, sound 1, sound 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1 2, 1 2 faster and faster until the two sounds blend perfectly and voila, a diphthong is born.

The Consonants


  • The top two rows exist in pairs, with the positions of three buttons exactly the same: lips, jaw, tongue.
  • The difference? On the left, the voice is OFF; on the right, the voice is ON. Put your hand to your throat and feel the vibration when the voice is ON.






The TH is a tough sound to make for many Latvian and Russian speakers here in Riga, as it doesn’t exist in their language. Tip: find f by biting down on bottom lip, put tongue where bottom lip is and feel the TH.



  • The bottom row of consonants? Miscellaneous! Focus on the four buttons and the sound will be made though.
  • Finding the r: Option 1. ð — z — ʒ — r (tongue going further and further back). Option 2. n — r (tip of the tongue moves down slightly to let some air through).

Other activity ideas

  1. Students have a copy of the chart and map out words or sentences for a partner by pointing at the sounds.
  2. Students pick a word and describe the physical movements happening to pronounce that word: My tongue starts behind my bottom teeth and my lips are spread to make the i:, the tongue stays where it is but the lips become a little rounder and the voice is on to make the z…(describing ‘easy’).
  3. Students mouth words to each other – this focuses on the importance of lip shape in certain sounds.

The Takeaways

  • The phonemic chart is a fantastic tool for training pronunciation, and is vastly underused.
  • Four buttons make any sound – jaw, tongue, lips, voice. Proprioception is key.
  • Pronunciation is a physical skill, so it should be taught physically.
  • DO – Use the chart to stress the physical differences in making the sounds.
  • DON’T – Get obsessed with the symbols. They are useful as a vehicle, but they aren’t the objective (forget CELTA and Delta woes scripting out pronunciations).
  • Have fun with the phonemic chart – point, gesture, challenge. Make learning sounds experiential and enjoyable (vs. call and repeat zzzzZZZZZ).
  • It can also be used to teach word stress and connected speech.

Do you use the phonemic chart in lessons? If so, how? Please leave a comment below!


What do you want? SMART Goal Setting to Start Term

Another lap of the track! Here we go again!

Starting back in an English class, and among the first question I’ll ask my students will be “what do you want to get from your time here?”

Do you want to improve your speaking to survive a trip abroad?

Do you want to prepare for a specific exam?

Do you want to improve your written English for business correspondence?

Do you want to improve listening skills to be able to understand films and TV series?



People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily – Zig Ziglar, motivational speaker.

Motivation isn’t usually a problem for learners at the start of term, fresh from a summer break, well rested, falling back into routine. But fast forward a few months and this spark often starts to dim, and numbers in adult classes tend to gradually drop.

Why? Well, picture a road trip. Setting off on a journey with no destination or even points of interest to stop at on the way may seem exciting at first, but people soon get tired of a lack of direction. From English Teacher

So as suggested in Daniel Barber and Duncan Foord’s excellent book From English Teacher to Learner Coach, clear goal setting is key to sustain motivation levels once the honeymoon period has worn off.

“What do you want?” “I want to learn English”. This is a pre-requisite, but it doesn’t count as an effective goal. Instead, we should encourage learners to set their own goals using SMART principles, revisit and adapt them at given intervals throughout the year, and most importantly: ensure that what learners are doing day to day is drawing them closer and closer to their stated goals.

What does SMART stand for?


  • Well defined.
  • Clear to anyone that has a basic knowledge of the project.


  • How to know when you have achieved your goal.
  • How is it measured?

Agreed Upon

  • Agreement with all the stakeholders what the goals should be (learner, classmate, teacher).
  • Important to take into account current level, attitude and other life commitments.


  • Within the availability of resources, knowledge and time.
  • i+1 – the next step up on the ladder, one at a time. There’s nothing more demoralising than an unattainable goal.


  • Setting a time limit for achieving the goal, when it can be measured and then taken forward.
  • Too long, and the goal is too far away. If there is one big goal for the end of the academic year, split it into three more manageable chunks – one per term.

What might a SMART goal look like?

Adapted from From English Teacher to Learner Coach, with a few of my own ideas thrown in, this is an example from an intermediate student:

Specific – Telling stories with more accurate use of tenses – at least 90% accuracy.

Measurable – Records himself telling an anecdote today, then at weekly intervals after practice. Correct tenses can be presented as a % of the total.

Agreed – The teacher agrees that this is within reach, and it is a priority to be more easily understood.

Realistic – 100% precision in all the narrative tenses isn’t realistic…yet (see growth mindset for more on YET).

Time-bound – The target is to reach 90% correct in four weeks time. A new SMART goal can then be set, regarding either narrative tenses or any other aspect of his English level (but not all of them at once!)

SMART teacher, SMART learners

Of course, we can apply the SMART framework not only to our learners, but also to ourselves, with any aspect of professional development or hobbies and interests outside of teaching. It’s not just learners who can lose motivation in the hamster wheel of routine; teachers also need to see progress to maintain enthusiasm.

I should heed my own advice and put down SMART some goals for learning Russian in the coming term. My own learning started off enthusiastically and has given me plenty of fresh insights into learning a foreign language, as I wrote about in a previous blog. But as is usually the case with something new, I’ve plateaued over the last couple of months, and my Russian book has gone from living open on the table to gathering dust on a shelf over summer.

Doing this not only sets a good example for learners, but can also expose us first-hand to some of the challenges in using SMART goals.

“What do you want?” is a good first step. SMART goal setting can help us move forward from there.

Have a great (and SMART) academic year everyone!

Any questions or comments, please leave a message below or send me an e-mail. Thanks.


3 Ways to Beat Exam* Anxiety

*Also applicable to other high anxiety situations: marathon, job interview, first date etc.

It’s prime exam season, and the mind must be in tune with the brain for results to reflect knowledge. But psychology is not yet mainstream in teaching and teacher training. We teachers are big on the ‘what’ (i.e. knowledge), and at best skim over the ‘how’. This should change on a global scale, but I’ll start in my own lessons and here on my blog.

So what exactly do I mean by ‘how someone thinks’? Educating self-awareness on mindset: belief that intelligence can be improved, post-failure resilience, focus on process not results, others’ success as a motivation not a threat. Another example (and today’s topic!): techniques to break through the wall of exam stress to perform at optimal level. My Year 9 exam class requested this content during a recent Edurio survey, so this post is a summary of what I’ll integrate into lessons over the next month.

What’s the problem?

Back a few years to my A-Level P.E. course’s sports psychology content, and a graph comparing stress to performance. This refers to sports performance, but it can be applied to anything we do. The Riga Marathon is 2 weeks away, and the mind must be in tune with the body for times to reflect fitness; the mind must also be in tune for exam results to reflect knowledge.

Inverted U theory

To get to the top of the U and get the best possible exam result with the available knowledge (NB this is no substitute for studying!), we need to facilitate a shift to the right for the under cooked, and a shift to the left for the overcooked.

I’d argue that most students get too far to the right on exam day and experience ‘strong anxiety and impaired performance’ or worse, so most of these techniques will be practical ways to shift left on the graph and perch nicely on that peak of ‘Optimal Performance’.

The problems are psychological, but all solutions are physiological. When we understand that the body is a (complex) machine, we can set about tweaking the wiring and pushing the right buttons to get everything running smoothly. In this case, our enemies are a rise in heart rate (HR) and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which combine to shut down the frontal lobe of the brain and cause clouded thinking.

What can we do?

1. Power poses

Amy Cuddy, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, has researched how holding a ‘power pose’ for just two minutes before a stressful situation (find a private space to do it in!) reduces cortisol levels and increases testosterone, leading to an increased sensation of power and confidence; vital for that shift left on the Inverted U.

This comes from evolution: animals adopt certain postures, making themselves look bigger and stronger, to stave off threats. However, you’re not tricking yourself into feeling confident with power poses, as is the case with repeating a mantra or posting a meme; the hormones released into the bloodstream that create this genuine feeling. Here are three power poses Professor Cuddy recommends:

The Wonder Woman



ceo pose

The Victory

Victory pose

See Amy Cuddy’s full TED Talk here.

2. Techniques to Decrease Heart Rate

A moderate increase in heart rate can improve focus and motivation, but high elevation in stressful situations is really not useful. Many scientific studies have found that elevated HR impairs the frontal lobe of the brain, which contains most of our dopamine-sensitive neurones, reponsible for attention and short-term memory.

frontal lobe

Regarding the Inverted U, an elevated HR pushes us further and further to the right on the graph, so we should implement some techniques to lower HR:

Option A. Deep breathing

Take a breath for 5-8 seconds, hold it for 3-5 seconds, exhale for 5-8 seconds. Exhale completely and repeat.

Option B. Splash yourself with cold (ice if possible!) water

This simulates the dive reflex, which slows down metabolism and heart rate.

3. Pre-mortem

Also known as prospective hindsight, this concept is designated to psychologist Gary Klein and has been used in business for years (education is always a bit slow to catch up!). You look ahead, predict everything that could go wrong, then come back to the present to solve the problems while you still can.

In our case, students should reflect on their likely weaknesses in the exam, and divise specific study strategies to overcome these. This is best done a few days or weeks before the exam in question rather than the night before. This can shift us left on the Inverted U, as possible problems will have been dealt with rather than just worried about.

This TED Talk ellaborates on this and explores other techniques that could be useful:

What do you think? Which techniques do you use or teach?

Please leave a comment!

Mouth Gym Part 2: How to train

Having selected common problematic sounds in English, the most important thing is what we can do to improve these things. The foundations of this whole exercise should adhere to principles of Dweck’s Mindset theory: focused practice, belief in the possibility to improve, re-labelling “failure” as a stepping stone to success. Once we move the tongue and lips correctly, the sounds will be produced. We can train our bodies to get fitter; we can train our mouths to pronounce English in the same way.

As discussed in the previous blog post, English vowels cause problems for learners over a range of first languages. Standard practice is to train these vowel sounds in alphabetical order: A E I O U, and tackle others individually. However, this doesn’t align with the biomechanics of how we produce sounds. Instead, the MOUTH GYM groups vowel sounds according to tongue position. Get the lip shape right too, feel the position of the jaw, and you’ll be there. Excuse my mucky lips and 5 o’clock shadow in the short videos, but nothing I could find on google could do the lip shapes justice!

So, let’s go. Tongue position + lip shape + jaw = sound.

Group 1 – Close Vowels 

Tongue is quite high in the mouth. 

front ———— – – – – – – -back  (Where sound is produced in mouth)

 /ɪ:/         /ɪ/          /ʊ/          /u:/

tea        tin        good       fruit


  1. Drill the individual sounds like in the video. Notice how your lip shape changes for each one, starting off spread and becoming rounder for each sound. 
  2. Try repeating this sentence more and more quickly: tea tin full of good fruit

Group 2 – Mid Vowels

Tongue is in the middle of the mouth (not high or low).

front —————- – – – – – – – – -back

       /e/        /ə/        /3:/       /ɔː/

      egg   banana   sirve    fork


  1. Drill the individual sounds like in the video – Adrian Underhill calls /ə/ and /3:/ the ‘idiots’ sounds’, so make a face like an idiot (feel how relaxed everything is) and push out some air. /ɔː/ has the tongue as far back as possible, and the lips as far forward as possible – feel that distance!
  2. Try repeating the sentence more and more quickly: eggs and bananas served on a fork. Elastic lips!!

Group 3 – Open Vowels

Tongue is low in the mouth.

front —————- – – – – – – – – -back

    /æ/       /ʌ/           /a:/         /ɒ/

     cat      uncle      aunt      dog     


  1. Drill the individual sounds like in the video. Again, feel how the lip shape changes, how far the jaw is open or closed. Not quite right? Modify, try, modify, try…
  2. Try repeating the sentence more and more quickly: cat’s uncle is aunt’s dog.

Group 4 – Diphthong Vowels

Lips and tongue move – start with the first sound, finish with the second. 

/eɪ/         /aɪ/          /əʊ/           /ʊə/

rake      fight       don’t        cure


  1. Drill the individual sounds like in the video. Feel the transition for the first sound to the second – /e/…/ɪ/…/eɪ/
  2. Try repeating the sentence more and more quickly: rake fights don’t cure.

Not to forget the pesky sound that doesn’t exist in Russian or French…

Group 5 – th

 /θ/         /ð/

think   mother

It’s all about the tongue! Get it between your top and bottom teeth! You’ll be pleased to know that my own mouth just didn’t show the tongue position clearly enough, so here’s a diagram instead:


Notice how the voiced /θ/ comes from between the teeth, and the unvoiced /ð/ comes from the voice box somewhere down the throat. Put your hand on the throat and feel the vibration!


  1. Start with a /f/ – feel the top teeth bite down on the bottom lip. Make the sound. Put your tongue where your bottom lip was for the /f/ and repeat – you should now be making a voiced /θ/.
  2. Practice the two individual sounds alone, again and again: TH th TH th TH th TH th TH th TH th. Fell that throat and how it buzzes for the voiced th!
  3. Try some tongue twisters (no z or zh sounds!) like this: Those THousand THinkers there were THinking how the other THousand THieves got THrough.



  3. JAW



Mouth Gym Part 1: What to train

“I can’t make that sound”. Millions of language learners all over the world would have said or thought this at least once. I know many of my students have. Several have asked me what they can do to improve, so the next two posts will give some advice.

Pronunciation is hard in any foreign language, as there are usually new sounds (phonemes) to practise and master that don’t exist in our own. As Professor Dweck’s Mindset theory suggests (one of my favourite topics), adding the word “yet” to this would improve our chances: “I can’t make that sound yet”. This implies that it can be done in the future. After all, why not? What’s stopping you?

“We all have the same speech organs to produce the sounds we become accustomed to” (Kelly, 2000, p.4).

As long as you have lips, a tongue and a jaw in fully working order, there is no reason why you can’t produce all the sounds in the English language, given enough focused, consistent practice. Sounds are made by moving many parts of the mouth to shape the air we exhale. We should look at the movements of the mouth just like any other physical exercises: the more you train these muscle movements, the more natural they will become. You can do sit-ups to strengthen your abdominals; so why can’t you apply the principles of physical training to mouth movements and pronunciation? We’re going to do just that!

So, which sounds in English are most commonly mispronounced by foreign speakers?

Swan and Smith’s Learner English (2nd ed., 2001) is an outstanding resource here, as it has chapters on most major languages and how they affect the English learner. My DOS at IH Riga Ian Raby led a very useful teacher training session at the start of term on Russian L1 interference in class and gave us a copy of the Russian chapter, which has been extremely handy since. Below, I’ll focus on trends from Russian, French, Spanish and German, as these are the languages I’ve encountered most in teaching.

English Vowel Sounds often cause problems

  • /ɪ/ (hit) vs /ɪ:/ (heat)

⁃ French only has one sound, somewhere between the two.

⁃ Spanish confuses the two.

⁃ Russian shortens the long vowels – “How do you fill?” (feel)


  • /e/ (men) vs /æ/ (man)

– German problem

– French problem

– Russian problem *We spent a loooong time drilling this in class the other night, with varying degrees of success.


  • /ʌ/ (cup)

– French pronounces it as /ə/ – “Do you have mirch?” (much).

– Spanish confuses this with /a:/ (carp) or /æ/ (cap).


  • /ɔː/ (port, caught)

– German confuses it with /əʊ/ (coat)

– Spanish confuses it with /ɒ/ (pot, cot)


  • /ʊ/ (pull) vs. /ʊ:/ (pool)

French only has one sound, somewhere between the two.

– Spanish confuses both with /u/ (cup).


Completely new sounds

Many sounds simply don’t exist in learners’ L1s. To take one example that I encounter EVERY day:

  • /θ/ (think) and /ð/ (mother)

– Russian and French replace these with /z/ (zoo) or /ʒ/ (pleasure). “Zis mozher zinks zat ze zing is ze best”.

(Although, according to several sociolinguistics experts, this sound may disappear in the next 50 years.)

So what can we do?

As mentioned before, pronunciation is just the final product of exact mouth movements, so as with any other type of movement (running, swimming, sit-ups etc.), we need to practice these exact movements in order to improve them.

The next blog will address these problematic sounds with specific exercises.

Next blog post: MOUTH GYM PART 2: HOW TO TRAIN?



Kelly, G., 2000. How to Teach Pronunciation, Harlow: Pearson Education.

Swan, M. and Smith, B. (eds.), 2001. Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


12 things learning Russian has taught me about learning English

“You must get bored! What do you think about when you’re swimming lengths?” people sometimes ask. Well no I don’t get bored, and this post is an example, as it’s the fruit of musings during this morning’s swim.

Obviously, you don’t have to be a language learner to be a good English teacher. Although I studied French and Spanish at university myself, English teachers might come from a variety of specialisms, like English, psychology, drama and education. However, having been learning Russian from scratch since I moved to Riga, it’s been very interesting to see the world from a language learner’s point of view again, and this has provided me with some insights for my own students. Here are 12 points I’ve noticed when learning Russian, and I hope they help you with learning English:

1) Start where you are.

Be honest with where you are at the moment, and start there. This might mean going back to being a 5 year old, but so be it. This was my case: I started from 0, so I began with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.russian-cyrillic-alphabet

2) Show you want to learn.

People are more likely to help you if it’s clear that you want to learn. Ask questions, take notes, study. My Russian-speaking colleagues at IH Riga are fantastic with offering help, explaining things and asking “как дела?” (“how are you?”), but maybe they wouldn´t bother if I hadn´t shown the willing first. I owe them a lot for their help and patience!

3) Develop a growth mindset.

My favourite topic: Professor Dweck´s mindset theory (It’s All in the Head, Mindset: Making the Most of Observations). If you want to get anywhere with a language, you need to employ a growth mindset, which means believing that you can improve and responding positively to ´failures´, as they are only stepping stones to success. For example, forgetting the word for ´plastic bag´ in a shop made me study it again, and the frustration I felt meant that the next time I was in a shop, I could remember it. Generally, the more you wrestle with something, the easier it is to remember in the long-term.

4) Set clear objectives.

I wrote about this more in detail in my post about New Year´s Resolutions. True for anything: without realistic, specific, timed objectives, you´ll soon be in danger of floating and losing motivation. “Learning Russian” is a useless objective; my medium-term goal is to have a 15-minute Skype conversation in Russian with my friend Marina in Moscow by the end of March.

5) Choose the hard road.

When you reach a fork in the road, the bumpy one usually gets you somewhere quicker than the smooth. Example: yesterday I told the new pilates instructor at the gym that I only speak Spanish and a bit of Russian, so she gave the instructions just in Russian, so I picked up more vocab, as meaning is clear when she modelled the movements.

6) Chunk!

Idioms are usually reserved for higher level learners, but I´m a beginner, and I find them excellent ways to remember several words in one memory. For instance, learning “лучше поздно, чем никогда” (better late than never), I learnt a comparative (luchee chem = better than), an adjective (posne = late) and an adverb of time (neekagda = never) all in one go!

7) Train pronunciation.

As Kelly points out, ´we all use the same speech organs to produce the sounds we become accustomed to´ (How to Teach Pronunciation, 2004, p.4). Do you have working lips, tongue and jaw? Then you can make ANY SOUND after enough focused practice, which in my case has meant training my mouth to make the ´vs´ and ´ks´ sounds which aren´t so common in English. I´ll get into detail on this mouth training idea in my next blog.

8) Mix it up.

Avoid boredom, maintain motivation, study from a variety of sourcbookes (there are millions for English!). Personally, for Russian I use a self-teach book I bought (right), Learn Russian podcast, a video series my colleague Edvard put onto my USB (Dmitri Petrov teaches English to a class of Russian celebrities from the world of theatre and cinema – below), and chatting (poorly!) with colleagues whenever I can. No, I´m never bored.

9) Predict conversation

My colleague Vik, who´s Indian and was educated in Scotland, gave me this tip which has helped him to speak Russian quite fluently. He says you should be able to predict the flow of conversation after saying something, and pick up meaning from context and body language. For example, if you´re in the supermarket and you ask “Where is the fish?”, how many possible responses are likely? Frozen or fresh? Directions? Aisle number? I need to work on this, as I´m too often guilty of learning a set phrase then having no idea when someone responds.

10) Leave reminders everywhere!

The more, the better. I write vocab on my palm and look at it all day (pic below – лошадь – loshad = horse), and have little post-its up all over the house and at work (Пойдем is on my mini notice board on my desk = let´s go). Many of my students do the same with English vocabulary.


11) Noone has time. You must make time.

“Most of you don´t want success as much as you wanna sleep”. The motivational speaker Eric Thomas has a lot to say on this topic. You can say you really want to learn a language, but in the end, it´s always a question of priorities. Option 1: learn a language. Option 2: watch TV. Option 1: learn a language. Option 2: stay asleep. Option 1: learn a language. Option 2: browse Facebook.

I understand the problems: I have a lovely girlfriend who wouldn´t be happy to be ignored for 2 hours while I drill myself on the difference between бабушка (babushka = grandma) and бабочка (babochka = bow tie) after work. So get creative! Use the tips in 10), get up 20 minutes earlier, listen to a podcast as you work out or walk down the street.

12) It’s never too late to learn.

Mindset again. Attitude is everything. “I´m too old to learn” and “I´m not good at languages” are both not true. Sure, starting at age 2 would be great, but if you´re 45 that´s no longer an option. So start where you are, change your strategies and add the word ´yet´ to your self-talk, as Professor Dweck recommends: I´m not good at Russian YET…but keep working at it and I will be. The same can be true for your English.

Wot iz “articulate”?

The Queen is articulate when mingling at a garden party at Buckingham Palace, but probably wouldn’t be if chatting at a barber shop in Brooklyn. But isn’t she articulate anywhere? The Queen’s English has that name for a reason, right? Wrong.

having or showing the ability to speak fluently and coherently.
e.g. “she was very articulate”
synonyms: eloquentfluentcommunicativeeffectivepersuasive, lucidvividexpressive.

Being articulate is about what the listener understands as fluent and coherent. The environment dictates whether someone is articulate, not the speaker alone. Pronunciation features like accent and intonation change in every country in the world, so how can the Queen’s English (Received Pronunciation – RP) be articulate, and everything else “incorrect”, if only around 2 per cent of the UK itself speaks with RP anyway? Yet old-fashioned snobbery and even bigotry means that it is still revered by many as the correct model.

Listening to ‘TED Radio Hour: Playing with Perceptions’ the other day got me thinking about being articulate, and how I can apply it to teaching/learning English. Watch this excellent poem, taken from Ted, on how being articulate means three different ways of speaking for this university scholar of Caribbean parents, who grew up in an African-American neighbourhood in New York.

No one owns the English language. It may have rented a flat in the UK until the 1800s, but since the emergence of the USA as a superpower, colonising the Empire and the more recent Internet boom, it has no fixed address; it’s the world’s language. Nowadays, English is an official language in 60 countries around the world. Every single one has its own general accent and intonation, then these are subdivided infinitely within each country by social surroundings and region.


Take one of these countries: the UK. There are estimated to be 56 main “accent types”, but these can be sub-divided infinitely. There is no one accent even in a single town. Let’s zoom in on my hometown, Horsham, just south of London.Screen Shot 2017-01-15 at 9.37.31 AM.png

My friend Josh uses a very different English to be articulate working as a plasterer on building sites as I do to be articulate in my classroom in Riga, Latvia, even though we grew up only a mile apart. Is one of these varieties superior to the other, linguistically or socially? As long as we can communicate with the people in our everyday lives, of course not. Then zoom out from this medium-size town in West Sussex. South-east England, UK, 59 other countries where it’s an official language, every other country where English is learned as a foreign language. The result: hundreds of thousands if not millions of different ways of being “articulate”.

Repercussions for Teaching and Learning English

  • The more accents in the staff room, the better. Where I work at IH Riga, for example, students are lucky to be able to learn with qualified teachers with accents from northern Scotland (Matt), the north-east of England (Bronte), the north-west of England (John), Northern Ireland (Alister), south-east England (me), and India/Scotland (Vik), as well from as Latvian and Russian natives. As I’ve written about before (read here), as long as teachers are qualified and enthusiastic, I don’t see why a passport should block anyone from a teaching job.
  • Actively teach learners other types of English. This could be through videos, audios, podcasts or inviting other teachers or visitors into your classroom. This means that they are more likely to understand other types of “articulate”, and may even be able to adapt their own English to these in given situations.
  • Adapt language to likely use. For example, a student who is brushing up on their English to go travelling around south-east Asia. This sounds obvious, but it’s worth stating: a learner won’t be articulate speaking the Queen’s English when haggling in a street market in Bangkok. I doubt they’ll convince the vendor that this is the “correct” English and get a good deal on whatever they want to buy.
  • Be open-minded to learning different accents with teachers from different geographical and social backgrounds (see first Teachers point above). Asking only for a “native speaker” is like asking for a taxi driver when you need a mechanic: they may know how to speak the language, but that doesn’t mean they know how to improve yours.
  • Set specific objectives for learning English, so you know what kind of English you need to be learning to be “articulate” when you get to use it.

So if you’re invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, I thoroughly recommend learning the Queen’s English to make polite and articulate conversation. Until then, though, we should keep an open mind.