When I learned Japanese, one phoneme, not found in English, was nearly impossible: /tsu/, produced by placing the tongue behind the teeth as with /t/ and bringing it back as when producing /s/. Easy to produce mid-word, I never perfected it word-initial, which remains embarrassing as the name of one of my friends is Tsutomu.
I practised for hours, but I could never get it right. Japanese friends were supportive and would congratulate me on my use of it mid-word, as in katsudon (a pork cutlet/egg omelette), but cringed when it came word-initial, as in tsukue (desk).
While normal practice suggests students should be able to recognise a sound before being asked to produce it, I believe the two can be done in tandem, with more emphasis in terms of time and practice spent on production than on recognition.
This is not to minimise the need to hear the difference between "rice" and "lice", but as I feel students are more likely to be embarrassed by saying they like lice than they would be if they thought someone had rice in their hair, emphasis is on production.
Pronunciation practice and cluster order
Despite the fact that nearly all Thai EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students seem to have the most difficulty with word-ending sounds and their desire to let final consonants or consonant clusters fade into nothing, when practising difficult-to-make sounds, starting with a sound in a mid-word position is perhaps easiest: mother, father and brother, e.g., when practicing /th/.
The first syllable in each word provides an opportunity for the tongue to be in motion, with only a slight dart between the teeth needed to mark the successful production of /th/ before moving back into the mouth for the articulation of /er/ to finish the word.
When students are able to run through a few choruses of "mother, father, brother" without any, or very little, sibilance (hissing sound) in the form of /z/ or a voiced or unvoiced stop /t/ or /d/, I move to word-ending pronunciation, as in fourth, fifth, sixth.
Again, the need to do something with the tongue before making the target sound helps to get the tongue in motion and to dart between the teeth before moving to the next word or coming to a full stop.
Finally, pronunciation in an initial position, (as in the, this, that, those, these), is perhaps the most difficult to produce as the tongue must start in or near the desired point of articulation. This makes it easy to place it in slightly the wrong position as the tongue searches for the next place to go.
While this has traditionally been the order my students practise, some teachers believe it is best to initiate practice with words that begin with the phoneme.
As more effort is needed when sounds start a word, students are more likely to use more energy to articulate the difficult sound as they can spend a few moments to, so to speak, organise their thoughts and the parts of their mouth they will need to employ.
Regardless of the order, it is important to make certain that pronunciation practice is regular. If students are having trouble, find ways to link pronunciation practice with other aspects of English pronunciation - chunking in particular and the need to set a pace and rhythm native speakers find natural.
Finally, to be effective, pronunciation practice needs to be repeated over and over. Much like training for sport, the muscles employed in producing sounds need controlled exercise if they are going to perform with any skill during the actual game, that is, conversation.
Pronunciation is difficult, teaching it can be boring, practising it tiring, but without basic pronunciation ability, students will find that while local teachers and native speakers will understand what they are saying, more than likely EFL students and English speakers from other language groups will not.
Dr Timothy Cornwall has been teaching EFL for 30 years and is part of the Shinawatra University faculty. Co-founder of Thailand Educators Network, he can be reached through thaiednet.org , through his web site speechwork.co.th , at email@example.com or on 081-834-8982.