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English Pronunciation and the Brazilian Learner: How to cope with language transfer

* (A Pronncia da Lngua Inglesa e o Aluno Brasileiro: como enfrentar o problema da

Camilla Dixo Lieff and Zaina A. Abdalla Nunes
1. Introduction
Teachers observe their learners trying to speak English and feel there is something that does
not sound right. Although the learners have good vocabulary and are able to manipulate
English structures, they fail to communicate due to pronunciation difficulties. This is true not
just at basic but also at more advanced levels of English proficiency.
How can one account for the fact that learners' performance varies so much? Some have few
pronunciation problems, others have a great many. Some individuals progress well, others
seem stuck-in-the-mud. But exactly what is wrong and why? And most importantly - how
can the teacher help? what should be taught and how should it be done?
This paper, an updated version of Lieff 1991, intends to discuss these questions by:
a) examining the fact that, although many factors affect pronunciation: identity, age,
personality, attitude/concern, motivation, phonetic ability and aptitude for mimicry and
amount of exposure, among others, it is language transfer or cross linguistic influence
(Odlin,1989) which is crucial in 2nd language performance;
b) pointing out some similarities between the pronunciation of English (E) and Brazilian
Portuguese (BP), which could make the task of Brazilian learners of English somewhat
easier, and,
c) mainly, pointing out some differences in order to highlight the main areas of conflict and,
consequently, suggest ways learners can cope with them.
2. Pronunciation Achievement Factors
It is well known that some of the above-mentioned factors - notably age and personality cannot be modified or directly affected in the teaching/learning environment. However,
teachers can and should interfere in one of the factors already mentioned - motivation and
concern for pronunciation improvement. If the teacher succeeds in passing on to students
the importance of acquiring intelligible pronunciation for communication purposes, this will
certainly increase the students motivation.
With regard to language transfer, the literature is rich with descriptions of the difficulties that
learners encounter in trying to pronounce sounds in a foreign language. Contrastive studies
focusing on those difficulties are quite common. (Kenworthy,1987; Gilbert & Rogerson,
1990, Hooke & Rowell, 1982, Avery & Ehrlich, 1992 among others)

A comparison of the sounds of English and Brazilian Portuguese shows that there is
considerable support for specific contrastive predictions at both phonetic and phonological
levels. But, as Odlin (op.cit.) points out, "although cross-linguistic influences on
pronunciation frequently involve segmental contrasts, the influences are also frequently
evident in suprasegmental contrasts involving stress, tone, rhythm and other factors".
The list of difficulties and similarities described below concentrates, basically, on the
segmental aspect of both systems. The reason for such choice lies on the fact that there are
very few studies in the suprasegmentals of BP and what is reported here is mostly based on
our own teaching experience and intuition as native speakers of the language besides some
recent experiments dealing with recorded material made with speakers of both languages.
3. Differences and Similarities
3.1. Segments: Consonants
Although there are fewer consonants in BP than in E, there is some equivalence in the
phonemic of both languages. Nevertheless, one can predict phonemic, phonetic,
allophonic and distributional ( Odlin, idem) difficulties, listed below, which result in
pronunciation patterns that diverge from those found in the target language.
Reasons for the Difficulties


a) phonemic
/ / , / /, / h / inexistent in BP

/ t / , / d3 / existing only as regional

allophones of / t / /d / before / I /
e.g.: tia [t I ] = aunt
dia [d3I] = day
/ / only as allophone of / n / before
/ k / and / g /

Use of closest sounds:

/ s /, / f /, / t / for / /
/ z / , / v /, / d / for / /
/ R / for / h /
Mispronunciation of :
'tin', 'teen', 'tear'
'din', 'deen', 'dear'
/ t /or /d3/ instead of /t/ or /d/

Use of / g / or / n /

b) phonetic
/ r / there is no post alveolar allophone
in BP

use of a uvular or velar allophone

with no distinction between
e.g. hat / rat or right / height

c) allophonic
lack of aspiration in BP

Unclear oppositions
e.g.: pen / Ben ; pill / bill

no unreleased plosives in BP

Broken rhythm
e.g.: act two , book two

d) distributional
difference in syllable structure apart from /r/, /s/, /l /, consonants do
not generally occur in final position
in Portuguese

Vowel insertion: leading to

misunderstanding/ broken rhythm.
e.g. book[I] instead of / bUk /
sit instead of city ; luck instead of lucky
lucky; look Peter / look at me

initial clusters with / s /only

occur phonetically in rapid, casual
speech. Eg.: 'escola' [s'kol] =
school , instead of [Is'kol]

Vowel insertion
e.g. [i]sport , [i]smell

/ s /, /z /, / Iz /
Final <s> in BP is usually realized as / s /
in connected speech except before a voiced
environment (e.g.olhos azuis = blue eyes )

/ s / is produced for the three


e) spelling interference
/ t /, / d /, /Id / endings
The <ed> (mis)leads students into the
production of the /I / whenever they
come across these endings.

/Id / is produced for the three;

an extra syllable is added in cases
like: baked, worked, opened,etc.,
which come out as [beIkId],
[w3:kId], [UpnId].

church much (<ch> is a common

spelling for / / in BP)

Misuse of / t /& / /

judge, gin (<j> and <g> are common

spellings for /3 / in BP)

Misuse of /d3/ & /3 /

3.2 Segments :Vowels

English has more pure vowels (12) than Brazilian Portuguese (7). As a result, learners will
tend to use their relatively small number of vowels to cover the larger English system.
(Diphthongs, however, rarely seem to cause problems.)

vowels confused

realised as

confusing e.g.

/e /

/ /
/a /
/u /

live / leave
bed / bad
cart /cut
cot / court
pull pool

/ i: /
/ /
/ : /
/ u:/

In addition, /3:/ may be identified with the nasalized vowel found in the first syllables of
cama (= bed), Ana , lama (= mud).
Finally, the schwa / /. This is similar to reduced vowels found in the final position of, for
example, cama / km / (= bed) and mesa /'mez / (= table), so learners will not find it
difficult to perceive or even to acquire it. But they still find it difficult to perceive and
produce it when it occurs in pre-tonic position due to spelling interference and lack of
reduction in BP. E.g.: when spelt with a as in annoy, alone, o as in contrast, confuse, or
with u as in suggest, suppose.
3.3 Suprasegments
Despite some universal tendencies in the functions of suprasegmental units at both phrase
and clause level, there is considerable cross-linguistic variation and its effects are evident in
second language acquisition.
3.3.1 Rhythm and Stress
Brazilian Portuguese has a much more even rhythm than English does. Learners thus tend
to pronounce each syllable clearly and explicitly. There is no squeezing of unstressed
syllables between stressed ones as in English. This happens at both word and sentence levels
due to the limited distribution of the allophones of weak stress in BP. They usually occur in
final position as a regional feature. Eg. fala (=speak) [fal], fale [falI], falo [falU].
In English, however, the occurrence of schwa is very common in all positions in the word.
Besides, it can be represented by many different vowel letters in contrast with Portuguese
orthographic conventions, which adhere very much to the convention "one sound-one
letter". Learners substitute the vowel suggested by the spelling attributing the word a pattern
with primary and secondary stresses instead, which resembles the native language patterning.
E.g.: the word comfortable is produced as if it had a secondary stress on com and the
primary on ta: comfor'table for, in BP, its correspondent, confortvel receives the primary
stress on the fourth syllable and all the other three have full vowels.
Although sentence stress in BP is similar to that in English, i.e., "content" words are usually
stressed and "function" words are usually unstressed, there are some differences that may
lead to problems.

Function words in BP are fewer than those in English, some of them have more than one
syllable and they never have two forms: a strong and a weak. They are pronounced clearly
and distinctly with a full vowel. The syllables surrounding the stressed ones in BP are not as
frequently weakened and do not occur in so many positions as in E. e.g.: poder(=can),
dever(=must), deveria(=should), voc(=you), ele(=he), ela(=she).
Because of the above differences, one should watch out for difficulties like those related to
the use of full forms of auxiliaries, modals, pronouns, etc., which often lead to unintended
meaning. These tendencies and especially the problem of remembering to use the "schwa"
make appropriate rhythm a very difficult goal for learners to achieve. Besides, problems with
stress have important implications not only for speech production but also for
3.3.2 Intonation
Intonation is one of the least studied areas of BP. Except for a few short treatments, there is
little available in print. The present section deals with only a selected number of basic
patterns and should be considered tentative. It is particularly based on Rameh, 1962,
Azevedo, 1981 and on some data of two kinds: controlled (recorded material by speakers of
a dialect of BP spoken in So Paulo) and more spontaneous speech situations (2-minute
taped speech where speakers were supposed to report on an unforgettable experience they
had had).
BP speakers tend to have difficulties with English intonation due to some noticeable
differences between both systems:
a) BP speakers keep to a more restricted pitch movement over an utterance. A higher pitch
than 3 is not usual in BP though Rameh (1962) points out that a fourth pitch may be
considered when indicating emphasis, admiration and surprise.
b) The rising pitch (used when showing surprise, and in question tags) is very limited in
distribution in BP, causing a delay in the acquisition of E questions for example, leading to
some foreign or unintended patterns. Question-tags are another example of the misuse of
this pitch as BP speakers always produce them with a rising regardless of their meaning.
The fall-rise may be difficult due to shyness or to the feeling that this is an "exaggerated"
pitch change.
The inapropriate use of intonation tones may sometimes "result in learners failing to convey
'involvement' or 'interest' in conversation with E speakers who seem to use wide pitch range
and extreme pitch reversals to signal those attitudes in the topic of conversation".
(Kenworthy, 1987)
c) As for the falling pitch, there is a tendency to make it with a marked low fall which results
in a flat final pitch movement or in inaudibility of the last word.

Studies have been carried out to check the universality of E intonation as proposed by Brazil
(1985), with regard to BP.(Konder, 1989; Nunes,1991), but very little has been
published so far. Woolard (1988-9) claims that "there seems to be an absence of research
into how universal the elements of Brazil's description of intonation are. Language teaching,
however, needs the results of such research if it is to adequately plan intonation programmes
for particular learning groups."
4. How can teachers help?
Part of the role of the teacher is to help learners perceive differences and similarities
between L1 and the target language. Teachers who are familiar with learners' native
language are in a privileged position for they can establish a plan of action and decide what
to concentrate on and when to leave well enough alone. Establishing a minimum
pronunciation syllabus is a must in multilingual as well as in monolingual classes. Bradford
(1990) makes interesting suggestions for both multilingual and monolingual groups. Nunes
(1992) proposed a pronunciation syllabus for BP students, starting from suprasegments:
word & sentence stress; features of connected speech and, whenever necessary, combining
this level with the segmental one.
Learning pronunciation is a complex task and teachers must also consider what types of
exercises and activities will be helpful. Another point to be born in mind is that certain
activities suit the learning styles and approaches of some learners better than others (for
suggestions on what to do and how, see Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994). Finally, teachers should
demonstrate concern for learners' pronunciation and their progress in it and persuade them
of the importance of good pronunciation for ease of communication.
The activities described here should be viewed as a first stage in the learning process - 'a
way to open the ears' and establish strategies and methods of working which can later be
consolidated and extended.

a) Perceiving some features

a.1) The phonemic alphabet, introduced by means of key words which are chosen by
teacher and students as an internal code of the group, has proved extremely useful in
making students aware of the E sound system.
a.2) Speech simplifications - The teacher can help learners to incorporate the 'schwa' at
word level as a preparation for its occurance at sentence level. This can be done by means of
hand movements. The open hand stands for strong and clear vowels and the one with raised
finger (or with closed hand) for the reduced vowel.


These techniques, although simple, seem to be effective (and fun) for the majority of
language learners, because they can feel the close relation between stress and force.
b) Developing awareness and effective listening skill
b.1) Listening for primary stress - This activity can be adapted to any material used in
one's daily teaching. After the presentation and practice phases of a dialogue or a passage,
teachers can focus on placement of primary stress. Students are asked to place some words
they hear from the dialogue/passage under different columns according to their tonic
E.g.: 1st syllable

2nd syllable

3rd syllable

4th syllable

# A variation of this activity can be done by asking students to re-group the words according
to the vowel of the stressed syllable.(E.g.: / U / as in open & hello)
b.2) Counting number of syllables - This activity is particularly useful for helping learners
dissociate spelling from pronunciation due to the non-correspondence between letter-sound
in E, which is a feature of BP. Words such as : complete, private, chocolate, vegetable,
sentence, smile, etc. are good examples of language transfer when dealing with syllables.
The word chocolate, for example, has the same spelling in BP but is pronounced with four
syllables as opposed to two in E.
b.3) Word/sentence stress: a matching game - When introducing E sentence stress, refer
back to word stress patterns, pointing out that "connected speech....exhibits features of
accentuation that are in many ways comparable with those found in the polyssylabic words"
( Gimson, 1970). E.g.:


b. She's polished them

c. Give him a book
a. I'm sorry
d. Ask for it

b.4) Comparative activities - After having worked with dialogues, either through audio or
video material, the teacher can select one to be translated into BP for comparisons such as
pitch range and intonation contours in order to enable students to feel basic differences and
similarities between both languages.
5. Conclusions
Native language influence is an important factor in the acquisition of target language
pronunciation. The importance of transfer is evident in contrastive studies, however, "as with
syntax and other language sub-systems, transfer is not the only factor affecting the ease or
difficulty of reproducing target language sounds" (Odlin, op.cit.). Individual variation

( personality, phonetic ability), age of language acquisition as well as pedagogical factors

may have an important effect.
Brazilian teachers are particularly lucky because they can provide information about nativetarget language contrasts as they deal with monolingual groups, which does not usually
happen with teachers in a multilingual environment. Teachers can and must play an
important role in turning the learning experience into a positive one. This largely depends on:
a) their knowledge of the subject;
b) ability to identify reasonable objectives and ways of meeting them;
c) capacity to deal with different learners;
d) a relaxed, supportive classroom environment.
Even the least motivated learner will respond if the experience is enjoyable.
*This is an updated version of the article published in the SPEAK OUT! - Newsletter
of the IATEFL Phonology Special Interest Group n.12, Aug.1993.

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Azevedo, M.M.(1981) A Contrastive Phonology Of Portuguese and English. Georgetown
U. P.
Bradford, B.(1990) "The Essential Ingredients of a Pronunciation Programme" in Speak
Out! n.6 July 1990, pp.8-11.
Brazil, D.(1985) The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. Discourse Analysis
Monograph n.8. ELR, Birmingham.
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Gimson, A.C.(1970) An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. Arnold.
Hooke, R.& Rowell, J.(1982) A Handbook of English Pronunciation. Arnold.
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Nunes, Zaina A. Abdalla (1991) How Much English Intonation is there in Brazil? Paper
delivered at the 25th IATEFL Conference, Exeter, England.
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the 26th IATEFL Conference, Lille, France.
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Woolard, George. (1988-9) "Discourse Intonation:changes of key between speaker and
addressee." in Modern English Teacher Vol.16, n.2, pp.27-30.

English Pronunciation and the Brazilian Learner: How to cope with language transfer
(A Pronncia da Lngua Inglesa e o Aluno Brasileiro: como enfrentar o problema da


Camilla Dixo Lieff - PUC/SP
Zaina A. Abdalla Nunes - Cultura Inglesa e PUC/SP

*This is an updated version of the article published in the SPEAK OUT! - Newsletter
of the IATEFL Phonology Special Interest Group n.12, Aug.1993.
Esta uma verso atualizada do artigo publicado SPEAK OUT! - Revista do SIG de
Pronncia do IATEFL n.12, Agosto, 1993.