Language Problems of Bengali EFL Learners

By: Dr. M. Maniruzzaman

To acquire command of a second/foreign language, the learner formally learns mainly the basic skills of the target language ? listening, speaking, reading and writing. And listening and speaking, a receptive and a productive skill respectively, unavoidably depend on pronunciation to a substantial extent. Tench (1981: 1) rightly maintains -
Pronunciation is not an optional extra for the language learner, any more than grammar, vocabulary or any other aspect of language is. If a learner's general aim is to talk intelligibly to others in another language, a reasonable pronunciation is important.
However, while learning the pronunciation of an L2, the learner often confronts different phonetic and phonological problems that obviously hinder his/her learning and ultimately prevent him/her from acquiring expected general proficiency in the oral and auditory skills of the target language. This phenomenon is also evident in the learning of pronunciation of English as a foreign language (EFL) by the Bengali speaking learner.
Both as a learner and a teacher-researcher of EFL, I have had practical experience of and the opportunity to observe the difficulties that the Bengali speaking learner usually faces in learning English pronunciation. English is a non-phonetic language since there exists no one-to-one correspondence between the graphemes (the letters of the alphabet) and the sounds actually pronounced and perceived. But the Bengali speaking EFL learner, especially the elementary one generally endeavours to learn pronunciations of words by looking at their spellings, and consequently learns mispronunciations of many of them, for example, adjective, adjustment, future, knee, knowledge, lamb, comb, lieutenant, calm, palm, pneumonia, psychology, Wednesday, and so on. This mainly happens due to the use of defective bilingual dictionaries showing many wrong pronunciations in the learner's mother tongue, faults in teaching, indifference of the teacher to how the learner learns pronunciations of new and difficult words and the teacher's lack of training. From the phonetic and phonological standpoint, the Bengali speaking EFL learner usually faces difficulties in, firstly, 'speech production' encompassing which articulator(s) to use how to pronounce which speech sound and how to pattern speech sounds to convey meaning and, secondly, in 'speech perception' including how to receive which speech sound(s) to perceive meaning. The difficulties certainly have seriously negative impact on his/her acquiring the speaking and listening skills of EFL.
The present paper therefore purports to be an endeavour to address the following crucial issues -
a.identification of the major phonetic and phonological problems confronted by the Bengali speaking EFL learner,
b.detection of the causes of the problems, and
c.suggestions for reducing the problems as well as ensuring the smooth and maximal learning of EFL pronunciation.

Problems related to monophthongs
The English language has twelve monophthongs or pure vowels ? five long /?: a: ?: ? u:/ and seven short /I e Ã? ? ? ? U/. The Bengali speaking EFL learner generally finds the long monophthongs of the English language, for example, in the words ? sheep, part, bird, short, cool, and the like, seriously problematic since his/her mother tongue does not have them and he/she is not naturally accustomed to differentiating between short and long monophthongs. To emphasize an issue or express different attitudes and emotional effects, Bengali vowels are sometimes lengthened to some degree. Nonetheless, vowel length in the Bengali language is a phonetic aspect, not a phonological one as in the English language.
The contrastive monophthongs, such as /I/ in 'ship' versus /?:/ in 'sheep', /e/ in 'men' versus /Ã?/ in 'man', /?/ in 'cut' versus /a:/ in 'cart', /?/ in 'pot' versus /?/ in 'port', /U/ in 'full' versus /u:/ in 'fool' and /a:/ in 'bard' versus /?:/ in 'bird' also often cause substantial problems in the learner's articulation as well as perception of utterances because the difference between them is not that much exercised in the Bengali language. Moreover, the Bengali speaker cannot easily and properly pronounce the mid, central and short monophthong schwa /?/, as in the first syllables of the words 'ago', 'today' and 'perhaps', since this phoneme is absent from his/her first language and receives inadequate or no treatment in teaching.
In addition, the Bengali speaking learner is subconsciously used to nasalization of vowels without any nasal consonant in his/her mother tongue, for instance, the first vowel in the word 'kada' /k?nÃ??/(weeping) or the vowel in the word 'chad' /??nd/ (moon) being clearly nasalized. Nasalization of vowels in the Bengali language is a phonological feature as it obviously produces meaning difference and/or differentiates between words. This factor occasionally affects his/her pronunciation of English vowels devoid of nasalization.

Problems related to diphthongs
The Bengali speaking learner has difficulties in pronouncing as well as perceiving English diphthongs mainly due to his/her mother tongue interference. The English language has eight diphthongs / I? e? u? eI aI OI au ?u /, each of which is a combination of two monophthongs one gliding into the other and naturally longer than a pure vowel, whereas the Bengali language possesses eighteen regular diphthongs which are characteristically different from and shorter than the English ones. As a consequence, he/she pronounces only the first part of a diphthong and makes it identical to a monophthong. For example, 'late'/leIt/ is pronounced like 'let' /let/. Hasan (2000: 66) rightly comments -
They mispronounce most of the English diphthongs; they fail to give these sounds their due length as they often pronounce only the first element of the sound and pay no heed to the second, thus the English diphthongs cease to be gliding sounds in their pronunciation, e.g. for English /e?/ and /?U/, they generally use the Bangla pure vowels /e/ and /?/ respectively.
This type of replacement of phonemes in the English language evidently affects the learner's auditory and perceptive ability and certainly results in huge confusion and misunderstanding.

Problems related to consonants
As the Bengali speaking learner is naturally accustomed to articulating Bengali consonants which are different from English consonants in many respects, he/she finds the pronunciations of a number of English consonants difficult in both production and perception.
The Bengali language has as many as twenty plosives, whereas the English language has only six /p b t d k g/. The Bengali speaking learner uses both aspirated and unaspirated sounds in his/her mother tongue as it has separate aspirated and unaspirated phonemes differentiating between words, such as 'pul' /pUl/ (bridge) versus 'phul' /phUl/ (flower), 'tok' /t?k/ (sour) versus 'thok' /th?k/ (cheat) and 'kal' /k?l/ (tomorrow) versus 'khal' /kh?l/ (canal). But the English language has no corresponding aspirated plosives, and its voiceless plosives /p t k/are aspirated in the initial position of the stressed syllable, for example, in 'pin' /phIn/, 'time' /thaIm/, 'come' /kh?m/, etc and unaspirated in other positions, for example, in 'tip' /tIp?/, 'meet' /m?:t?/, 'make' /me?k?/, etc. Consequently, the Bengali speaking learner cannot exactly pronounce the aspirated allophones of English voiceless plosives /p t k/and faces difficulty in both conveying and receiving information.
The Bengali speaking EFL learner cannot exactly articulate and even perceive the English inter-dental fricatives /?/ and /Ã?/ as in 'thing' and 'this' respectively since there are no inter-dental fricatives in the Bengali language. Rather, he/she uses Bengali dental stops instead of English inter-dental fricatives. It is also seen that he/she generally pronounces Bengali aspirated bilabial stops /ph/ and /bh/ in place of English labio-dental fricatives /f/ and /v/ as in 'fan' and 'van' respectively because the Bengali language does not have any labio-dental fricatives. Similarly, he/she generally uses Bengali alveolar retroflex stops in place of English alveolar plosives /t /and /d/as in 'test' and 'dust' respectively. This happens owing to the absence of alveolar plosives like English /t /and /d/from his/her mother tongue.
It is also evident that the Bengali speaking learner is usually incapable of differentiating between the English voiced alveolar fricative /z/ as in 'zoo', voiced palato-alveolar affricate /d? / as in 'Jew' and voiced palato-alveolar fricative /? / as in 'pleasure' since these sounds are not available in the Bengali language. Further, the English approximants /w/ and /j / as in 'war' and 'year' respectively are problematic to the Bengali speaking EFL learner. He/She cannot correctly articulate them as they are not present in his/her first language. As a result, on the one hand, his/her pronunciation appears to be non-English and/or unintelligible, and on the other, he/she often fails to perceive the sounds produced correctly by a native speaker or somebody else.
That is, the English consonants which are absent from the Bengali language and receive insufficient treatment in teaching and practice are difficult to the Bengali speaking learner, and hence have substantially negative effect on his/her pronunciation as well as perception.

Problems related to stress and intonation
Stress and intonation are two essential aspects of the pronunciation of English words and utterances since they perform phonological functions. Stress means prominence in pronunciation normally produced by four factors ? 'loudness' of voice, 'length' of syllables, 'pitch' related to the frequency of vibration of the vocal folds as well as to low/high tone and 'quality' of vowels functioning individually or in combination (Roach 2000). English words in isolation or in connected speech naturally receive stress that eventually results in intonation carrying information over and above that which is expressed by the words in the utterance. Hence, English is a stress-timed language possessing a speech rhythm in which the stressed syllables recur at equal intervals of time (Richards et al. 1985). On the contrary, the Bengali language is a syllable-timed language having a speech rhythm in which all the syllables recur at equal intervals of time. This difference between the two languages causes great difficulty to the Bengali speaking learner of EFL, especially in placing stress on the right syllable and using the appropriate tone, and thus hampers the encoding and decoding of information.
The Bengali speaking learner confronts considerable problems in assigning stress within English words because, on the one hand, English stress placement varies according to grammatical categories, for example, 'abstract', 'conduct', 'contract', 'contrast', 'import', 'incline', 'insult', 'perfect', 'present', 'produce', 'rebel', and so forth as verbs receiving stress on the second syllables and as nouns on the first, and on the other, he/she is used to assigning stress almost invariably on the first syllable of every word in his/her first language. Moreover, the English words, for instance, 'introduce', 'photographic', 'examination', excavation', responsibility', and soon which receive both primary and secondary stress are difficult to the learner and hamper his/her pronunciation as well as perception of speech.
Unlike the Bengali language, the English language has strong and weak forms, such as articles (a, an the), pronouns (he, she, we, you, him, her, them, us), auxiliaries (do, does, am, is, are, have, has, had, can, shall, will), prepositions (to, of, from, for, at), and conjunctions (and, but), which are usually unstressed in connected speech. For example, 'the' /Ã??:/ is pronounced /Ã??/ before consonants and /Ã?I/ before vowels in connected speech if it is not stressed for some specific reasons. As the Bengali speaking learner is not accustomed to using such forms in his/her mother tongue, he/she certainly finds them problematic in both production and reception.
Finally, intonation, part of the suprasegmental phonology of English, is basically constituted of the rising tone ? a movement from a lower pitch to a higher one, e.g. ?yes /?jes/ uttered in a questioning manner ? and the falling tone ? one which descends from a higher to a lower pitch, e.g. `yes /`jes/ said in a definite, final manner, and plays varied unavoidable functions in the English language, such as attitudinal function, i.e. conveying emotions and attitudes, accentual function, i.e. the placement of the tonic syllable indicating the focus of the information, grammatical function, i.e. the link between the tone unit and units of grammar, and discourse function, i.e. attention focusing and the regulation on conversational behabiour, which have little relevance to the Bengali language. It is clear that the Bengali speaking learner of EFL faces difficulty in mastering English intonation due to mother tongue interference and inadequate training, and his/her speech then sounds unnatural and even unintelligible.

Conclusions and suggestions
The above analysis, interpretation and exemplification have clearly revealed that the Bengali speaking EFL learner encounters diverse phonetic and phonological problems resulting from three basic causes ? (a) the differences between the mother tongue and the target language, (b) mother tongue interference (MTI) and (c) the faulty and inadequate teaching of EFL pronunciation. Therefore, we have to address and reduce these causes with a view to lessening the phonetic and phonological difficulties, on the one hand, and ensuring the smooth and optimal learning of EFL pronunciation on the other.
The problems caused by the differences between the phonetic and phonological elements of the learner's mother tongue and those of the target language, MTI and/or the faulty and inadequate teaching of EFL pronunciation can be reduced and solved to a substantial extent by appropriately treating them in the teaching process that directly deals with varied linguistic aspects including the phonetic and phonological ones. Hence, the learner's needs and wants, especially those generated by the differences between his/her first language and the target language as well as MTI have an essentially direct relation to syllabus design, teacher qualification and training, materials development, use of equipment and the testing tool. In this regard, Haque and Maniruzzaman (1994: 79) hold -
... the learners' needs and wants tremendously control the whole package of teaching materials, aids and equipment and the application of teaching techniques and strategies, the employment of classroom activities and most importantly, the method of teaching and the construction of the syllabus.
In other words, all the components of the teaching process have to take account of the factors that will help the learner overcome the phonetic and phonological problems and improve his/her oral and auditory ability.
Firstly, the syllabus should necessarily contain the phonetic and phonological items that the learner needs to learn and/or finds problematic. And they should be arranged in the order in which he/she will best learn and internalize them in order to use them accurately and fluently in his/her production and perception of speech in real life situations. Corder (1973: 296) rightly contends -
A finished syllabus is the overall plan for the learning process. It, too, must specify what components, or learning items, must be available, or learned by a certain time; what is the most efficient sequence in which they are learned; what items can be learned "simultaneously"; what items are available from stock, i.e. already known; and the whole process is determined by considerations of how long it takes to produce or learn a component or item. The process is under continual scrutiny by means of stock checks, or tests and examinations.
It is recommended that the syllabus should first specify the phonetic and phonological items to meet the learner's needs and wants, and then order them according to their difficulty level and priorities in communication.
Secondly, the teacher has to have a thorough knowledge of the phonetic and phonological facets and a solid command of the listening and speaking skills of the target language since a teacher with a knowledge of phonetics is in a better position to understand and assess pronunciation problems, devise remedies for them, and handle them in class than a teacher without such knowledge (Tench 1981). In addition, he/she should have adequate expertise in and experience of contrastive analysis, needs analysis, syllabus design, materials development, teaching methods, use of equipment and testing. This is because the teacher is the right person to equip the learner with the capability of taking the responsibility of his/her own learning.
Thirdly, the materials to be developed to teach the problematic phonetic and phonological elements of the target language have to agree with the learner's needs and interest. That is, they should be relevant and useful, and help the learner to feel at ease and develop confidence. They should also achieve impact through novelty of topics, illustrations and activities, variety of activities and sources, attractive presentation and appealing content, and thus have a noticeable effect on the learner (Tomlinson 1998). Furthermore, they should require and facilitate learner self-investment, and provide the learner with opportunities to use the difficult phonetic and phonological items to achieve communicative purposes. And the learner should be provided with and exposed to the materials by employing attractive and useful means and equipment, such as well-written books, colourful posters, charts and handouts, audio-visual aids, OHP, multimedia projector, and so forth.
Fourthly, the learner should be helped to best learn what he/she needs to learn. This gives rise to the significance of choosing and employing the appropriate teaching method including relevant materials, proper teaching techniques and interesting classroom activities. Having come to the realization that each learner has his/her own style, personality, needs, and so on, it follows that a single teaching method might not be appropriate and adequate for all the learners in the classroom. As a result, the recent tendency has been towards eclecticism, choosing materials, techniques and classroom activities from various sources (Maniruzzaman 1998).
Fifthly, to achieve the end, both controlled practice and communicative practice as being complementary (Maniruzzaman 2004) can be used in the classroom. To conduct controlled practice in teaching the phonetic and phonological elements, such as phonemes, word stress, utterance stress, and so forth, activities can be organized rulewise and implemented in a process with different stages. For example, to teach some particular phonemes, first of all, the learner should be exposed to a number of words containing the phonemes. Then the phonemes can be exhibited by using a chart or an OHP. After that, we have to explain how the phonemes are articulated by which speech organs. To give the explanation up to the learner's satisfaction, we can even judiciously use the learner's mother tongue (Maniruzzaman 2003). Afterwards, appropriate and interesting drilling (as in Baker 1981) can be conducted first individually and then chorally with a view to helping the learner have sufficient practice and acquire accuracy as well as fluency. In this connection, Tench (1981: 108) postulates -
The basic strategy is imitation of utterances (sentences, phrases, etc), supplemented by practice in specific problem areas. Such practice ? most of it can be called drilling ? is fundamental, because most pronunciation problems involve training the organs of speech (and the ears) to do things that they are not used to doing.
However, as controlled practice having mechanical drills may sometimes be boring and as this type of practice cannot ensure the learner's communicative ability, we should involve the learner in some meaningful, purposive and communicative activities, such as role-play, pair work and group work to keep the learner motivated and make learning exciting.
Sixthly, the testing instrument has to be constructed and exploited in such a manner that the learner will neither lose motivation nor suffer any phobia, and the purpose will be served well. Before the start of the EFL pronunciation teaching programme, a placement test can be given to sort out and put the learners into some homogeneous groups, or to place them at the stage of the teaching programme most appropriate to their abilities (Hughes 1989). Then achievement tests can be administered to accumulate evidence during, or at the end of, the programme in order to determine whether and where progress has been made in terms of the goals of learning (McNamara 2000). Besides, diagnostic tests can be used during the programme in order to review the progress of learning, efficiency of teaching and effectiveness of the materials and equipment, and hence to identify their strengths and weaknesses and bring modification to them if needed. And a general proficiency test has to be given at the end of the programme to ascertain how far the learner is able to use what he/she has learned to communicate in his/her real life situations.
Finally, pronunciation teaching can be integrated as much as possible with the rest of the items constituting language teaching, such as grammar, vocabulary, conversations, style, function, and the like. Nevertheless, pronunciation problems should sometimes be taught separately for special attention and practice resulting in accuracy and fluency.

This paper is a revised version of the article presented at a seminar in the Department of English at East West University, Dhaka on 24 November 2005. I am grateful to the enthusiastic audience for their interesting questions and constructive observations contributing to the revision of the article. My special thanks go to Professor Dr. Fakrul Alam chairing the seminar for his informative comments and generous suggestions.

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