Pronunciation Problems for Brazilian Students of English
by Karen Bond, August 2001
Section One - Introduction
By analysing three students' transcriptions and recordings, coupled with references to literature to support these findings, the following comments can be made about these students performance, and the performance of Brazilian learners in general.
Section Two - Findings
The English and Brazilian Portuguese (hereon referred to as Portuguese) phonological systems differ in many ways, and Schutz (2000) argues that the biggest problem for Brazilian learners of English is orally interpreting a written piece of English, due to spelling. Another challenge is the differing number of vowel, diphthongs and consonants in each language. Intonation, rhythm, stress and connected speech also need to be discussed.
a) The Influence of Spelling on Pronunciation
Brazilian learners of English may have difficulty in correctly pronouncing words from a written text. This is because, in Portuguese, it is relatively easy to know how to pronounce a word by looking at it, being phonological and also having a number of diacritical marks. English pronunciation and spelling, however, have evolved at differing rates over the centuries, with a general reluctance to modify old-fashioned spellings (Bryson, 1990), and with the sounds of the language constantly evolving (Gimson & Cruttenden, 1994). All three students seem to have been influenced by spelling. For example, they all pronounce the word early as /:Īłrlił/,including the consonant `r` (although in this case it could also be due to an influence of American English). They were also influenced by the letter `e`, when saying the word eleven, pronouncing it /ił:lev«n/. Student 2 found it difficult to pronounce the word wait, saying /waIt/instead of /weIt/. Student 1 pronounced go as /gł/, because the letter `o` often corresponds with the Portuguese /ó/, as in `pó`, which sounds similar to /ł/ (Schutz, 2000).
b) Phonemic Distinctions Vowels & Diphthongs
English has more vowel sounds and diphthongs than Portuguese. It is difficult to give an exact number though, as differing authorities offer conflicting explanations. Shepherd (1987) offers 12 simple vowels and 10 diphthongs in English, and 8 and 6 for Portuguese. Both Parkinson (1990) and Schutz (2000) suggest that there are just 7 vowel sounds in Portuguese. Whatever the exact number, what is certain is that there are more vowel sounds in English than in Portuguese.
Due to these differences in vowel sounds, Brazilian may experience a number of challenges, for example:
/Ał/ and /Q/
/Ał/ may be confused with the sound /Q/ for example, the students say /lQst/ and /kQnt/. It is difficult for Brazilians to pronounce the RP /kAłnt/, for example, and they find it easier to produce a word closer to the American /kQnt/.They may also consciously choose to use American pronunciation, as young people in Brazil are often influenced by American English from TV, videos and music.
/e/ and /Q/
The Brazilian vowel /ź/ is found between the English /e/ and /Q/, but a little closer to the former. Student 1, for example, was trying to pronounce the word /lAłst/as the perfectly acceptable /lQst/, but instead said /les/.
/«/ - The Schwa
There is no exact equivalent of the schwa in Portuguese. If unstressed syllables are given their full value, this can cause problems when trying to produce correct stress and rhythm, and can hinder intelligibility. It can be seen in the three dialogues that these students do not use weak forms:
//, /ł/ and /«U/
In Portuguese, the English sound //may be confused with /ł/. This is because // is frequently spelled with the letter `o`, for example, cot, pot, spot, which often corresponds with the Portuguese /ó/, as in `pó`, which sounds similar to /ł/ (Schutz, 2000). //may be used instead of the diphthong /«U/:
/k«Uld/ becomes /kld/
This is a very difficult sound for many Brazilians who tend to shorten it to /I/.An example of this is saying /bItS/instead of /biłtS/.
Vowels at the end of a word
Beginner learners of English in Brazil may leave the vowels at the end of a word unstressed, like /sItS/instead of /sItił/.
Brazilian learners may include an extra vowel before an s+ consonant cluster.
For example: /Iskułl/, /Istiłm/
Intrusive vowels may be inserted between consonants, like /kleUsIs/instead of /kl«UDs/.
Extra vowels may be added on to the end of words, for example, saying /laItSił/ instead of /laIt/. This is because Brazilian Portuguese follows a consonant-vowel pattern, with very few final syllable consonants (Parkinson, 1990).
Nasality can be found in Portuguese, with the velum being lowered, enabling part of the air stream to pass through the nasal cavity. This is another reason why Brazilians may find it difficult to distinguish between certain English vowel sounds. The letters which are usually nasalised are ć and õ, but other vowels may be nasalised as nasal consonants tend to nasalise the preceding and following vowels.
c) Phonemic Distinctions Consonants
There are certain sounds in English that do not have equivalents or near equivalents in Portuguese. These are: /T/, /D/, /tS/, /dZ/, /r/ and /w/. There may also be confusion between other consonant sounds.
/T/ and /D/
These are difficult sound for many learners to produce, as there are no equivalent dental sounds in Portuguese. The sounds /s/ and /t/ may be used instead of /T/, for example, ` /sił«t«/or /tił«t«/ instead of /Tiłet«/. /D/may be confused with /z/or/d/, like /zIs/ or /dIs/, instead of /DIs/.
Ų /tS/ and /dZ/
/tS/ is often confused with the sound /S/, saying /SIp/ instead of /tSIp/, /Siłp/ instead of /tSiłp/.
/dZ/becomes /z/, confusing words like pledger and pleasure.
At the beginning of words, /r/ is pronounced /h/, so Portuguese speakers might confuse head with red, height with right, and so on.
This sound is patalised before the sound /i/ (Carvalho, 1998). Therefore the Portuguese word for `day`, dia, is pronounced almost like /dZiłQ/.
/k/, /p/ and /t/
These sounds are unaspirated in the initial position in Portuguese, and can be confused with /g/, /b/ and /d/. Student 2, for example, pronounces the word /k«Uld/ as /g«Uld/.
When a word ends in the letter `t`, Brazilian speakers may use the patalised /tS/, for example, /naItS/ instead of /naIt/, and /laItSił/ instead of /laIt/.
Vowels are nasalised after the sounds /m/, /n/ and /N/.
The variety of consonant clusters in Portuguese is far fewer than in English, so this can cause vowel epenthesis in English clusters, or for consonants in the cluster to be simply omitted. Clusters that do not exist in Portuguese include skr, spl, spr and str.
d) Word Stress and Rhythm
Brazilian Portuguese is a syllable-timed language, whereas English is stress-timed. This difference is related to syllable structure. In Portuguese there is a tendency towards a consonant-vowel pattern, with very few consonants as the final syllable, weak final /l/ and /r/ and the use of vowel epenthesis (Parkinson, 1990), like /laItSił/forlight (Student 2).
According to Schutz (2000), stress is quite predictable as 70% of word stress falls on the penultimate syllable. Accent marks are also used to show stress. This predictability can make it difficult for Portuguese speakers learning English, because in this language there is not one predominant pattern.
Portuguese speakers seem to use a narrow pitch range compared with English, with English speakers able to use extreme high and extreme low pitches.
There may be problems with question tags, in that learners pronounce them with a rising tone. Commonly, wh- questions, for example, end in a falling tone in English, but in Portuguese, a rising tone is used. This can give rise to a significant foreign accent.
There may also be difficulties in recognising when to use complex tones. For example:
Learners may use a level tone, which gives the idea that they are disinterested or uninvolved. For example:
Cant wait for summer.
f) Connected Speech
Certain syllables in a sentence may be inappropriately over-emphasised or not stressed at all. There is a tendency for Brazilian speakers to emphasise even the unstressed words in an English sentence, as they find it difficult to differentiate between strong and weak forms (Shepherd, 1987).
Assimilation occurs in rapid connected speech so, as the learners read the dialogues slowly, and considering their fairly basic level of English and probable lack of awareness of assimilation in English, it is not present in these students dialogues.
Elision was barely evident in the students dialogues, apart from the words what (/w/) and turned (/tĪłn/). This again is probably due to a lack of knowledge of connected speech in English.
Liaison is a common feature of Portuguese (Carvalho, 1998) with words like os outros (the others) becoming /u zo:trus/ and as almas (the souls) /a zaw:mas/. However, it may be difficult for learners to use liaison in English. For example, when there is a double consonant, both may be pronounced, with an intrusive vowel added (Shepherd (1987). For example:
this stop would be pronounced /DIsI stpił/ or /zIsI stpił/
Section Three - Conclusion and Implications
In conclusion, Brazilian students may experience problems with the following:
The influence of spelling on pronunciation
These vowel sounds: /Ał/ and /Q/,/e/ and /Q/,/«/, //,/i:/, /ł/ and /«U/
Vowels at the end of a word, extra vowels
These consonant sounds: /T/ and /D/, /tS/ and /dZ/, /r/, /d/, /t/, /k/, /p/ and /t/
These consonant clusters: skr, spl, spr, str, st and rnd
Word stress, as 70% of word stress falls on the penultimate syllable in Portuguese
Intonation on question sentences, and also complex tones, resulting in a significant foreign accent.
Sentence Stress and Weak forms
Regarding these three pre-intermediate students, there seems to be a need for an introduction to all components of pronunciation, not just specific sounds, with the teacher making each learner aware of her priorities. Intonation practice would be highly beneficial, for example, as there is a strong L1 influence in the dialogues. Weak forms are also important in English, and not used at all in the students dialogues, so should be introduced after the basic points about word stress, rhythm, and sentence stress have been covered.
Attention should be drawn to the specific problematic sounds that the students have. They may be shown where to position their lips and tongue, for example.
At this level of English, the students will benefit from some awareness activities regarding assimilation, elision, linking, liaison and juncture, but should not be expected to produce sentences with such aspects of connected speech.
Bryson, B. (1990) Mother Tongue: English & how it got that way pp 86-97, New York: Avon Books Inc.
Carvalho, M. (1998) The Portuguese Language in Brazil (on-line) Available: http://members.nbci.com/MOPC/The%20Portuguese%20Language%20in%20Brazil.html
Comrie, B. (1990), The Worlds Major Languages pp 262-268, New York: Oxford University Press.
Gimson, A.C. & Cruttenden, A. (1994), Gimsons Pronunciation of English pp77, London: Edward Arnold
Parkinson, S. (1990), `Portuguese` in Comrie (1990), pp 262-268.
Schutz, R. (2000) Diferenēas de Pronśncia entre Inglźs e Portuguźs (on-line) Available: http://www.English.sk.com.br/sk-pron.html
Shepherd, D. (1987), `Portuguese Speakers` in Swan & Smith, pp90-93
Swan, M. & Smith, B. (1987), Learner English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
©Karen Bond 2001. All rights reserved.