“Sir, the dock ate my homework!” – How do English teachers in the Netherlands address final devoicing?

For my master’s thesis, I am looking at one very particular issue of Dutch people’s pronunciation: final devoicing. (Why? I explain that here.) In Dutch, voiced consonants like /d/ and /v/ become voiceless when in end position. So “honden” in singular becomes “hont” (though spelled “hond”) and “dieven” becomes “dief” (here the spelling does follow the pronunciation). Because this happens in Dutch, Dutch people also do it when they speak English, and end up pronouncing “dog” like “dock”, “bed” like “bet”, “prove” like “proof” etc.

In a nutshell, I want to figure out the best way to get Dutch people to stop doing this. While doing research I found out that I could not find any information about how English teachers are dealing with this in practice. So I thought it would be a good idea to ask them.

(Something else I found out while doing my literature research, is that final devoicing is not actually final devoicing! It’s actually better referred to as “final position fortis/lenis neutralisation” If you want to know more about that, you can read my article about it here. For clarity, I have decided to just keep calling it “final devoicing” in this article, because as I think you will agree with me, it rolls off the tongue a little more easily than “final position fortis/lenis neutralisation”.)

So how are English teachers teaching Dutch people the correct pronunciation in practice?

I put out a survey in two Facebook groups and on Reddit to find out.

To keep the survey as short as possible, the only information I asked of my participants what their educational background was and when they graduated.

The survey was filled in by 137 teachers. Most participants (60%) had a bachelor’s (HBO) degree from the Netherlands, 28% had a master’s degree, 4% had a TEFL or similar and 8% filled in “other”; most of these had done a degree in another country or had moved on to a master’s degree after finishing a bachelor’s first.

Most teachers were reasonably fresh out of college, having graduated in the past decade. 18% were still studying to become a teacher.

Do teachers know about final devoicing?

I then explained about final devoicing, giving examples and giving a number of names for the phenomenon, namely “Auslautverhärtung”, “eindklankverscherping” and “final position fortis/lenis neutralisation”.

Only 6% had never heard of the phenomenon, and 38% knew what was meant but hadn’t heard any of the names mentioned.

It seems university master’s degrees give more attention to the subject than HBOs:

An even more striking effect is that degree programmes are clearly paying more attention to the subject nowadays than they used to. Though of course this might also have to do with forgetfulness; teachers who got their degree a while ago might have simply forgotten about final devoicing.

How do teachers help their students when it comes to final devoicing

I asked the teachers who had heard of final devoicing if they addressed this issue during their lessons, and if so, how. Teachers were able to tick several boxes for this question.

13% of teachers who know what final devoicing is do not address it at all, 58% make sure that their own pronunciation is correct as often as possible, 69% will correct or recast* their students pronunciation if it fits in the lesson at that moment, 27% will give an explanation about final devoicing if the subject happens to come up, 7% has developed a specific lesson about the subject and only 3% note that “final devoicing” is reviewed in a course book.

*when a teacher recasts an issue, they don’t mention the mistake explicitly (“it’s ‘went yesterday’ not ‘have gone yesterday'”) but instead they make sure the student hears the correct form within the conversation (“ah, so you went to Amsterdam yesterday, did you have fun?”)

In total, 28% of all the teachers who filled in my survey teach their students explicitly about final devoicing, either by talking about it when an opportune moment presents itself, or by having it be part of their curriculum. 18% don’t do anything with it at all, either because they have not heard of it themselves, or just because they choose not to. The other 54% pays attention to correct pronunciation, but does not address final devoicing directly.

One of the things I did not ask in my survey, because I wanted to keep it short, was in which classes teachers addressed final devoicing explicitly. A number of teachers noted that explicit teaching of this feature was only done with older students, in 6VWO for example. This means that the 28% number does not by any means mean that 28% of students will have learned about this feature explicitly, only that 28% of teachers teach it to some of their students.

For the teachers that explicitly talk about final devoicing, what do they talk about?

Of the 28% who directly address final devoicing, almost all (82%) give their students a clear example of correct pronunciation and asks them to listen and repeat. 55% talks about vibrating vocal cords, 50% gives the advice to make the vowel sound longer, and 18% gives the advice to add a tiny schwa to the end of the word to make it easier to produce a voiced consonant.

18% filled in “other”; most of these noted that they make use of a list of minimal pairs (dog/dock, eyes/ice, prove/proof, bed/bet) to practice. Some teachers noted that they attach their explanation of final devoicing to a discussion of verb tenses, as the final devoicing feature is important to make a good distinction between lend and lent, spend and spent etc.

Final devoicing in the course books

Of the 137 teachers who filled in my survey, only 4 noted that final devoicing is discussed in the official teaching material they use. One teacher notes Gateway as a course book that pays attention to this, another mentions Stepping Stones 2HV, which surprises me as Stepping Stones is a popular method so I would have expected other teachers to mention it too. Unfortunately I cannot get my hands on the book to check myself.

I had read in an article that the online teaching material of New Interface deals extensively with pronunciation, but no teachers have mentioned this. One teacher very kindly sent me her own materials for teaching final devoicing; a list of minimal pairs and a newspaper clipping from 2010 that mentions the issue. Thank you, I am very grateful! I am no longer looking for copies of the material (that ship has sailed) but I would still be very curious to hear if you think, like I do, that 3% seems very low for this pronunciation issue to be dealt with by course books.

Teacher’s extra remarks

For my last question, I asked the teachers if they had anything to add. Some teachers mentioned that they felt final devoicing was a very individual issue; some students struggle with it while others don’t, making it less suitable for a whole-class intervention. Some teachers of younger students noted that their goal was simply to minimise fear of speaking English, and that making too many remarks about pronunciation issues would just make their students more worried about making mistakes. Some teachers said they thought it was a minor issue and wasn’t worth my time, and some teachers said they were so glad I was looking into such an important issue. Go figure 😉

Do Dutch students know about final devoicing?

Just to have an extra “check” on my data, I also asked some Dutch people who weren’t English teachers to fill in some questions about final devoicing. Unfortunately, this part of my survey got quite a low response and the sample wasn’t random, as most people came via my own social circle. I have written a short article about their responses here.

What is interesting to note about this part of the survey here, is that I also asked my respondents what the most valuable advice had been for them to deal with this pronunciation issue. Of the 18 people who filled this in, 9 people answered “listening to native speakers”. Four people mentioned making the last consonant sound soft and one person mentioned making the vowel longer. No one mentioned anything about the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds.

So what happens now?

I’m going to run an online experiment to test a simple intervention to get Dutch people to do a better job when it comes to final devoicing. It may seem like testing such a small thing should be very simple, but as I am finding out, it takes a lot of time and planning! Of course I’ll share my results on this website when I’m done.

What do you think?

If you are reading this article and have any thoughts on this, please let me know in a comment. I’d be happy to get more input!

Sources

The article that mentioned New Interface as one of the only method that pays sufficient attention to pronunciation was Hattum & Rupp (2014).

Hattum, J. Van, & Rupp, L. (2014). English pronunciation teaching at Dutch secondary schools: Taught or caught. In Pronunciation Matters; Accents of English in the Netherlands and Elsewhere (pp. 69–81). Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/download/38622204/Rupp_Pronunciation_binnenwerk_DEF.69-81.pdf

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

Turns out final devoicing isn’t actually final devoicing

Dutch people pronounce “dog” as “dock” and “bed” as “bet” and I had always learned that this was called “final devoicing”. But when I started researching this phenomenon properly for my master’s thesis, boy did I fall into a rabbit hole.

(It’s not only Dutch people that do this, by the way, but also Germans, Poles, Russians, Catalonians, Lithuanians and more.)

First lets do a quick review of what voicing is: a voiced phoneme is when the vocal cords are vibrating while you are making the sound. Touch your throat while you say “sssssss” and then “zzzzzz”. You will feel a vibration for “zzzzz” but not for “ssssss” – that’s the vocal cords vibrating. When they vibrate, we call the sound voiced, when they don’t, it’s voiceless. Final devoicing, then, is when a sound at the end of a word that should be voiced, like “eyes” (which is pronounced as eyezzzzz) comes out voiceless, like “ice”.

So far so good. However (this is the entrance to the rabbit hole) it turns out that, like so many things in life, context is everything. Take these three sentences:

“I opened my eyes.”

“I kept my eyes closed”

“I kept my eyes open.”

In the first sentence, the /z/ sound is followed by a pause, in the second, the /z/ is followed by a voiceless sound /k/ and in the third the /z/ is followed by a voiced sound /əʊ/ (vowels are always voiced).

It turns out that native speakers usually do NOT voice the last sound in “eyes”. They only make a voiced /z/ sound at the end of “eyes” when it is followed by a voiced sound, and even then, only a third of them do! The other third does something called “partial devoicing” which in this case means the very beginning of the /z/ sound is voiced but the rest of it isn’t, and the other third doesn’t have any voicing at all.

It happens for plosives (/d/, /b/ and /g/), too, though the effect is less striking.

So if final devoicing is not final devoicing, what the heck is it?

When a native speaker says “I opened my eyes”, it is clear that the last word is “eyes” and not “ice”, even though the last sound is actually a voiceless /s/. So what’s going on?

First thing to know is that apart from voiced and voiceless, you can also divide these kinds of obstruents* into fortis and lenis. Fortis obstruents are the voiceless ones, such as the /s/ in “ice”, which are called fortis because they are made with a lot of force, i.e. a strong burst of air. Lenis sounds are ones like the /z/ in eyes, but in this case we’re not talking about the vocal cords vibrating, but we’re only talking about the fact that the airflow isn’t as forceful as it is with lenis consonants. So that explains the graphs above where the /z/ turned out to be pronounced in a voiceless way so often: the vocal cords aren’t vibrating, so it’s not voiced – but it is lenis. This means that even though the /z/ in “eyes” isn’t voiced, it still sounds different to the /s/ in “ice”. It’s pronounced more softly, with a milder burst of air.

*obstruents are plosives such as [p, t, k, b, d, É¡], fricatives such as [f, s, v, z] (and affricates, but let’s leave those out for now). There’s also another type of consonant, namely the sonorants, like [m, n, l, r]. These are always voiced, and fortis or lenis doesn’t apply to them – you can’t make the [m] sound different by putting more force into your puff of air (if you are like me, you will now try this out, and sound very funny in the process 😉 )

The fortis/lenis thing means that we shouldn’t actually talk about final devoicing when we talk about Dutch people pronouncing “dog” as “dock” and “bed” as “bet”, because the voicing doesn’t really matter. The phenomenon is more properly described as “fortis/lenis neutralisation“, and during my literature research I saw that newer studies indeed refer to it this way.

Interestingly, the Dutch word for final devoicing is “eindklankverscherping” and the German word, which I also sometimes see used as an international word, is “Auslautverhärtung“. These two terms are correct representations of what is actually happening. I’m so used to using English terminology for everything that it hadn’t even clicked with me that these words were saying something different to the English term, and I spent all this time getting confused about something that I could have just understood in one go if I had been doing my research in Dutch. Serves me right for not putting more trust in good old Dutch!

But wait, there’s also vowel length

So is that it? Should we stop teaching Dutch people about voicing and start teaching them about forceful air flow? Well, yes, but that’s not the whole story. There’s another reason why “dog” and “dock” sound different to native speakers, which according to research is actually more important: the vowel length. The /o/ in “dock” is much shorter than the /o/ in dog for native speakers, but not for Dutch people. Dutch people make these vowels the same length, and according to the books and articles that I’ve read, that’s actually what is causing the confusion.

So what should we be telling Dutch people to get them to stop saying “dock” and start saying “dog”

It would seem then that the best advice is to make the vowel a bit longer and the last sound a bit softer. “Doooock”. Something like that. I have tried this out on exactly one test subject, my boyfriend, who was the main reason I started researching this thing in the first place, and I have to say it has really made a difference. But he’s just one person, so that’s just anecdotal evidence. For my master’s thesis, I’ll be asking more Dutch people if this is the advice that makes a difference, and I’ll be giving it a slight twist. I’ll post updates on this website, so watch this space!

I have already asked 137 English teachers what they do to help their students. It turns out that most just make sure their own pronunciation is correct and that they address it when they hear their students make this kind of pronunciation error, but they don’t do much else. Of the 28% of teachers that tell their students explicitly about final devoicing (which we now know is not in fact final devoicing), 55% talk about vibrating vocal cords – which, as we also now know, is not actually very good advice. 50% give the advice to make the vowel longer, and I don’t know how many teachers advise to make the last consonant softer because unfortunately when I made the questionnaire I hadn’t figured that bit out yet so I didn’t ask. I did ask some Dutch people about tips they had had in their life to combat this pronunciation issue and a fair few of them did answer “make the last consonant softer” so it does seem to be advice that exists in the world.

I’d love your input!

If you are reading this and thinking “what is this woman talking about, the best piece of advice to give someone is clearly …” then by all means, let me know in the comments!

Sources

The graphs are from Gonet (2012), and a great explanation of the fortis/ lenis and vowel thing can be found in the excellent master’s thesis by Anne van Leeuwen (2011).

Gonet, W. (2012). Voicing of word-final obstruent in English connected speech. Speech and Language Technology, 14/15, 181–190. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/download/47195689/Gonet_-_From_Jassem_Volume_-_Voicing_of_WF_Obstruent.pdf

van Leeuwen, A. (2011). Mastering the temporal pattern of English. Retrieved from https://dspace.library.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/1874/210344/thesis_annevanleeuwen.pdf

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.