“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.

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