Personalising Input to Address Khmer Speakers’ Pronunciation Issues

by Gareth Morgan

Centre for English Language Communication, National University of Singapore  (Singapore, Singapore)

Keywords: consonant sounds, elision, L1 interference, learner autonomy, pronunciation, word stress



The paper focuses on the personalization of pronunciation input based on the differences between Khmer and English. This personalised approach is in contrast to generic coursebookbased pronunciation syllabi, which do not address the specific needs of speakers of different mother tongues. In the Cambodian context, the differences highlighted involve problematic consonant sounds, the elision of final position consonant sounds and word stress. Materials targeting these specific pronunciation difficulties are provided in this article.



According to Jenkins (2000), pronunciation regularly impedes successful communication in international contexts.  This belief is supported by Finocchiaro & Brumfit (1983) who claim that comprehensible pronunciation is an integral part of communicative effectiveness, and Brown (1989), who states that non-native speakers have an increased dependency on phonology due to the fact that they have less recourse to contextualization. This is why there needs to be an emphasis on pronunciation in the language classroom.

Unfortunately, pronunciation tends to be the most neglected language skill, along with reading (Morgan, 2009). This is especially true for teachers with limited qualifications and experience. Indeed, sixty-five percent of the less experienced teachers in Morgan’s research (2009) saw themselves as either being “not knowledgeable enough” or having “no knowledge” with regard to this language feature. The emphasis on pronunciation in the Cambodian context is particularly pertinent as Moore and Bounchan (2010) found that a large number of students attach importance to pronunciation. Despite the priority given to pronunciation by Cambodian students, an issue which hinders the fulfillment of this need is the dearth of available, relevant material.

Though resources are plentiful, they tend to be written for an international market.  This means that the majority of the input is redundant with regard to the needs of each nationality.  Lan (2012), writing in the Vietnamese context, agrees, stating that even though there are a large number of English pronunciation books and websites available, they tend to be written by native English speakers for general learners, as opposed to a specific market, such as the native Vietnamese speaker.

The same is true of the Cambodian context. Though Kenworthy (1994) does list pronunciation issues according to L1, Khmer is not one of the languages covered.  As phonological transfer from the speaker’s mother tongue can cause pronunciation problems for an international audience, mastering the features of English phonology which can result in communication breakdown is crucial to mutual intelligibility among L2 speakers, and has been termed the Lingua Franca Core by Jenkins (2000). This is why a number of activities specifically targeted at the native Khmer speaker are provided in the appendices.


Suggested input

There needs to be relevant pronunciation when a course claims to cover oral communication skills, with the input addressing learners’ specific needs.  The material should be both overt and covert.  The former can make pronunciation a theme for discussion, for example, as in Figure 1, followed by a focus on the communication breakdowns that took place during the discussion and the reasons for their occurrence.

Figure 1. Discussion Prompts.


Communication breakdowns can also be modelled by using digital sources, such as, which have the added advantage of appealing to the visual learner.

Covert material could take the form of drilling and minimal pairwork of target sounds, for example, to aid in the development of the motor skills needed for the creation of the different sounds.  This could be followed by an activity, as shown in Figure 2, in order to promote communicative effectiveness. In this activity, 5 sets of minimal pairs are featured, with each word being allocated a number. The example given focuses on / ʃ / and / s /, as / ʃ / is a sound which doesn’t exist in the Khmer inventory, and tends to be replaced with / s /. The activity can also be conducted with the minimal pairs / ʈʃ / and / z /, / Ɵ / and / s / or / ð / and / d / as the former sound of each pair is problematic for Khmer speakers (Bounchan & Moore, 2010). These, along with their other issues, are listed in Appendix A.

The teacher models this activity by saying the words, with the students writing down the corresponding numbers to form a telephone number. The students then check their answers with a partner, asking the teacher to repeat any problematic words, and this is followed by the teacher giving the answer to determine if the students have been able to distinguish the target sounds. The next step has the students conducting the activity in pairs as active involvement makes the processing of information more likely. Partners’ answers provide feedback as to whether or not the production of the target sounds has been successful, followed by the students explaining the differences between the minimal pair.

Figure 2. Telephone number activity.

Figure 3. Kinaesthetic activity.

In addition to input satisfying learner needs, it is important that the amount of theory and practice is balanced.  Spending a disproportionate amount of classroom time on the former should be avoided because as Cives-Enriques (2003) says, learning is the consequence of meaningful interaction, as opposed to providing factual information about language.  Laroy (1996) concurs, commenting on the fact that teaching the names of the speech organs, for example, did not improve his students’ pronunciation, despite his expectations. This is why there are a range of activities in the appendices, covering the issues native Khmer speakers have with English pronunciation.

That being said, if participants, as Laroy (1996) goes on to suggest, are unfamiliar with active participation and taking responsibility for their learning both in and out of the classroom, it is important that the rationale for conducting such activities is explained.  Therefore, students should be told that the crossword in Appendix B has been created in order to promote learner retention of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for example, whilst Appendix C provides a list of useful websites for the purpose of promoting learner autonomy.

An example of the provision of meaningful interaction is illustrated in Appendix D, which requires the sharing of information in order to complete a task.  Such problem solving activities engage learners cognitively and emotionally. The example in question is a task, called ‘Neighbours’, which is based on ‘Baker Street’ (Klippel, 1984). It has been turned into a pronunciation activity for the Khmer student, covering the individual sounds absent from the Khmer inventory and the elision of final position consonants, features focussed on in the previously mentioned Appendix A: Cambodian Pronunciation Issues, sources for which are Bounchan & Moore (2010), Keuk (2008), and Moore & Bounchan (2010). After conducting the activity, there should be a discussion to focus the students’ attention on the problematic issues which arose during the activity as opposed to simply providing the students with the rules. Tomlinson (1998) comments on this approach being preferable, as it:

“… involves learners investing energy and attention in order to discover…something about the language for themselves… .Getting the learners to work out the rules…asking learners to investigate when and why…and getting learners to notice and explain…” (page ix).

Personalizing classroom input by basing the suggested activities on the pronunciation difficulties that native Khmer speakers have, together with the provision of student-centred tasks, mentally stimulates and aids in the development of self-confidence.  Moreover, it develops a positive attitude towards learning, as students are able to see improvements in their communicative competency.  Further examples of such activities include Appendix E for final consonant elision, and Appendices F and G for word stress, which, according to Bounchan & Moore (2010), can be a major issue for Cambodians due to Khmer’s mainly monosyllabic nature, as well as Appendix H for further practice of the problematic / ʃ / sound.

However, it should not be construed that rules are not to be provided, as their provision might be of benefit to certain learner types.  Rules, as shown in Appendix I, should only be distributed after the course participants have been exposed to the targeted pronunciation point, and been asked to formulate them for themselves.



To sum up, materials should focus on learners’ relevant pronunciation issues, striking a balance between theory and practical application. The input should be both overt, involving discussions on pronunciation, as well as covert, taking the form of task completion, interviews, information gap activities and the negotiating of meaning, in order to be engaging and mentally stimulating. Raising awareness of the specific pronunciation problems faced should, in turn, help to improve production and minimize miscommunication caused by L1 transfer.



Bounchan, S., & Moore, S. H. (2010). Khmer learner English: A teacher’s guide to Khmer L1 interference. Language Education in Asia, 1(1), 112-123.

Brown, G. (1989). Making sense: the interaction of linguistic expression and contextual information. Applied Linguistics, 10(1), 97-108.

Cives-Enriques, R-M. (2003). Materials for adults: ‘I am no good at languages!’ – Inspiring and motivating L2 adult learners of beginner’s Spanish. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Developing materials for language teaching (pp.239-255). London: Continuum.

Finocchiaro, M., & Brumfit, C. (1983). The functional notional approach. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kenworthy, J. (1994). Teaching English pronunciation. London: Longman.

Keuk, C. N. (2008) English language variety in Cambodia. CamTESOL. Conference on English Language Teaching Selected Papers, 4, 98-104.

Klippel, F. (1984). Keep talking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lan, T. T. (2012). 9 essential English pronunciation in the Vietnamese context. Retrieved

December 2, 2012, from…

Laroy, C. (1996). Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, S. H., & Bounchan, S. (2010). English in Cambodia: Changes and challenges. World Englishes, 29(1), 114-126.

Morgan, G. (2009). The awareness of Vietnamese adult students and their teachers to pronunciation issues. STETS Language & Communication Review, 8(1), 19-30.

Tomlinson, B. (1998). Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


About the author

Gareth has been teaching English for 15 years and has worked in England, Turkey, Thailand and Vietnam.  He now works in the National University of Singapore. He is involved in developing and conducting staff and student pronunciation courses and workshops.



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