Students practice word pronunciation at an English language skills class taught by Mike O'Neill on April 19 in Maginnes Hall. O'Neill is listening to people practice the pronunciations with assigned sheets. (Tommy Wang/B&W Staff)

Empowering multilingual students: Professor hosts pronunciation workshops


“Adjusting to a new language can make a multilingual speaker mentally and physically tired, as speaking a different language for an entire day requires a lot of brain power.”

These are the words of Daniela Fonseca, ‘21, a postdoctoral associate in the Materials Science and Engineering department. Originally from Brazil, she said she learned a lot of English from reading and watching things. But, she only learned English in formal settings for two brief periods of time before coming to Lehigh.

According to the Office of International Affairs, there are a total of 1,003 international students —578 graduate and 425 undergraduate students— from 82 different countries enrolled at Lehigh this year.

Only a handful of these countries use English as the primary language, although many countries speak English as a second language.

After receiving questions from multilingual Lehigh students about how to best practice English pronunciation, Mike O’Neill, a language specialist at the International Center for Academic and Professional English (ICAPE), founded the Pronunciation Group for Multilingual Students and Scholars at the beginning of this semester.

The first workshop took place on Feb. 16. The group meets every Friday from 12 to 1:15 p.m. in Room 105 of Maginnes Hall.

O’Neill has teaching experience in pedagogical English grammar and phonetics, as well as phonology. He utilizes texts he studied during graduate school in his pronunciation group as a teaching resource.

“I think it’s interesting because multilingual graduate students have said, ‘I’m an expert in my field, but when I’m using English, sometimes people won’t understand what I meant to say,’ or ‘I don’t feel confident in my skills,’” O’Neill said.

While looking for an outlet to practice speaking English, Fonseca said she found different opportunities on The Office of International Students and Scholars’ website. However, she was most interested in the Pronunciation Group for Multilingual Students and Scholars because it’s free, and pronunciation was something she specifically wanted to improve.

“The first few weeks are really hard when coming from a different country,” Fonseca said. “It takes some time until the brain adjusts to another language.”

Nianguang Zhao, ‘25G, a student from China receiving his master’s degree, said he learned how to read and write in English before taking college entrance exams. However, he rarely practiced speaking and listening at the time.

When Zhao came to Lehigh, he was recommended to participate in O’Neill’s workshop to improve his pronunciation. He said he has attended almost every workshop and he plans to attend as long as ICAPE and O’Neill continue hosting it.

“The big problem for Chinese students is how to pronounce or speak English fluently and correctly,” Zhao said. “That is a big part of things, so I want to learn more about how to speak like a native speaker.”

Zhao said O’Neill utilizes different teaching resources in each session, and his welcoming demeanor makes attendees feel very comfortable.

One activity O’Neill uses includes one student who watches a video, while another is turned away from them. The student watching the video describes it to their partner so they can imagine the scene in their mind. Afterward, they switch roles.

O’Neill said he always looks forward to teaching this group of students, as it’s more fun than formally teaching a course. In addition to not having homework, attendance is based on the desire to learn as opposed to being required.

“It’s enjoyable, and it reminds me of the ins and outs of any job, the ebbs and the flows,” O’Neill said. “This is why I like to be a teacher.”

The Pronunciation Group for Multilingual Students and Scholars is open to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni, spouses of the Lehigh community, Bethlehem community members and anybody who is interested in improving their English speaking and pronunciation. O’Neill plans to continue hosting this group throughout the summer and into the fall semester.

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