Twenty things in twenty years part ten: the main point of focusing on pronunciation in class isn’t to improve pronunciation!

Pronunciation is quite possibly the most neglected area of language teaching. In many of the classes I’ve observed over the years, I’ve seen little or no attempt to work on pronunciation and where it IS focused on it’s often instinctive attempts at correcting mispronounced discrete phonemes of the kind we’re all so familiar with due to the phenomenal success of certain books that hone in one these areas.

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Part of the problem, of course, is that after a certain (very formative) point, time spent on pronunciation reaps very scant reward, especially when compared to other areas of language that one could work on. Imagine the degree to which you might expect your communicative competence to be boosted if you were to spend a hundred hours studying, developing and revising vocabulary – and then compare and contrast to what you might expect to gain in communicative terms if you were spend those hundred hours working on your pronunciation. In all but a few rare cases, there’d be no comparison.

Partly this is because – unlike other areas of language skill (with the possible, arguable exception of writing, of course), pronunciation is essentially a motor skill, and ultimately develops as a result of practice, practice and practice. And then some more practice after that – in much the same way as a musician learns a song by going over and over and over the fingering and the strumming and the chords and the notes, drilling them into the muscle memory until they become second nature.

When it comes to discrete phonemes, there is often little we can really do in the limited time that we inevitably have with. If students are struggling, say, to produce a /v/ instead of a /b/ or a /r/ instead of a /l/ we can stop them when they err; point out what they’re saying and show with our own mouths and voices how we would do it differently. We can explain and demonstrate that a /v/ sound is voiced and requires the bottom lip to raise up and touch against the two front upper teeth, for instance, and we can encourage students to practise, pointing out when they’re still doing it wrong – and once they nail it, telling them and encouraging them to remember the feel in the mouth the sound makes and to practise it at home. We can correct it again next time we here it, but really after that they’re pretty much on their own.

Some people seem to have a much better ear for the degree to which what they’re producing resembles the output or models they’re exposed to, and there’s also surely some kind of sociocultural / psychological element involved which must affect the degree to which many speakers try – and deliberately don’t try – to accommodate themselves to particular kinds of native-speaker norms. I’ve often pondered how it is that the manager of my beloved football club, Arsene Wenger, can have lived in London for almost two decades and can have learned English to such a remarkable degree and yet all the while has clung to more or less exactly the same kind of French-inflected accent he first arrived with.

Well, part of the problems seems to be the fact that accents stick very early on, and once we’ve passed a certain point, changing this is incredibly hard to do. Research findings on this obviously vary, but there does seem to be a considerable body of evidence to suggest that we start being primed in our own first language from our very earliest moments here on earth, and this priming seems to last. This, coupled with the kind of lingering class-bound prejudices and perceptions that once led George Bernard Shaw to observe that “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”, might explain the proliferation of accent reduction courses that prey on the insecurities and fears of NATIVE speakers. Obviously, if your priming in L1 has led to the production of sounds radically different to English, then you may well have problems unless quite an intense focus on pronunciation is made a central part of your early experience of learning the language. Debate rages on about whether or not there actually is a cut-off point beyond which it’s all-but impossible to acquire native-like pronunciation, but there does seem to be a fair amount of evidence to suggest that by the early twenties accents in a foreign language are already pretty fixed. All of this may well go some way towards explaining why I’ve met only perhaps three or four non-natives who didn’t live in a native-speaking country until they were adults who could nevertheless be mistaken for natives (as well as why the vast majority of non-natives I know who do live in native English-speaking environments are easily identifiable as non-native – often to their great annoyance – despite speaking amazingly good English). It also accounts for the Chinese and Thai students I somehow teach whose learning thus far has been both almost entirely based on written sources and also very much in vain as the English they have acquired is rendered unintelligible by their accents, which are rooted very strongly in the tonalties of their mother tongues.

To add a further level of complexity to these obvious issues, recent discourse about ELF – and particular the work of Jennifer Jenkins, who has written at length about what she sees a phonological core of ELF that allows communication unimpeded by lapses in intelligibility without forcing strict adherence to the native-speaker RP construct (as she sees it) – has (and I’ll be gracious here and add unintentionally) led to a furthering of the Why bother? attitude to pronunciation. The vast majority of discrete phoneme mistakes don’t affect intelligibility; natives can’t even agree on how to pronounce grass and castle, while the Irish (allegedly!) say TREE TREES to describe these things:

RevereMyThreeTrees

We’ve all got accents, even native speakers . . . so what if my students sound French or Russian or what-have-you? That’s because they are. I can understand them all, why bother? And so the self-justification continues. Given all of this, you may yourself by now be thinking why bother. What’s the point of slogging on with something so unrewarding and that offers so few noticeable signs of improvement in return for such hard work on your part?

Well, on one level, the point is that even incredibly fluent students, like the Finnish woman Hanna who I recently taught on a Pronunciation & Presentation Skills course, still fret (in what may, to many native speakers seem like an unnecessary manner, but this does not detract from the reality of these emotions) about their accents and feel they could be improved – often by moving closer to some perceived idealised native speaker mode, which often means RP. Interestingly, actually, non-natives seem far more concerned about the finer details of pron than most natives for whom a diversity of options is a norm. I’ve lost count of the number of times after a talk I’ve done a non-native teacher has asked me whether I say ofTen or off-en, for instance.

So there’s that, but even this argument about student desires, persuasive though it may be, still actually misses the point.

Because the main issue here is that the REAL reason for persisting with pronunciation is NOT because it has that much of an impact on students’ own pronunciation.

It’s because it’s help students LISTEN better.

For students, listening is hard for one of two reasons: either they’re hearing language that’s simply unknown to them, and thus they fail to understand it in the same way as they would if they were to see it written down – or else they’re hearing language that they’d be able to deal with if they saw it written down, but cannot grasp as it comes out in the acoustic blur of normal speed speech. This is often because their main exposure to language has been the written form; and because listening – and more crucially the inter-relationship between listening and pronunciation – has been neglected during the early stages of their language learning experience.

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If students cannot hear language that they are able to process when written down, it is rarely if ever because of issues with discrete phonemes. If it’s outside of the classroom, it may perhaps be because of a particularly unfamiliar or strong accent, though inside the classroom such accents are generally filtered out. This means that it’s down to what happens when we speak at speed: the use of weak forms, the elision of sounds at the beginning or end of words, the way words ending in consonants are linked to following words if they begin with vowels, the way we add in /w/ and /j/ sounds to link between vowels across words (as in the /j/ English or go /w/ ahead) and so on.

What this means is every time you take your time when modelling and drilling (both chorally and individually) the weak forms and linking and so on in a phrase like IT’S A BIT OF A NIGHTMARE or HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW, you’re helping the students get that little bit more used to how words sound when run together and said consecutively.

And while your efforts may or not impact positively on their own actual pronunciation, the chances are they’ll slowly contribute to your students being better able to distinguish language they have already studied when it comes at them think and fast in future listenings.

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8 responses

  1. Agree. I’ve taught pronunciation to my Korean high and middle school students, and I’ve pointed out HOW such are spoken by native English speakers. I model it, made them repeat it, but also told them this is exactly how they’re gonna hear it. Listening, though, can be one purpose, since, just like what you’ve said, students want an improved L2–by choice or preference. I spoke to one Korean student who’ve been living in Amsterdam for eight some years, and she speaks a high-MID L2 (low, mid, high, with upper and lower portions for each–my own construct) US variety, and she still wants to have a high high L2 for British English. Generally, though, I think, we teach pronunciation because of student motivation fueled by one, class identification or job pay potential and two, improved listening skill, to increase confidence when hearing native English speaking sounds, and also for these heard sounds to redound to a better production based on modeled sound intake.

    Another aspect I find myself taking the role of a motivator in my classes is the “why bother” question in the minds of some of my students. It’s easy, as in the above–for social and financial gains. But for those who don’t see the future, nor see a future without need for English, pronunciation studies is hard work with little returns. Students will leave class and forget (not make any effort) to practice, since, here in Korea, there’s no one to speak with in the first place. So, indeed, some don’t really bother at all. Nevertheless, I find that those who I’ve been teaching for a year or so, can understand me almost entirely when I explain, give instructions, engage in small talk or ask multiple questions. Not entirely because of pronunciation lessons, but simply because of the interaction I engage my students with both in class and outside. The point is, pronunciation lessons alone can’t help much students’ increased listening skills; a teacher may also need to add an informal in-class or out “genuine” engagement with students in a regular social setting. And, for a sensitive teacher, these little conversations will be a resource of raw materials for future English lessons.

  2. Hi Hugh
    This is an interesting point. Recently I started running extra, intensive listening classes after school for my students, because I wanted to experiment with really drilling down into the listening “skill” – recognizing weak forms, word boundaries, etc.

    I recorded myself saying some sentences quickly, then asked them to transcribe what I’d said (giving only the content words as clues), and we did a kind of ultimate gap fill using the first 60 seconds of the Today programme… that type of thing.

    Anyway, point is, I quickly found that the lesson was becoming as much a pronunciation class as it was listening. Students really seemed to benefit from trying to make the sounds they were hearing, and map this onto their understanding of the meaning of the phrase. It got us thinking about the kinds of unanalyzed lexical chunks that children learn, and how generative and downright useful some of these are.

    Having said it themselves a few times, they were more apt to hear it ‘clearly’ in future. I had the nice experience of a student saying ‘Waaa.. for the first time I hear this like you hear it! Clear as crystal!”

    It seems obvious, when you think about it, that this might be a good thing to do in language classes. But I confess I’d never even thought about doing it until a few months ago, and precious few course books seem to guide junior teachers in that direction: they tend to treat weak forms and the pronunciation / listening interface as something that gets put in a box near the bottom of the page, if at all. I’ll certainly be trying to shoe-horn it more into my regular classes from now on.

    1. Hi there -Many thanks for taking the time to write.
      Really glad to know you found this post of some interest.

      Interesting to read of your own experiences of how listening lessons often end up having a pron focus – as I think they should, of course, or else how else will students get better at hearing what they’re struggling to hear at the moment.

      Have you seen the Cool Speech app yet?
      It’s far and away the best pron / listening thing I’ve sen delivered technologically – and really helps students do exactly what you’re talking about above.
      Well worth recommending.

      I’ve often thought that we’d all be much better off if we were trained to think of listening lessons as being really more like HEARING lessons actually, so good to note that one of the main effects of your own experience there was students claiming to be able to finally HEAR you.

      With our INNOVATIONS series, we often tried to forefront the listening scripts, so students would do a listening without the script first to tests general comprehension.
      They’d then listen again whilst reading the script, and try to fill in some carefully selected gaps (always multi-word items).
      I’d play the CD a third time, stop after each gap, elicit the answers, write them on the board, drill them 9and maybe explain them as well of course) and move on.
      Students then asked about any new language they weren’t sure of and we dealt with that, extra examples going up on the baord, etc.
      Finally, students read the conversations out themselves, focusing on linking, weak forms, etc.

  3. […] Pronunciation is quite possibly the most neglected area of language teaching. In many of the classes I've observed over the years, I've seen little or no attempt to work on pronunciation and where …  […]

  4. Definitely agree with this post. I’ve taught Korean and Chinese students as well as Japanese students. The thing is it’s not about sounding American or British. The more important thing is to be globally comprehensible. I’ve learned that through training that it’s better to just focus on being understandable than sounding like a native speaker.

    1. Hi there –
      Thanks for the comment and for finding my blog in its obscure little corner of the Web!

      I think the real issue that for the vast majority of students, they’re never going to sound native-like anyway, so that’s simply an irrelevance.
      That’s not to say that most students don’t WANT to sound British or American or whatever. i think a lot actually do.
      Rather, it’s just recognising that it’s almost impossible goal and that insisting on native-like pron is a waste of time.

      However, I fear that many teachers the idea of international intelligibility encourages them to aim low and think “Oh well, it’s good enough!”
      This no longer becomes valid once you accept that the real goal behind focusing on pron is actually to develop the inner ear, top help students HEAR the language better (and of course, if there is any discernible improvement in actual output, all the better).

      Plus, done well, pronunciation in class should be FUN.
      It’s also a great leveller in that most students have at least SOME weaknesses and problem areas.

  5. Hi Hugh
    Thanks for bringing pronunciation into the limelight. This needs doing as often as possible, because as you rightly point out in your opening paragraph, pronunciation is the Cinderella of ELT. The IATEFL PronSIG (http://www.reading.ac.uk/epu/pronsig/) is trying hard to change this situation, and every time somebody with your prestige and profile brings pronunciation up, we’re really grateful. Making pronunciation meaningful to teachers and helping them to incorporate pronunciation teaching into their classes in a regular, principled way is our mission statement, in fact.

    It was also good to see you pointing out the obvious (but usually forgotten) fact that a lot of the problem with pronunciation is that it involves training muscles, which is no easy matter, as any top sports star will tell you. It took Rafa Nadal almost a year to change his serve, for example, and top golfers will flounder for even longer when they try to change their putting action. And these people are working full-time on making these changes!

    But the difficulty of modifying articulatory behaviours (especially in adults), shouldn’t allow us to take the Why bother? attitude you mention later in your post. Pronunciation is too important for that. All the research into intelligibility in spoken English, regardless of whether this be intelligibility in EFL or in ELF contexts, comes to the same conclusion – good pronunciation is critical to intelligibility. And as you know from when you watched my talk ‘Pronunciation Matters’ in TESOL-SPAIN in Madrid a couple of years ago, Hugh, it matters not just because of the impact it has on speaking and listening, but also because poor pronunciation also impacts on reading, learning vocabulary, using grammar effectively when speaking, and even the learners self-esteem.

    What is needed as a starting point, then, is that teachers acknowledge this importance, and in this respect come into line with their students, who survey after survey place pronunciation high up in their list of learner priorities. The next thing is for learners and teachers to discuss goals, an issue I blogged about recenty (http://www.teachitworld.com/custom_content/newsletters/TWN_June_13_long.html).

    Once we’ve agreed goals, and provided teachers have the basic knowledge and techniques needed to teach pronunciation, the learner’s own drive and motivation will do most of the rest, provided that from time to time there is some meaningful feedback from the teacher. Not everyone will progress at the same rate, but that’s no different to any other area of learning a language, and progress will be slow, and sometimes not that perceptible. But pronunciation is simply too important for it to be left to sort itself out, and so however imperceptible progress is, we need to spot it and make sure our learners spot it too.

    Once again, then, Hugh, thanks for giving pronunciation an airing. Bit by bit and with help from people like you, we’ll get to where we need to be.

    Robin Walker
    Newsletter Editor
    IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group

    PS. If anyone is interested ‘Pronunciation Matters’ should soon be out in article format in ETp (English Teaching professional).

  6. […] Dellar (2013, 19 July) “Twenty Things in Twenty Years Part Ten: The main point of focussing on pronunciation in class isn’…” Message posted to […]

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