Pronunciation in the spotlight

Recently, I was asked to lead an in-service session on Pronunciation. I was given about an hour and a half to cover sentence stress, intonation, features of connected speech, word stress and phonemes. Not an easy task considering how much is involved in articulating speech. Maybe we under-estimate it? For ‘teaching’ pronunciation encompasses much more than just modelling and getting the students to repeat.

I  started off by telling the participants that I have lost count of the number of times, when observing teachers in action, that I have ‘missed’ that part of the lesson where correct pronunciation is clarified for the students. More often than not, the grammatical form is adequately dealt with, and a suitable amount of time is devoted to meaning. However, pronunciation more often than not seems either to be added on as an after thought, or omitted altogether.

I asked the participants at the start of the session why this might be the case, and considering that all of them were Brazilians, some of their replies are quite interesting:

Pronunciation will be picked up by the student and doesn’t need to be taught

This may well be the case, and there are plenty of examples of students of foreign languages who have mastered the pronunciation of the target language to a proficient level without any teaching. However, there are learners who seem unable to articulate the features of pronunciation in an intelligible manner, despite being exposed to the target language for a long period of time. This may be due to the fact that these people are unable to perceive the features in the first place. Which is where the teacher steps in.

Pronunciation is too difficult to teach

If you are really going to teach students pronunciation then you need to have a pretty good grasp of what it involves and how it works. There is a lot involved and the more you analyse the language the more complex it becomes. Many teachers come from backgrounds where the teaching of grammar is king and as such they are familiar with the terminology to describe grammatical structures. The same cannot, however, be said of pronunciation.

Teachers do not feel confident enough to teach pronunciation

This might be related to the comment above about the complexity of the subject. However, there might also be another reason. Pronunciation teaching demands that teachers put themselves on the line by displaying their own pronunciation in front of a group of leaners. Maybe teachers’ aversion to teaching pronunciation is caused by not wanting to lose face. Although we might be sure we have more grammatical knowledge about the target language, can we be sure we have a more articulate pronunciation than the people we are supposed to be teaching?

Teachers’ previous learning experience

A teacher’s own experience of learning  their own, or a foreign language might also have something to do with avoiding pronunciation. In Brazil, at least, there has always been a heavy onus on structural grammar teaching. Until more recently, more communicative approaches have not got a look in. Hence, pronunciation has not needed to be addressed. Maybe teachers adopt this attitude in their own teaching?

Students don’t enjoy it or don’t perceive the need

I found this belief the most surprising. However, it was pointed out that some learners find it all a bit too childish. This may be due to the way that the pronunciation is taught. For some adults, I can imagine that constant repetition might be perceived this way. Also, some learners might not see the need for pronunciation practice, believing that they will pick it up naturally or there are more important things to learn, such as grammar. If this is the case, then it is up to the teacher to change these misconceptions.

So, after an interesting discussion and helter-skelter session, we came to the conclusion that although the area of pronunciation is highly complex, it is an area of language which is just as important as grammar and meaning, and therefore cannot be ignored or treated as an after thought. Hence, we need to find responses to the beliefs made above if we are to put pronunciation back at the centre of language teaching.

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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