Pronunciation – prioritizing is paramount

The teaching of English pronunciation is such a challenge. Maybe because there is so much to accomplish that we often feel overwhelmed, and perhaps even insecure of our own abilities to give learners what they need. Most of us will let the course books tell us what to do and when to do it, as they highlight phonemes and other segmental and suprasegmental features here and there, and provide exercises and phonemic charts. Many of us will use these when they come up, as suggested in the books. But whenever we teach new language items, we should make sure students are exposed to and get enough practice of the correct pronunciation of words and phrases. Also, in our everyday classroom practice, we know that correcting students’ mistakes is very important to help them achieve acceptable pronunciation. This is what many of us say we do at any sign of error. However, we can become so used to hearing recurrent errors that we do not notice them any more, especially if we teach monolingual groups!

But the most important aspect of pronunciation teaching may not be how we teach it, how much we teach it, or even what we teach. Perhaps the crucial question to consider is why we teach pronunciation. Only by asking ourselves this question, and finding a satisfactory answer to it, can we really have a clear picture of the importance of pronunciation in our students’ lives.

Being intelligible – i.e., able to make one’s meanings and intentions clear to a listener, according to a simple definition by Brazil (1994: 2) – is obviously essential, but it is not guaranteed by correct grammar and appropriate choice of words only. If the speech flow is not produced in such a way that listeners can recognize it, there will be confusion. Also, if our expectations of what words and phrases should sound like are inaccurate, we are not likely to understand what is said to us. This is what makes the teaching of pronunciation so important.

The aim of our teaching is basically to enable our learners to use English as a tool to communicate with people in a world where English has become a lingua franca. So it is crucial that their pronunciation is intelligible to a wide variety of interlocutors. However, that does not mean we should aim for a perfect, native-like pronunciation. As Walker (2002: 9) points out, ‘whilst it is perfectly legitimate for a student to aspire to a native speaker accent, it is surely wrong for a teacher, explicitly or otherwise, to push students to feel that anything other than this is an imperfection.’ Another important aspect to consider is the fact that learners will probably need English to communicate with speakers of other languages a lot more often than with native speakers (consider, for example, the expansion of trade between Brazil and African and Asian countries). If this is the case, we should concentrate on teaching our learners what is really essential to make themselves understood. In order to do that, as suggested by Jenkins (2000: 104), we must become aware of which pronunciation problems really do affect their intelligibility and which do not, rather than ‘shoot in all directions’. In most cases perfection proves impossible to achieve, and the quest for it tends to bring a lot of frustration to both teachers and learners, and does not provide any focus or aim. If international intelligibility is what we aim for, instead of aiming for native-like pronunciation in all areas, we must learn to prioritize our pronunciation teaching. By doing this, we will be able to establish which areas to tackle more intensely, and which to pay less attention to, and this will ultimately maximize our time and effort.

References

Brazil, D. (1994). Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English – Teacher’s Book. Cambridge: CUP.

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

Walker, R. (2002). Choosing a Model for Pronunciation – Accent Not Accident’. In: TESOL Spain Newsletter No. 25, 8–9.

Ricardo Sili

I’ve been in ELT for longer than I can remember – teaching, training teachers, designing and managing courses, and writing for Learning Factory (Interlink / New Interlink series), then Richmond (English ID Starter) and a few others. I’m fascinated by pronunciation and grammar teaching. And I have an MA in ELT, and an RSA Diploma. rsili@msn.com

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