I’ve just completed a nine-hour block of sessions on phonology on the MA TESOL course that I’m teaching at the New School. Apart from the inevitable (and sometimes intractable) problems involved in reconfiguring my knowledge of phonology so as to accommodate North American accents, the question that simply will not go away is this: Can pronunciation be taught?
As a teacher, I have to confess that I can’t recall any enduring effects for teaching pronunciation in class – but then, I very seldom addressed it in any kind of segregated, pre-emptive fashion. Most of my ‘teaching’ of pronunciation was reactive – a case of responding to learners’ mispronunciations with either real or feigned incomprehension. There are only two pron-focused lessons that I can remember feeling good about: one was where I used an inductive approach to guide a group of fairly advanced learners to work out the rules (or, better, tendencies) of word stress in polysyllabic words (the students seemed generally impressed that the system was not as arbitrary as it had appeared), and another where I used a banal dialogue that happened to be in the students’ workbook to highlight the different spellings of the /ay/ phoneme – a lesson that was more about spelling than pronunciation, really – but, again, one that helped dispel the myth that there are zero sound-spelling relationships in English.
As a second language learner, any attempts to improve my pronunciation have fallen (almost literally) on deaf ears. I remember being told by a well-intentioned Spanish teacher: “Your problem is that you use the English ‘t’ sound instead of the Spanish one”. To which I replied, “No, the ‘t’ sound is the very least of my problems! My problem is that I don’t know the endings of the verbs, that I don’t have an extensive vocabulary, that I can’t produce more than two words at a time. … and so on”. That is to say, in the greater scheme of things, the phonetic rendering of a single consonant sound was not going to help me become a proficient speaker of Spanish. Nor was it something I would be able to focus any attention on, when my attention was so totally absorbed with simply getting the right words out in the right order. And nor, at the end of the day, would I ever be able to rid myself of my wretched English accent, however hard I tried (assuming, of course, I wanted to).
Hence, I’m fairly sceptical about the value of teaching pronunciation, and I suspect that most of the exercises and activities that belong to the canonical pron-teaching repertoire probably have only incidental learning benefits. A minimal pairs exercise (of the ship vs sheep type) might teach some useful vocabulary; a jazz chant might reinforce a frequently used chunk. But neither is likely to improve a learner’s pronunciation. Certain learners (a small minority, I suspect) with good ears and a real motivation to “sound like a native speaker” might just squeeze some benefit out of a pron lesson, but for the majority it will probably just wash right over them.
In An A-Z of ELT, I hint obliquely at these doubts – doubts which I claim are justified by research studies. What studies?
Well, here’s one for starters. In an early attempt to tease out the factors that predicted good pronunciation, Suter (1976) co-opted a panel of non-specialist informants to assess the pronunciation of 61 English learners from a range of language backgrounds and with different histories of exposure and instruction. Twelve biographical factors were found to correlate with good pronunciation, and, in a subsequent re-analysis of the data (Purcell and Suter 1980), these were reduced to just four. These four predictors of acceptable pronunciation were (in degree of importance):
- the learner’s first language (i.e., all things being equal, a speaker of, say, Swedish is more likely to pronounce English better than a speaker of, say, Vietnamese)
- aptitude for oral mimcry (i.e. ‘having a good ear’)
- length of residency in an English-speaking environment
- strength of concern for pronunciation accuracy
Significantly, none of the above factors is really within the teacher’s control (although the last – the motivtaional one – could arguably be nurtured by the teacher). Nevertheless, the learners’ histories of instruction seemed not to have impacted in any significant way on the accuracy of their pronunciation. The researchers commented: “One of the most obvious [implications of the study] relates to the fact that teachers and classrooms seem to have had remarkably little to do with how well our students pronounced English”.
Now, is this bad news (we can’t do much to help our learners achieve acceptable standards of pronunciation)? Or is it good news (we don’t have to teach pronunciation, and can spend the time saved on more important stuff)?
Purcell, E.T., and Suter, R.W. 1980. Predictors of Pronunciation Accuracy: a Re-examination. Language Learning, 30, 271-287.
Suter, R.W. 1976. Predictors of Pronunciation Accuracy in Second Language Learning. Language Learning, 26: 233-253.