P is for Pronunciation

1 08 2010

Read my lips

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.



62 responses

1 08 2010
Natalia Guerreiro

Mmmm… P is for polemical! So I thought I’d offer a different reality for consideration. I’m an Aviation English teacher, and as such I’m supposed to follow ICAO’s doc 9835 to the letter. The doc makes a summary of Jenkins’s work on ELF pronunciation and has intelligibility as a goal in pronunciation, both in teaching/learning and in assessment. Having said that, it’s very emphatic on the paramount importance of pronunciation in Av Eng teaching/learning (though obviously the yardstick isn’t NS pronunciation). In fact, there have been cases of aviation incidents/accidents due to mispronunciation, so much so that “roll” meaning “speed up on the runway for take-off” has been removed from international phraseology after a pilot mistakenly did that when the controller had meant him to “hold” (=wait). Of course in aviation accidents/incidents it’s never just one thing that leads to (possible) tragedy, but if we can at least try to prevent one of the factors…

P.S.: I’m a NNS of English, and my pronunciation has improved considerably, as has my colleagues’, after a 4-month course on English phonology, so I find it very hard to concede to the argument that pronunciation is unteachable, though I’ll grant you that English language teachers are hardly a cohort with no ear for languages.

1 08 2010

I wrote a comment, minimised the window to look up a reference – and my draft had gone. Boring. In summary ,I wrote that in my experience you cannot do much about permanently altering a learner’s individual sounds because they are related to perception or non-perception of contrasts non-existent in the mother tongue and anchored in physical habits, movements and positions of tongue and lips which are deeply embedded from the early years of one’s life. It is perhaps possible to make some permanent impact on the performance skills, reading aloud, for example, with pauses that turn a monotonous solo performance into something like a communicative act – reading to people instead of at them. And I mentioned exercises based on reading aloud the same passage boringly, hesitatingly, enthusiastically etc. where attention was focussed on overall skills . The reference I was looking for was details of the books of Colin Mortimer whom I once heard give a talk at the British Council Centre Portland Place, London entitled: “Need all pauses be gaps.” Many of his books, published by CUP, systematic, witty, fun to work with are still available, albeit second-hand at the well-known internet bookshop and I would especially recommend:

Phrasal Verbs in Conversation, Stress Time, Contractions, Clusters, Elements of Pronunciation.

There is a further book, Monologues – but I am not sure this is still in print.

A particularly interesting book on phonetics which the author stresses is a course and not a book about phonetics is:

A Course in Phonetics, Peter Ladefoged, Harcourt Brace 1993, 1982, 1975 ISBN 0 15 500913 – 3

1 08 2010

I’ve found that teaching pronunciation and listening (actually hearing and differentiating sounds) goes hand in hand. When a student gains a level of proficiency in these two areas then the rest of their English learning speeds up. This is consistent with what both Field and Rost say about the importance of listening.

I’ve always found focused pronunciation lessons to be beneficial if they are planned well. And the other benefits are like you said, to introduce vocab, chunks and grammar. I’ve also found that in learning Chinese, pronunciation needs to be nailed first, then the rest flows.

So what I really want to say is that pronunciation can be taught, and should be taught to make the learning process more efficient. Scott, from what I’ve read, it may be the only thing of yours which I disagree with. It is a very confronting skill to teach but learners confidence grows considerably when they start to be empowered with the skills to change and be flexible with their pronunciation.

1 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Mikey. I guess I’m not arguing that pronunciation can’t be taught – only that it’s not easily learned. Or that it’s learned by means other than direct instruction. I think your point about listening is a very good one – that is to say, sensitivity to what matters in pronunciation can be heightened through listening. And sensitivity to what the learner needs to do in order to become intelligible can be heightened in activities where the focus is on intelligibility. But random, segregated activities that focus on the three pronunciations of the past simple inflection (-ed) – well, I’m not so sure. Teachers may teach these “pronunciation macnuggets”, but what evidence do we have that learners learn them?

1 08 2010
Stephen Krashen

Agree with Scott Thornbury. I wrote a short paper coming to a similar conclusion in 1997: A Conjecture on Accent in a Second Language
Stephen Krashen
In: Z. Lengyel, J. Navracsics, and O. Simon (Eds.) 1997. Applied Linguistic Studies in Central Europe, vol 1. Department of Applied Linguistics, University of Veszprem, Hungary.

Not on the web anywhere. Write me at skrashen@yahoo.com and I’ll send a copy.

1 08 2010
Greg Quinlivan

OK, I’m a simple teacher, so I may be completely wrong. However, I assume you’re referring to incremental improvements that you might be trying to produce in intermediate or higher level students who have had significant exposure to English already.
I can’t imagine you would subscribe to the same conclusion in the case of beginners. For example, one group of my students are first grade elementary school Taiwanese kids. Many have never seen English Ietters before, and both their Chinese characters and “bopomofo” phonetic system are of no assistance for reading, writing or pronunciation of English. I can’t see myself standing in front of them with an alphabet flashcard and just letting them pronounce the letters any way they feel like on first exposure to them. If I showed them “a” and let them say “b” their chances of being able to communicate ANYTHING would be nil.
While I don’t expect many of them to ever approximate the pronunciation of a native speaker, I do hope they will get to the point where they can at least be understood by one.
Am I wasting my time and theirs?

1 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Greg – yes, clearly learners need initiation into basic sound-spelling relationships (in fact sound-spelling relationships are one aspect of pronunciation that I think are really worth drawing attention to) but it’s probably the case that the sounds that they do map on to English script will be their L1 sounds, despite the well-intentioned efforts of teachers to instil the phonetics of English through ship/sheep type activities.

1 08 2010
Alex Case

My own experience with Spanish is that although I never learnt how to do the difference between pero and perro in natural speech, I could make sounds that were distinguishable if I really concentrated or if someone asked me to confirm what I was saying. It ain’t a lot, but I found it useful, and aiming for at least that is enough to make me spend a fair bit of time on pron in class.

Other things that I think are worthwhile:
– Sentence stress, weak forms and linking for listening comprehension
– Spelling and pronunciation rules like the Magic E and ph being f
– Consonant clusters

Sure there must be others. Have recently noticed, however, that my much loved copy of Pronunciation Games is based on horribly Anglo-centric pronunciation

1 08 2010
Dave Dodgson

I’ve never been a fan of dedicated pronunciation lessons. I especially think that introducing the phonetic alphabet and transcribing words is taking it too far – beyond langauge learning and into linguistics! I see some value in focusing on word stress as I find most pronunciation problems my students stem from there. There is also the case of transference from L1 but this is best countered with practice.

Pronunciation is definitely something that needs time to be acquired, acquired not taught!

1 08 2010

I’m not sure whether pronunciation can be taught or not, and I fully relate to Scott’s “T” sound anecdote : sometimes students ask me to help them improve their pronunciation when there are so many more important things to improve.
But I do think that raising awareness to pronunciation is very important. I mean in general, making the students aware that, for instance, they have to *keep* the air when speaking French, otherwise, if stressing each single word, they are short of breath or will only make sentences of two or three words long. Helping the Japanese realise that speaking French in little separate sounds can be really confusing for a French person to understand, since linking the words gives a big part of the meaning.
I also find that “teaching” pronunciation can be very daunting for the students, and particularly the shy ones. Words, sounds come from a very personal part of us : our voice, and correcting the sounds somehow feels more personal than correcting a grammar error.
I view teaching/learning pronunciation as a very delicate sensitive and subtle matter.

1 08 2010

Hi Scott,

This is a very interesting point, and as someone said, P is for Polemical. As a non-NEST, and someone who’s never had the chance to live nor study abroad, I’ve always felt that pronunciation was one of the areas I lag behind my peers who had the chance to study abroad, or at least to spend more than 6 months travelling and getting the ‘real deal’ of English pronunciation. As a language student, I must say most, if not all of, my English teachers did not make any effort to teach learners pronunciation. I remember I couldn’t see a point in all those Greek letters we could see after the words in dictionaries.

However, after I attended a session by Adrian Underhill in 2000, I finally understood the reason for such symbols. It was only then that I realised there was something I could do regarding my pronunciation, and that there was a lot more to it than just the sounds. As Underhill usually points out, it’s not a matter of using RP as a model, but it’s about making yourself more easily understood by native speakers and, consequently, other speakers of the language.

It was then that I also got to know a bit more about all of the other features of pronunciation, and I agree with Alex when he said that sentence stress, weak forms, liaisons, elisions, and other features are paramount for learners to develop their listening skills. Jeff Stranks also wrote a nice article for the Braz-TESOL magazine in which he describes the importance of teaching pronunciation for the development of listening skills – and I agree with on that. Ever since I learned a bit more about phonetics and phonology, I’ve been teaching pronunciation to my learners with very satisfactory results. In addition to that, the reaction of most of my learners (I do believe we should always take our context into account so I need to talk about my learners) when they are first taught about the rhythm of the language, liaisons and elision is of shock and indignation. The most common utterance is, “How come no one had ever told us about this?” And I’m sure teachers do teach pronunciation, but some do not do so explicitly.

As we can see in Schmidt (The role of consciousness in second language learning), the fact that learners are consciously made aware of certain features can certainly make a difference, and not only in grammar and vocabulary. I guess Byalistok (“An analytical view of second language competence” and “The role of conscious strategies in Second Language Proficiency”) also has a sound explanation for the role of consciousness-raising in the language classroom. Be it acquired or learned, it’s extremely hard to find the difference between what’s been learned and what’s been acquired, but, in my opinion, learners who are consciously made aware of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation (the tripod of language teaching as we can see in Ur’s “A course in Language Teaching”) will find it much easier to use the language outside the classroom.

Finally, there’s also been a study carried out by a teacher in Brasília (Ronaldo) for his MA where he found evidence that teaching pronunciation can make a difference. Even though I haven’t carried out such research, I share the same opinion based on my personal experience with the teaching of pronunciation and the effects I could see in both speaking and listening.


Henrick Oprea

1 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Henrick, for your comment – and your non-NEST perspective. Regarding your point (that “the fact that learners are consciously made aware of certain features can certainly make a difference”) I would agree with Schmidt that – with regard to grammar and vocabulary – awareness helps ‘prime’ learners to notice the same (grammatical and lexical) features in naturally occuring input – but I’m not sure whether this also applies to features of pronunciation. These are much more difficult to discern – maybe virtually impossible for most adult learners.

The evidence on the success of training adult learners to discern and produce phonemic distinctions that don’t exist in their L1 is fairly disappointing. The learner’s neocortex becomes attuned to the phonemes of his/her L1 at a very young age, and thereafter loses its plasticity. As Nick Ellis writes

“Transfer which requires restructuring of exisiting categories is especially difficult. This is the essence of ‘perceptual magnet theory’ … in which the phonetic prototypes of one’s native language act like magnets… distorting the perception of items in their vicinity to make them seem more similar to the prototype. What are examples of two separate phonemic categories, /r/ and /l/, for an L1 English languge speaker are all from the same phonemic category for an L1 Japanese speaker. And in adulthood the Japanese native cannot but perceive /r/ and /l/ as one and the same. The same form category is activated on each hearing and incremented in strength as a result… Under normal L1 circumstances, usage optimally tunes the language system to the input. A sad irony for an L2 speaker under such circumstances of transfer is that more input simply compounds their error; they dig themselves even deeper into the hole created and subsequently entrenched by their L1”. (Selective Attention and Transfer Phenomena in L2 Acquisiiton… in Applied Linguistics 27/2, June 2006).

So, we can raise our learners’ awareness that there is a phoneme distinction in English that there isn’t in their L1, but they will have trouble perceiving it in natural talk, and even more trouble producing it. Just as you can “raise my awareness” that there are sounds that a bat can hear but that I can’t, though it won’t make me hear them.

15 08 2010
Ron Bradley

I have experimented with the /l/ and /r/ when teaching Honda executives in Japan and with some success. I began with the opposite approach, that of getting them to physically produce the American /r/ in initial position. They were quite surprised when they heard the results and then for at least a short time being able to clearly reproduce it. I simply had them say /u/, hold the rounded lip position, forcing the tongue toward the back of the mouth and saying “red”, and then slowly reflexing the tip of their tongue. With the tongue forced back, they could no longer reach the alveolar ridge. If they managed to keep their mouth rounded (and that was a trick, as they seemed to have a reflex action to suddenly smile) they would produce the correct /r/–I am sure to the chagrin of my British colleagues. I can remember one female student just light up!
So a sound that clearly is not in the repertoire of the Japanese sound system, now suddenly became accessible–and too, their awareness raised, perhaps enough to motivate them to continue “sounding funny” to themselves and to their world.

17 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Ron, for that comment. It’s always uplifting to hear of tales of success in pronunciation teaching, especially for a problem as intractable as the /l/ vs /r/ distinction. I suggest you film yourself demonstrating this technique with students – and make it available on YouTube. I reckon there would be a ton of teachers out there (I for one!) who would find it incredibly helpful.

1 08 2010

Hi again Scott,

Well, before I continue with my reply, I just need to make it clear that as I haven’t taught in any other country but Brazil, it might as well be that my answer is just too specific. However, I’ll try to use my experience and reading to elaborate on it. I hope it’s worth reading it. 😉

Thanks for the article. I’d been looking for it for ages ever since I first read it and my computer died on me. The idea of our sound system approximating foreign sounds to the closest known sound is something very noticeable in our reality as language teachers. For example, most Brazilian learners have difficulties with sounds such as /th/ (both voiced and voiceless), /i:/ and /i/, and the vowel sound in ‘man’. Now, if the teacher keeps asking them to listen and try to repeat the sound, most of them will find it pretty much impossible to discern one from the other. /th/ becomes /d/, /f/, or /s/. However, what I found useful was to ‘make pronunciation physical’ (to use Underhill’s words). When students can actually see how to position their tongue in the mouth, and are given time to think about the place and manner of articulation, I believe they’re more likely to actually learn not only how to produce the sound, but also to discern it when listening to it. My experience is that when students are consciously made aware of such features, they feel more confident. I don’t think there’s such a big difference between pronunciation and grammar and vocabulary.

For instance, when learners of a syllable-timed language are first taught that English is a stress-timed language and have the chance to practise it in class, they can then go home and watch a movie on cable TV (or even online) to see whether they can notice the difference. What I’ve found useful is doing a couple of CR exercises like the ones found in “How to teach pronunciation”, “Teaching pronunciation”, “Sound foundations” and “Pronunciation Games”, or simply using language produced by students to show them the rhythm of the language and then asking them to watch a sitcom, listen to a song, or watch the news and see whether or not they can notice such differences on their own.

I remember the first time I actually noticed some difference was when, in class, one of my students asked me what ‘zezifits’ meant. It was during a listening exercise and the sentence was, “It smells as if it’s burning”. One of the things that helped them was understanding that English, just like Portuguese, also has got some degrees of simplification in spoken language. I guess it helps if learners are asked to think about their L1 first – in Portuguese it could be something like “Dentro da”, which becomes “Denda” – and then explicitly show them that the same happens in L2.

As I said in the beginning of the reply, I haven’t had the chance to work with many learners from different nationalities and L1s. However, the very few students I had also seemed to have benefitted from CR of manner and place of articulation as well as supra-segmental features. At this moment I can distinctly remember a Serbian who had simply couldn’t hear the difference between /w/ and /v/. I obviously understand 1 particular student is not representative, but after one class when we spent a long time getting him to think about the positioning of his tongue, he could actually use it in the following classes, and could self-correct whenever he was told to think about what (or /vat/) he said. My impression was that it worked the same way that it does with students who say, “She don’t” and then are able to self-correct after just a look from the teacher.

Just to sum it up, and this is a genuine question, how does the work of a speech therapist go? I mean, isn’t it possible for people to learn how o produce sounds they couldn’t previously produce? Is it just a matter of talent for languages? I mean, I won’t mention English, which I only started learning at 11 or 12 years old, but there were many new sounds I learned when I started studying German and French, and this only happened when I was 28. If the teacher had not explained to me how to position my mouth, I would never have got it right simply by trying to listen and repeat.

Just as an example, this is an activity I’ve done to raise awareness of connected speech which seems to have worked. I’ve also received comments from other teachers who also tried it successfully in their classes: http://hoprea.wordpress.com/2010/04/09/linking-sounds/ This has been done with both teenagers and adults, and their pronunciation has certainly improved. If we reise their awareness to vocabulary and work with chunks, it only makes sense we focus on the correct pronunciation of chunks and make it clear this is a feature of the language they’re studying, right?

Awfully sorry for the long reply. It’s just that I’m really interested in sharing/learning a bit more about this topic, and I believe we learn a lot from discussing.

1 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for taking the time to outline your point of view, Rick, and to back it up with ideas for activities. I don’t deny that certain classroom pronunciation activities can show immediate benefits – but I question whether these benefits are durable. Do they last beyond the immediate lesson? I suspect that, in most cases, they don’t. Moreover, the learners who want to improve their pronunciation (or have an aptitude for it) will improve, and those who don’t (or haven’t) won’t – irrespective of what the teacher does.

Straightaway I’d qualify that statement, though, and say that the one potentially useful thing that the teacher can do is to clearly signal whenever a learner’s utterance is unintelligble (or would be unintelligible in ‘real life’). That is to say, the most effective way of raising awareness about pronunciation is not through making ‘pre-emptive strikes’ on learners’ pronunciation problems (real or imagined), but by providing unequivocal feedback. Learners themselves do this to each other when there is any mispronunciation-induced breakdown in communication. Hence, a language lesson in which learners need to be intelligible a lot of the time (e.g. when they are collaborating on a task in which they have some personal investment) is likely to be more useful for the learners’ pronunciation than a lesson that includes a one-off ‘pron activity’. (But of course this would also need to be demonsrated over the long term).

1 08 2010

What to make then of L1-homogeneous groups? All my students are Brazilian, as am I, so we are mutually intelligible almost 100% of the time because we have all been exposed to Brazilian accents. In fact, what to make of L1-heterogeneous groups after they’ve been exposed for some time to each other’s accents?

A quick anecdote to illustrate this: when I started teaching, I had a Peruvian student in my classroom. It was my first contact with English spoken by someone w/ Spanish as L1, and I simply couldn’t understand him. He was the most proficient std in terms of grammar and vocab, and Spanish is not that different from my L1 Portuguese, but still, in the beginning, his Brazilian classmates, who had been with him for a year and a half, had to keep repeating what the Peruvian student said back to me because I couldn’t make out a word. Nowadays, give me any Spanish-speaker and I can understand his/her English.

So considering that intelligibility is as much a feature of the listener as it is of the speaker, how could we expect to use communication breakdowns as a motivation to teach pronunciation?

1 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Excellent point, Natalia – and well made. It’s true that – without any need or opportunity to communicate beyond the immediate context – a speech community is likely to settle on a ‘lowest common denominatot’ of intelligibility. This is where the teacher a) might need to ‘play dumb’ in order to provide the incentive to use more target-like forms; b) should try and bring in non-specialist ‘foreign’ visitors to speak with the learners whenever possible; c) try and set up opportunities for interaction with other speakers outside the classroom, e.g. on skype. The experience of NOT being understood – as painful as it is – might be sufficient to kick-start a concern for pronunciation improvement, which might then be engineered through lots of exposure (e.g. to movies) and (private) imitation.

1 08 2010
Alan Tait

Hi all.

IMHO, I vote +1 for Mikey (correlation between ears and mouth) and +1 for Rick: I think consciousness-raising does work. Most of my students come to me with grammar cravings and nothing more. The importance of pronunciation doesn’t seem to count.

Also I use simple ordinary repetition of words and phrases, little but frequently.

PS Has any teacher here made audio recordings of students?

1 08 2010
Mila Navarro

Scott used the key word above – ‘primed’ – students need to be ready for learning (pronunciation or otherwise). I suspect that in order for pronunciation work to have a lasting effect, a real, conscious, CONTINUING effort needs to be made on the part of the learner.

Henrick mentioned a Serbian learner’s problem with /v/ and /w/. I’m a Czech EFL teacher living in Brazil. I have been a fluent speaker of English for almost 20 years and I still have to watch my /v/ and /w/! So, have I REALLY learned the sounds?

No matter how hard I try, after 10 years in Brazil I still can’t distinguish between ‘avó’ (grandma) and ‘avô’ (grandpa) – both when listening and speaking. Will I EVER be able to?

Jeremy Harmer asked an interesting question during his plenary at the ABCI conference last month: Why are you better at English than the people you studied with? I keep thinking it must be the real, conscious, continuing effort I’ve made AS A LEARNER.

As a teacher I can demonstrate, correct, raise awareness but in the end, all success is down the student’s persistence and a pinch (or two) of talent.

2 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Mila: “in order for pronunciation work to have a lasting effect, a real, conscious, CONTINUING effort needs to be made on the part of the learner”. I tend to agree, although I acknowledge that the teacher can be valuable support if he/she is able to help maintan the learner’s enthusiam, and provide appropritae direction. But it may be better done on a one-to-one basis than in class – a bit like the ‘speech therapist’ model that Henrick alluded to.

2 08 2010
Cecilia Coelho

Hi Scott,

I am going to quote Greg Quinlivan and warn you (and everyone else) I am a simple teacher. A simple, Brazilian-born-and-raised english teacher – in Brazil. I feel a little intimidated to leave a comment after reading the ones who came before me, for I by no means have the academic background I sense all who have written here have. But I’ll say what came to my mind anyway.

I was immediately grabbed by the question you proposed: “Can pronunciation be taught?”. I had never considered that. Of course I have, over the 17 years in which I’ve been teaching English, struggled with the task. It is in the schools’ curriculum, it is expected that I teach it to students – the school even offers special pronunciation workshops to students. But how many times have I had a sense of failure when my students couldn’t reproduce the sounds as I had taught them? Countless. Was I being ineffective? Had I not done it right? Your question actually brought some relief – I have to admit.

I understand (and agree with you) when you say you are not saying it can’t be done – that you’re question is how much that pseudo-learning will last. How long will they retain that? And if it won’t be retained, can it be considered teaching? It certainly can’t be considered learned.

I believe the four predictors of acceptable pronunciation hit the spot for most cases. I also (greatly) agree with Rick about the role of learner’s awareness of the pronunciation features, and how some of them (obviously the one with “good ears” mentioned in the predictors) can adjust their pronunciation to a more native-like one. As a language learner (of Spanish and French) I was very aware of the differences, the subtleties and worked hard on them, endlessly practicing and repeating them. And at the same time, while visiting relatives in Germany I was continuously reprimanded by my 5-year-old goddaughter (born and raised in Bremen) whenever I ordered a coke. Apparently, no matter how much attention I paid to the way she said it, to the sound or how hard I tried to reproduce it, I failed every time. I have to say it was a big blow to my ego, after being successful at my speaking other languages. What explains that? The first predictor? (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)? I would appreciate if anyone could shed some light at this, because I still can’t figure it out – and it still upsets me.

But I think that some of the most relevant features of pronunciation, the ones that make the students’ speech intelligible should be taught. Even if we’re not sure they’ll actually learn it, at least to make them aware of such features. My students will sometimes be exposed to (taught) something and then, some time after when the same thing comes up during an activity they may not know it (therefore learning did not take place) but they remember seeing it. And once I explain it again, I’d like to believe at least some of them will make a greater effort and actually learn it. Isn’t part of teaching the relentless presentation of things, some times one too many times, in the hopes students will “pick it up”?

All in all, I believe feedback is essential, focusing on whether the student would be understood by a native speaker – be it American, British, Australian or any other nationality that has English as their L1. And I do play “dumb” with the students too…most times it works.

It’s been both enlightening and educating read your post and the comments. Thanks Scott!

2 08 2010

‘All in all, I believe feedback is essential, focusing on whether the student would be understood by a native speaker – be it American, British, Australian or any other nationality that has English as their L1.’

I think the teacher’s task is to isolate those areas where communication with NON-native speakers of English from other L1 communities may break down if pronunciation is not improved.

I make that point because if a Spaniard tells me, a native speaker of English, that ‘worl is roun and not flat’, I can probably put two and two together from the context and co-text. But a Serb, say, who may not be able to ‘2 + 2’ needs that pronunciation to be clearer.

Remember that about 70% of the English that a non-native speaker uses will be with other non-natives.

What do others think?

2 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your generous comment, Cecilia – and to you Glennie, too, for making the point that achieving native-speaker-like standards may no longer be relevant. The problem is, many learners (and teachers) feel short-changed if the bar is lowered too much. (In her book English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity (OUP 2009) Jennifer Jenkins encountered considerable resistance to the (mistaken) idea that ELF implied an ‘anything goes’ position on pronunciation).

2 08 2010

Dear Scott,
I’m a Brazilian teacher trainer, textbook writer and course designer. A while ago I attempted to revamp the school’s high intermediate courses (B1+ish) placing heavier emphasis on listening and pronunciation.

So my way around the problem was to devise a dual pronunciation syllabus – one for production / one for recognition.

Production-geared syllabus: we would expose students to perennial pronunciation problems faced by Brazilian students, isolate sounds, have them repeat things and so on. We would tackle things such as the vowel sound in bus/brother/husband/country or, say, the TH sound.
Comprehension-geared syllabus: I selected excerpts from authentic video material and isolated elements of connected speech that at the time I felt might hider students’ comprehension: the silent H in sentences like “I hatim” = I hate him / the flap T in American English which is rarely understood by non native speakers / final ED endings as they connect to the the next vowel and so on and so forth.

At the end of the four terms, there was considerable improvement in comprehension and, to a lesser extent, in the sounds tackled in the production-geared syllabus. Students began to pay closer attention to how they sounded in English, which, strangely enough, seems to have crossed over into grammatical accuracy, too – they started to self-correct more often.

This small-scale experiment actually became a BRATESOL presentation and the links to the slideshows are available on my blog:


It was a pleasure to be able to respond to your post.

2 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Luiz – even though I am a sceptic, I’m delighted that teachers are taking these kinds of initiatives – if nothing else. small-scale studies such as yours play an important role in keeping teachers professionally alive, and often reflect on to the learners too – the so-called Hawthorne Effect, whereby the participants in an experiment who KNOW they are being experimented on out-perform those who don’t.
And, even if the experiment is small-scale and local, it’s useful to have studies that suggest follow-up research that is both larger-scale and more rigorous. Which makes me wonder, how exactly did you measure the improvements you noted? (Ah – now I should go and see you slideshow and see if the answers are there!)

2 08 2010

Dear Scott,
Thank you so much for taking the time to reply.

We tested those students through (1) a host of different listening tasks (mostly video-based) covering different subskills (comprehension-geared syllabus) and (2) reading outloud and freer speaking tasks (production-geared syllabus). (By the way, the results are not on the slideshow…) The students, however, did not know they were being experimented on. Since courses within the institution (Associação Alumni, Sao Paulo) are normally revamped every 4/5 years, to all intents and purposes, those students were simply taking a new, recently redesigned course.

Regardless of whatever results the project might have yielded (hard data), we received a lot of spontaneous, “soft” feedback from students, claiming that, for the first time ever, they were able to understand songs, movies etc. Now, whether this would’ve happened anyway regardless of the new course format we’ll never be able to prove.

2 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Luiz, for clarifying those details. I’m impressed and encouraged by your study. It makes sense that the more significant gains were in comprehension – and this is certainly something to feel good about. That there were SOME gains in production offers consolation to those who believe that pronunciation is both acquired AND learned.

2 08 2010
Paul Maglione

Another interesting post, Scott, and again I can only agree with your conclusions.

The one intriguing aspect of this topic is how younger second language learners, if lucky enough to be in an immersive environment, can seem to achieve correct pronunciation of the second language much better than adults. All around me are absolutely fluent non-native speakers of language who nevertheless retain their typical L1 accents, with car-crash effects on the L2 pronunciation; whereas their children, who have far lower levels of both fluency and accuracy in the L2 language, nevertheless speak it with little or no trace of L1 accent.

Is it children’s natural talent for mimicry, or a higher level of brain plasticity, or something else? The answer is probably of not of much use for helping adults with L2 pronunciation, but it constitutes an interesting linguistic or neuro-linguistic riddle nonetheless.

2 08 2010

[This is the third time I have tried to post a comment, but as far as I can see my first two attempts did not arrive, nor did they leave a trace in my “messages posted” file. Such is life on the internet. This time I am making a copy outside this system, just in case.]

1. I agree with all those who have said, in effect, that it is very hard for most individuals to change their pronunciation of a foreign language. This is related to the facts that:

1.1 Perception is involved – sounds have to be perceived before they can be copied, and many learners have permanent difficulty hearing sounds or distinguishing between similar but discrete sounds – phonemes – that do not exist in their mother tongue.

1.2 Even if some learners can correct their pronunciation of individual sounds when they are concentrating on them in isolation, the chances are that they will revert to their pre-intensive exercise pronunciations in the hurly-burly of live communication. Pronunciation is a physical matter, and the typical positions and movements of our lips and tongues is embedded in our behaviour from early childhood and only in rare case, with gifted individuals, can they be changed.

1.3 “Pronunciation” though, which in my remarks above I have taken to mean something like ‘the productions of individual sounds’ often means, in practice, many other aspect of spoken language that have already been referred to – intonation, rhythm, elisions, stress etc.

1.4 In my experience progress can be achieved and demonstrated in some of these other areas of spoken language. I always found that, for example, the practice of utterances spoken in different styles very productive, for example:

Say the following sentence in the indicated fashion.

“Would you like to come to the cinema with me this evening?

Over clearly

The advantage of such exercises, I found was that:

a) They are fun to do.
b) They involve pronunciation, stress, elision, the use of short forms, the ubiquitous schwa and all that jazz , but focus on effective performance and progress is quick and observable – and can be permanent or at least long-lasting.

1.5 My own teaching of pronunciation etc. benefited from my reading years ago, I forget where, that the old instruction: “Stand up to read aloud” should be changed to: “Don’t stand up, but look up.” The simple trick of reading TO an audience, by looking up from the text that is being read aloud instead of reading AT an audience – ‘barking at print’ – turns a monotone solo performance with eyes down, focussed on the text into a communicative act which includes eye contact with the audience.

1.6 Recalling 1.5 I am reminded of Colin Mortimer’s books – still to be found, albeit second-hand – on the well-known internet bookshop. (I first heard Colin Mortimer giving a talk which changed my approach to teaching spoken English some time in the 1960’s at the British Council Language Centre, Portland Place London. The suggestive title was: “Need all pauses be gaps?”).

If you do not know them I would recommend taking a look at the titles listed below. They are all systemic, witty and fun to to use. They all have (had) accompanying tapes. All books are, or were published by CUP.

Monologues, Phrasal Verbs in Conversation, Stress Time, Contractions, Clusters, Elements of Pronunciation.

Another publication I also found particularly helpful. It is a book, its author stresses , that is a course, not a book about Phonetics.

Peter Ladefoged, A Course in Phonetics Harcourt Brace Jovanovchi 1993 ISBN 0 15 500913 3

Third posting lucky?

3 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Apologies, Dennis – this is a belated acknowledgement of your post (and I’m sorry you had so much trouble posting, but very grateful that you perservered!)

Yes, I know Colin Mortimer’s books well – and often use extracts on teacher training sessions. But I suspect (consistent with my hypothesis!) that they have done more to raise teachers’ awareness than learners’.

I love your ‘look up’ principle of reading aloud – and there’s a whole thread that could be devoted to the benefits of reading aloud (but I think Jeremy H. has been there before me!)

2 08 2010

I’d definitely agree with Scott that there are a lot of areas of pronunciation which don’t seem teachable & learnable – because so much of the phoneme system is unconscious and ingrained – but also that there are some areas of pronunciation which can and should be taught: they tend to fall into the category of “consciously doing things with your voice to make a point”. Contrastive stress is the most obvious example, and that does find its way into materials, but there are other areas which seem compltely neglected One of them is how to “quote”, or in other words use direct speech. Usually this is done with a little pause and use of a higher pitch for the quoted words:

So I said to him, ^”That’s a good idea”^ and he said ^”Yeah?”^

The great thing about teaching this little point is that it’s not only consciously learnable (by adults), but it gives learners the option to avoid the whole fraught area of reported speech and tense shift, where students can easily tie themselves in knots with the grammar. And it just seems a more common, informal and vivid way to report a conversation. Maybe we can teach pronunciation, we’re just looking at the wrong bits?

2 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Keith. I agree that sentence stress (including contrastive stress) is probably more important – in terms of its communicative load’ – than the accurate pronunciation of individual sounds. Nevertheless, it seems to be late-acquired. I rememeber a former director oif mine, a Catalan who spoke impeccable and barely (Catalan) accented English, but who would still say things of the order: “My wife has a black car; I have a white CAR.” (That’s invented, but you get the idea). Perhaps concentrated instruction might have helped him get this right?

2 08 2010

Great topic, Scott! I’m glad to see many fellow Brazilian EFL teachers commenting, and I can notice a tendency in the comments: native-speaking ESL teachers tend to agree that pronunciation can’t be taught whereas non-NESTs (EFL) seem to believe in pron teaching. IMHO, this is a natural tendency due to the different teaching contexts. When you have a group of ss with different L1s, which pronunciation features will you choose to teach? No matter the rationale behind your choice (even behind Jennifer Jenkin’s Lingua Franca Core), the teaching points will be challenging for some students and irrelevant to others (like teaching /l/ vs. /r/ or /v/ vs. /b/ to Brazilians, which would be applicable to Japanese- and Spanish-speaking learners respectively). Therefore, I believe non-NESTs teaching in their home countries are in an advantageous position concerning pronunciation teaching for three main reasons: 1) We can tackle pron issues that are specifically difficult for our learners; 2) We, as non-NESTs, have, at some point, gone through the same difficulties of the L2 sounds; 3) We can provide ss with more corrective feedback than they would get just by living in an English-speaking country – native speakers interacting with foreigners in a natural setting will not correct them if the message is being conveyed, even if a few words are not understood, for politeness.

As Rick mentioned, my MA research questions were: “what are the effects of explicit and selected pronunciation teaching in the Brazilian EFL classroom?” and “If there are positive effects, are they durable?” I recorded ss (n. 30; 13/14-yr-olds; A2 CEFR level) reading words and sentences which contained sounds specially difficult for them (considering their L1, according to Avery and Ehrlich, 1992; Collins and Mees, 2008; Godoy, Gontow and Marcelino, 2006; Kelly, 2000; Yavaş, 2006; Zimmer, Silveira and Alves, 2009) before the intervention, right after the intervention and a year after the second recording. The intervention was 20 minutes of pron lessons per week (within their 200-hour-per-week EFL lessons) for four months (one school term). The improvement of the research group in the immediate post-test was immense (comparing the groups and analyzing individual ss’ performance) and statistically significant (with low p values for the various t-tests conducted). What struck me the most, though, was that in the delayed post-test, recorded a year after the second recording, in which I wanted to analyze the durability of the pron features taught in the intervention, I ended up finding out that ss from the research group had improved a lot in aspects of pron that weren’t addressed in the intervention, which shows the important role of raising ss’ awareness to pronunciation (as Rick already pointed out).

Of course there were a few ss in the research group that did not improve that much, which makes me agree with you when you replied to Rick saying that “learners who want to improve their pronunciation will improve it” and I believe that having pronunciation lessons which are specific to their needs (i.e. considering their L1 typology) will motivate them and have them want to improve their pronunciation. For example, when I tell my ss they might be saying “turd” instead of “third”, “cough” instead of “coffee” or “pen” instead of “pan” because of mispronunciation, they start feeling the need to focus on pronunciation. If not instructed, a Brazilian will probably say at a hotel “I need my kiss” meaning “I need my keys”… Of course, again, they should first be able to recognize the sounds (so they can create a new phonetic category, according to Flege), then to produce it in monitored situations and, with practice and corrective feedback, start using the sounds in a more automatic fashion – but isn’t this the natural flow for everything we teach?

Finally, I must say I believe that these pronunciation lessons should be incorporated to ss’ regular all-skills lessons, for pronunciation is part of communication and should thus be addressed as a sub skill of communicative compentence. And don’t we all already teach pronunciation in all our classes, while we’re working on grammar, vocabulary, conversational strategies, etc? Perhaps we are trying to answer the question “can pron be taught?” considering only the few very difficult pron difficulties.

On a final note, here is a snippet from the show The Big Bang Theory I have just created to show my ss two possibilities for final -s pronunciation, a distinction Brazilians would probably never notice, and eventually produce, were it not for explicit instruction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sC4Af2Y_fh8

(sorry for the very long comment….)

ronaldojunior on twitter

2 08 2010


Very interesting answer.

One thing though, I dont’ know if I got your post right, but teaching /b/ vs. /v/ is important for Spanish speakers. There’s no such differentiation in Spanish. There’s no /v/ sound in Spanish, thus words like vet, very are by Spanish speakers pronounced with /b/ or some variations depending on local dialects, if not properly trained.

3 08 2010

Hi Raul,
This is exactly what I meant. /r/ vs. /l/ is necessary for Japanese learners of English the same way /v/ vs. /b/ is necessary for Spanish speakers, and that’s why ESL educators as well as materials writers include these topics in their lessons. However, teaching these contrasts to Brazilians will probably bore them, and having Brazilian teachers tackle these contrasts will probably have them discredit pronunciation teaching, for these four sounds are clear individual phonemes in Brazilian Portuguese, and not allophones, as in Japanese for the first example and Spanish for the second.
ronaldojunior on twitter

2 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Ronaldo – I am impressed – and humbled – by your research study – research which (as I said to Luiz above) is sorely needed. I also think that your point about non-native speakers being better ‘guides’ with regard to pronunciation, is very well made. Apart from anything else, the non-NEST who has fluent and intelligible speech is both a more realistic model for learners, and one with whom they can identify more easily. (I’m a great advocate of the motivational value of playing learners recordings of people of their nationality speaking English well – such as Penelope Cruz or Javier Bardem, in the case of Spanish speakers).

All this makes me curious as to exactly what the 20 minutes of pron instruction involved (did it have primarily a segmental focus, for example?) and also how were the learners’ motivations engaged? Did they – for example – know they were part of a study (see earlier note about the Hawthorne Effect)? Did they discuss pronunciation in class, and were the goals of the program negotiated and/or individualised? These attitudinal factors, I suspect, might have a lot to do with their success – confirming the point I made in my original post, that learners who have a strong concern for pronunciaiton accuracy do better than learners who don’t – and that the teacher can be instrumental in fostering such a concern.

You mentioned Frege, and I couldn’t help resurrecting a posting of mine on an IATEFL discussion, where someone had cited his (Frege’s) research to justify classroom instruction of pronunciation. I made this comment:

Having skimmed a number of the Flege articles on his website, I am as convinced as ever that the effects of instruction are minimal compared to other factors, and Flege’s research seems to support the view that the operative factor in developing native-like pronunciation features is, simply, exposure. I can’t find a single study of his that measures the effects of instruction. Take the 1995 study (Flege, Tagaki and Mann: ‘Japanese adults can learn to pronounce /l/ and /r/ accurately’). The subjects for this study varied in length of residence from less than three years to up to 21 years. Unsurprisingly, those who were able to produce /l/ and /r/ with any accuracy were in the latter group. The optimism of the article’s title is qualified in the text itself: “MANY Japanese adults EVENTUALLY learn to produce /l/ and /r/ acurately” (p. 51, my emphasis). No effects for instrucion are recorded. Likewise, in a 2001 study on Chinese speakers (The effect of experience on adults’ acquisition of a second language), which assessed among other things the subjects’ ability to distinguish word-final consonants, “significantly higher scores were obtained for the students with relatively long LORs [lengths of residence] than for relatively short LORs.” The long LORs were up to 15 years in length, the short LORs less than 3.8 years. Again, effects for instruction were not considered. The motto is, if you want to improve your pronunciation, move to the US and listen to native-speakers.

Or go to Brazil and have Ronaldo for a teacher!

3 08 2010

Hi Scott,

Thanks for the taking the time to reply, and thank you for opening the opportunity for this conversation, moderated in such a way as to welcome all kinds of opinion.

Well, about my research, I dealt only with segmental features, but just to narrow the research down to the scope of an MA thesis (my research supervisor made me choose either segmentals or suprassegmentals not to make the thesis too long). About the Hawthorne effect, my students knew they were part of a study because our research committee asks for a letter of consent signed by their parents, but I don’t think this was problem. In fact, in a qualitative part of the research, I cross-examined their post-tests with interviews I had at the end of the intervention, which dealt with more attitudinal factors, like motivation and self-perception of improvement. I agree that motivation plays a key role, but also believe that teachers are paramount in generating motivation. Actually, the first intervention-class was devoted to talk about the importance of pronunciation and to (sorry for getting a little repetitive here) raise their awareness about it.

Something I have also noticed about this discussion is that the position educators take in relation to the effects of pronunciation teaching probably has something to do with where they stand in two other issues: the interface continuum of explicit teaching (or of explicit vs. implicit knowledge), and the critical period hypothesis. Probably, those who stand for a no-interface position for explicit instruction (things learned in the classroom aren’t transferred to the “acquisition system”), like Krashen and Prabhu, will probably say pronunciation can’t be taught (as Krashen did in a comment above). Those who take the Weak Interface position (some things learned in the classroom might be transferred to the “acquisition system”), like Focus on Form advocates (N. Ellis, R. Ellis, Robinson, Doughty, Williams, to mention a few), will take a mild position (perhaps like yours?), and those within the Strong Interface position (things learned in the classroom can be transferred to the “acquisition system”), like Robert Dekeyser, will have probably believe in the power of pronunciation instruction. I don’t like to take extreme positions in any issue, but in this case I have to advocate the strong-interface extreme end of the continuum, for all teaching we do in EFL is explicit and in the classroom, and I must believe it.

Concerning the second issue (the critical period), I think that those who believe there is a critical period for phonological acquisition (like Michael Long and David Singleton) will probably discredit pronunciation teaching and those who believe that some factors (like motivation) could challenge any critical period (like Theo Bongaerts and David Birdsong) will probably believe in the power of pronunciation instruction. (a third issue that I believe also influences this discussion is that of Ultimate Attainment of acquisition, but I won’t comment or I might get too off the topic).

Finally, about Flege, I have also gone through some of his studies now and agree that he doesn’t look into instruction. However, the awareness he says individuals must have about different L2 phonetic categories before they can actually produce these new sounds could be raised by language teachers, couldn’t it?

(sorry for the long comment again…)

ronaldojunior on twitter

3 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ronaldo, for your helpful answers to my queries.

Regarding the interface continuum, you are probably right to place me somewhere along the middle of the cline – everything I’ve written has argued for some kind of CR or noticing or focus on form WITHIN the context of communicative language use – even if only (following Schmidt) it acts to ‘prime’ the learner to notice occurences in naturalistic input, or (following Swain) it encourages active hypothesis testing. However, I do think that – for most learners anyway – awareness at the level of phonological features is very difficult to operationalise in real time. At the same time, I’m not averse to the idea of implicit learning (through bountiful exposure) translating into the acquisiton of some features that are not normally within one’s conscious grasp – intonation seems to be acquired very much in this way, and often through the appropriation of whole chunks of language, with their intonation contours intact: think of “What’s up?” or “Have a nice day!” or “How sad is that!” etc.

But I’m not sure why you feel that the EFL situaton requires adoption of an extreme (strong interface) position. Does the absence of plentiful exposure and the limited opportunities for real-life use really require the explicit teaching of EVERYTHING? Can’t the classroom (plus extra-curricular activities) create at least some learning opportunities that feed into acquisitional processes? If not, I find the outlook for EFL a little dispiriting! (But maybe this is a whole other thread!)

3 08 2010

Hi again Scott,

I completely agree with you about having implicit learning and generating implicit knowledge in the EFL context. I actually spend most part of my classes trying to foster implicit knowledge, especially now with the digital resources (which I like so much!) there is a lot that can be done to expose students to input. In fact, I think that whatever can be done implicitly and inductively should be done so.

What I mean by extreme end of the Strong Interface continuum is that I believe that everything taught explicitly can become implicit (highlighting *everything* and *can* and opposing it to the Weak Interface position: some of the things taught explicitly might become implicit, this time highlighting *some* and *might*). I think the following statement from Robert DeKeyser (2003, p. 315) summarizes my view on the matter:

“Even though implicitly acquired knowledge tends to remain implicit, and explicitly acquired knowledge tends to remain explicit, explicitly learned knowledge can become implicit in the sense that learners can lose awareness of its structures over time, and learners can become aware of the structures of implicit knowledge when attempting to access it, for example for applying it to a new context or conveying it verbally to somebody else.”

ronaldojunior on twitter

2 08 2010

Very interesting topic Scott! Your post has definetely brought up a lot of discussion! Well, like Ronaldo just put it, for us, NNSE’s, teaching pronunciation is very important and possible. Several arguments have been presented up to now, and I myself have had very positive experiences when immplementing different pronunciation methods.

But I’d like to call your attention on another one. Teaching pronunciation is not only possible, but necessary (not only for the learner, but for us, as teachers, too). As we all know, one thing that fosters the learning process is a sense of achievement. Through my experience, I’ve seen that one thing that brings students down about learning a language is the difficulty to sound like you’re actually speaking a different language. That is, to partially get rid of your most remarkable accentual features. So, if you can actually use phonetics and phonology to improve your students pronunciation and fluency (you choose which items to teach according to your students´first language) they will eventually produce some (only some) English sounds right. If you work on a phenomenon like assimilation (and put it into practise with very controlled, simple examples) they will find themselves sounding a little more ‘English’. That of course can be debatable, but if you manage to do that, motivation (according to my personal experience) will sky-rocket, making you life easier.

Anyway, food for thought here.

2 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Raul. I agree with your point that ‘nothing succeeds like success’. Unfortunately, in my experience, pronunciation teaching has seldom been successful (in terms of ‘bang for the buck’) as compared to – say – teaching vocabulary or grammar. But, if you can motivate stduents by showing them that their prounciation is improving incrementally – fantastic. Hence the value of recording students ‘before and after’ – as hinted at in a previous comment.

3 08 2010


Just wondered if anyone had considered using a language lab for helping students to a) listen to native speakers of their language of instruction and b) to practise their own pronunciation of that language. Today it’s possible to submit these files to their instructors as audio/video and for these in turn to be marked verbally (i.e. with correct native (or non as the case may be). Just a thought.


3 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Mark – yes, I do think that individualised, lab-type activities coupled with constructive feedback (e.g. not just scoring the accuracy of a learner’s output in terms of the closeness of its match with a model, but some practical indication as to how to achieve a closer fit) could be extremely useful for those learners who have ambitions in this area. In fact, if there was really useful software out there that did this, this could really save classroom teachers a whole lot of time and effort! Do you know of anything? (And please don’t say R*setta St*ne!)

4 08 2010

I think one of the most effective lessons I ever “taught” (the scare quotes are for a reason, as you’ll see) was with an Italian student who had to read a paper at a scientific conference (which was written by her in Italian and translated into English by someone else). Numerous problems with phonemes and stress, and a very monotonous intonation, rendered her reading of it barely comprehensible. The school had an old-fashioned language lab and I suggested she simply sat with her own voice looped through her own headphones and read the paper, marking up the text with pauses and stress. When she started hearing herself speak she grimaced (!) but within half an hour had made huge improvements. This was entirely self-directed – putting herself in the shoes of her own listeners had a powerful effect and she was quickly able to work out how to make her reading comprehensible. She didn’t need any external input on the ‘correct’ pronunciation.

Some of the ROMs that come with coursebooks enable the student to record themselves taking part in conversations, listening back, comparing with the original and so on (I’ve been working on one of these, but will refrain from plugging it on Scott’s site!). This is a powerful activity, but I would be very suspicious of any software that claims to ‘mark’ the student’s pronunciation.

4 08 2010
English Raven

I’m really glad you posted about this topic, Scott, and the contributions in the comment thread have been fascinating.

Given I teach TOEFL speaking skills online these days, pronunciation is a pretty big issue. Exacerbated by the horrifically tough preparation and speaking time limits, I’ve found that pronunciation is one of the first things to “go to the dogs” for a lot of students as they stumble and fumble their way through the TOEFL speaking tasks and try their best not to panic and collapse at the monitor. It also happens to be one of the main detractors from their overall scores, as the urge to speak quickly to cover sufficient content does tend to increase the chances of the students’ utterances becoming harder to understand.

Teaching online makes handling pronunciation harder to “teach” but in some ways easier for students to work on independently. Three sites I regularly refer students to are:


All of them appear to be helpful to some extent, but my main point is that having the students go away and work on these areas on their own does appear to be somewhat more effective than having a 1-1 session with me via video link and going over and practicing particular problematic areas.

The input here in this thread from Brazil really interests me. Given I have online students from around 30 different nationalities, it can be interesting to identify patterns with pronunciation issues.

Brazilian students preparing for TOEFL speaking (with my service), on the whole, have very good pronunciation. It is very clear and precise. Likewise, Korean students usually have very clear pronunciation. In both cases, they certainly manage to improve and correct small problems when they are pointed out to them.

I find this interesting because (from this thread it appears that) teaching pronunciation is a priority in the Brazilian context, and from my own experience I know it is also a major priority in Korea.

Students from other nationalities using my service appear to have much greater problems noticing and improving their pronunciation issues – most noticeably Indian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish students.

I have no idea how much this may have to do with L1 influence (although note the similarities between Brazil-Spain and Korea-China/Japan), or whether the approach to teaching English (and the specific role of teaching or highlighting pronunciation) in those various contexts has something to do with it.

Not sure I’ve added anything of major value to the discussion here, but thanks for the chance to share some observations.

– Jason

4 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jason, for that valuable insight into TOEFL speaking preparation. It set me wondering if there is a list somewhere that ranks languages in terms of their ‘phonological distance’ from English. If we take seriously the finding of Purcell and Suter (cited in my initial blog post) that the single most important predictor of pronunciation accuracy is the learner’s L1, then such a list woud be fairly useful – especially to a bloke like yourself who is preparing students from a wide variety of language backgrounds. My intuition would be that Spanish speakers are fairly low down in the list, whereas Portuguese speakers are much higher. Any takers?

4 08 2010
English Raven

Hi Scott,

Yes, such a list certainly would be useful to someone like me (preparing learners from so many different nationalities for the speaking component of a major test)!

But based on the discussion so far in this thread, I think a separate list indicating which countries dedicate more specific time and awareness to pronunciation issues through their general approaches to teaching English could also be very helpful. My feeling is that this would help me identify learners which may have greater or lesser awareness of pronunciation and how to go about improving it.

That in combination with the “closeness” list would be really interesting to analyse, and extremely useful for teaching!

Put it this way – Indian and Russian students have (by far, based on my limited observations in this online program) the greatest problems when it comes to improving and making any real difference in their pronunciation – even when certain problems are specifically pointed out to them. Now does this come down to (a) how ‘distant’ their L1s are from English in terms of pronunciation? or (b) how they have learned English in the past (and from whom) and how much pronunciation was prioritised? or (c) a combination of both?

(b) could perhaps be broken down into two further distinctions – whom the learners had to model their pronunciation from (as in teachers and local speakers of English), and how much awareness raising and strategies relative to pronunciation were characteristic of the learning programs they were part of.

Interestinger and interestinger!

4 08 2010
English Raven

Sorry Scott – those elements I’ve mentioned about influence of teaching, prioritisation of pronunciation, strategies, teachers’ own pronunciation models, students sensitivity to pronunciation, etc. aren’t actually all that hard to align to the other indicators you mentioned from the Purcell and Suter study – namely:

-> aptitude for oral mimcry (i.e. ‘having a good ear’)

-> length of residency in an English-speaking environment

-> strength of concern for pronunciation accuracy

I think these three factors have direct correlations to how teachers teach English (including pronunciation), as well as how well (and how much) they speak it in class. Different wording in some ways, but not incompatible factors, and based on that I find those four original biographical factors fairly convincing.

7 08 2010

I tend to agree with the view of teaching pronunciation on a reactionary level and at the level of connected speech – preferably with a context and link to other skills rather than phoneme.

In my teaching experience I’ve also not really seen any dramatic improvement in “teaching” pronunciation as such, at the level of the phoneme.

Teaching features of connected speech has been more useful, not only in terms of aiding students in the sense of encouraging them to sound “more native like” but more importantly perhaps in raising their awareness of how the language is used by fluent speakers – going more into the realm of improving listening comprehension.

Often after a listening activity if there is a transcript I might then use that script so that students can practise and recognize these features of connected speech making the sound/sight connection.

Regarding the teaching of individual sounds in isolation, one potential for confusion is there is clearly a wide range of accents in the English language.

While the students may hear “Queens English” or “RP” in certain situations – at Buckingham palace perhaps! More likely students will be exposed to a wide variety of accents including non-native accents. Instead of looking at individual sounds in class, I tend to think it’s more useful to teach a variety of phrases they can use when they don’t understand something – to ask for clarification.

Very interesting to hear other teachers contributions, especially those who do teach pron. directly.

7 08 2010
Dennis Newson

I work with a Romanian adult learner one hour a day using Skype at the unbelievable time of 06:30 – 07:30 local time. ( He works from his home in Romania, I from my own in Germany). This particular person is exploring many ways of learning English and sometimes spends up to 18 hours a day in Second Life attending various classes, speaking English in a number of groups and with different individuals and even organising a group himself who, like him, believe in and enjoy and get something from reading aloud in English to each other. And he has found a role for me. I do what amounts to pronunciation, and we do it the following way, a subtle blend of what he believes he wants and in what I believe has some point in doing with him.

I chose a short recording I had converted to an mp3 file of a short interview with and brief programme about the outstanding TEFL character and one-book author, Lionel Billows. ( F.L. Billows, The Techniques of Language Teaching Longman, 1961 ISBN 0 582 52505 5 – sadly, out of print).

The original BBC Radio 4 interview was entitled: THE GLASS NOT THE WINE

Here it is:


I chose this passage because of its content and its interest to anyone like C. interested in learning and teaching languages. It is a gem – Lionel’s voice, some of his anecdotes and the reading of some of his short, specially written, autobiographical but unpublished pieces for use in learning and teaching EFL.

A colleague has provided me with a link to a free programme that allows two people to listen synchronously on Skype to the same sound file with one person able to start, pause, re-wind and fast forward just as one can on an almost obsolescent tape recorder.

For this particular learner we seem to have hit on a method that is both thorough and satisfying. He sees his aim as practising speaking faster and more accurately. I can see that we are examining an example of intrinsically interesting spoken English in minute detail and giving the willing and cooperative learner intensive practice in listening to and speaking chosen examples of “authentic” English as accurately as he can manage. I am not, personally, concerned with the speed of his utterances, and he already speaks an English that is comfortably comprehensible, but I hope what I am giving him, largely, is ear training so that he will gradually find the speaking of “authentic” English by natives and others using English easier to understand.

We listen. Pause, C tries to repeat what he thinks he has heard, he has agreed – after long, long discussion and negotiation – to work without a text – and practices saying parts of sentences, whole sentences, try to mimic Lionel and me with regard to pronunciation, stress, intonation, speed – with particular attention to short forms, elisions etc. And he loves the approach. Using a term he has picked up from an online course he refers to it as “deep learning” by which he seems to understand dealing with the language we examine and practice in depth both in terms of meaning, significance and phonetic realisation. As self-imposed homework he writes a transcription of what we have worked on during the hour and sends this as a message to me on Skype. Each session begins with going through his transcription and comparing it with the original recording.

7 08 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Dennis, for that fascinating account of your work with your private student (this student needs a name, even if invented, as I am sure he is soon to enter the annals of ELT history!).

The procedure that you describe seems not a million miles away from the Community Language Learning (CLL) technique called “the Human Computer”. Here’s how Diane Larsen-Freeman describes its application in a class of Indonesian learners of English (in Techniques and Principles of Language Teaching, 2nd edn. OUP 2000):

For the next activity, the “Human Computer”, the students are told in a warm manner, ‘For the next 5 to 10 minutes I’m going to turn into a “human computer” for you. You may use me to practice the pronunciation of any English word or phrase or entire sentence on the transcript. Raise your hand and I’ll come behind you. Then you say either the sentence number or the word in English or Indonesian you want to practice. As the computer I am programmed to give back only correct English, so you will have to listen carefully to see if what you say matches what I am saying. You may repeat the word, phrase, or sentence as many times as you want. I will stop only when you stop. You control me; you turn the computer on and off.’

A student raises his hand and says, ‘Thank you.’ He has trouble with the sound of the beginning of ‘thank.’ The teacher repeats the phrase after him and the student says it again. The teacher repeats it. Three more times the student starts the computer by saying, ‘Thank you.’ After the teacher has said it for the third time, student stops, which in turn stops the computer.
(p. 93)

Larsen Freeman comments: “The teacher does not correct the students’ mispronunciation in any way. It is through the teachers consistent manner of repeating the word or phrase clearly that the student self corrects as he or she tries to imitate the teacher’s model.” (p. 104)

(Ironically, I keyed in those quotes by reading them aloud to voice recognition software: the process of training learners to decode spoken English is perhaps not that different from the processes involved in training your voice recognition software to respond to your own accent and vocal features).

7 08 2010
Dennis Newson

I hereby christen my student MIHAI since it a name from his country but contains none of the letters of his own name!

19 09 2010
Robert C.

Hi Scott,

I’m a teacher from North America with a lot of experience teaching Koreans, who have the same /r/ /l/ problems as Japanese students along with /j/ and /z/ issues.

Long before becoming a teacher, my nephew had his own speech problem: he pronounced both /l/ and /r/ with a North American /r/ sound. I’m guessing that it came from a speech-pathologist, but he practiced correcting himself with the sentences “Ryan killed the lion.” and “The lion killed Ryan.”

In turn, I’ve used this when pronunciation comes up with my students (typically university-age). I’ll say it and have them repeat. My experience is that almost everyone fails on the first attempt, but half the students will self-correct and get it right on the second attempt. Others will struggle but have the motivation of seeing other students succeed. I also came up with “The Jew went to the zoo.” to address /j/ and /z/ with similar results.

I’d conclude that a) chunking as opposed to minimal pairs introduces an element of meaning that is critical to success and b) I wonder if there is a disconnect between the fields of language teaching and speech-pathology (sort of echoing ideas put forth by Rick above). Maybe important help is lurking in the academic department next door?

On an entirely different note, I was intrigued by your anecdote about Spanish. Not to be provocative, but doesn’t your ignoring your teacher and focusing on word endings and longer utterances hint at obsessive grammar syndrome on your part?


9 10 2010

Hi Scott!

I think teaching phonetics and phonology is absolutely essential in EFL. I believe it’s a matter of making your students aware of certain features which they may not find in their L1 and which may help them understand native speakers better.

See what I say on my blog:


26 06 2011

Any thoughts on this quote: “Guiora (1972), in attempting to explain the ability of some people to acquire native-like pronunciation in a second language, developed the notion of ‘language ego’. He sees language ego as a parallel to the Freudian construct, body ego. In the course of general ego development the child acquires body ego by which he becomes aware of the limits of his physical being and learns to distinguish himself from the object world around him. In similar fashion, in the course of general ego development, the child acquires a sense of the boundaries of his language. The sounds, words, syntax and morphology of his language become objectified and develop firm outlines and boundaries. In the early stages of development, language ego boundaries are permeable, but later they become fixed and rigid.”
Schumann, J.H. (1977). The acculturation model for second language acquisition. In
Gingras, R.C. (ed.), Second language acquisition and foreign language
teaching. Arlington, Va.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

26 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that quote, Zeeko. I am familiair with the notion of ‘ego permeability’ but I hadn’t heard it spelt out quite like that. Wasn’t it also Guiora who attempted to show how these ‘boundaries’ could be dissolved by administering small-ish quantitities of alcohol, with positive effects on pronunciation?

26 06 2011

Zeeko and Scott,

Not only alcohol, but he also tested lowering the boundaries with valium! And Schumann tested it with hypnosis! Here are the references:

GUIORA, A.; ACTON, W.; ERARD, R.; STRICKLAND, F. (1980) The effects of benzodiazepine (Valium) on permeability of language ego boundaries. Language Learning, v. 30, p. 351-363

SCHUMANN, J.; HOLROYD, J.; CAMPBELL, N.; WARD, F. (1978) Improvement of foreign language pronunciation under hypnosis: a preliminary study. Language Learning, v. 28, p. 143-148.

27 06 2011

True. Alcohol was used by Guiora as a disinhibitor. Other studies used hypnotism as a disinhibitor. This was because rigidity of ego boundaries were equated with heightened levels of inhibition. The reasoning was that if inhibition levels could be lowered, ego rigidity would be reduced and ego permeability would be enhanced. Could teachers lower inhibition levels in the classroom by other means?

14 04 2016

Pronunciation is the cendrilla of English language and her sisters are lexis and grammar. This is how Adrian Underhill describes pronunciation, which is unforgettable, since this what perfectly reflects the truth.

20 03 2017

While teaching pronunciation is considered as an ignored area as teachers do not seem to have the required knowledge to actually teach such a skill, it is a fundamental part in SLL. An explicit relationship between pronunciation, listening and speaking is evident. That is to say that developing on skill would highly depend on the other and if we neglect pronunciation teaching, this might affect the progress of other skills. Moreover, there are situations in the language classroom where the teacher needs to teach pronunciation either because it is part of the curriculum or it might be the case where students need to develop their oral performance. It should be noted that the aim of teaching pronunciation is not to make native-like learners but to encourage learners to make comprehensible conversation. Thus, pronunciation should be taught to facilitate the language learning process.

18 08 2018
Sijoy Paul

I would like to note some queries about the topic as such as a research scholar in ELT. I am from India.
with regard to the Pronunciation, I think, it can be trained (purposefully, not taught) to an extend where the L1 influence may not be visible, if the learner is trained in from a primary or secondary level.
secondly, I have a question, Can pronunciation Instruction be a tool for enhancing Language sub skills?.
if there is anyone could reply to this do as I would embark my research on the same topic.

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