A brand new book from Oxford University Press, called Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, has just come my way. I have to declare a slight interest here: its author, Robin Walker, like me lives in Spain and we often coincide on ‘the circuit’. Apart from being a great speaker and thoroughly nice person, he is a passionate defender of the teaching of pronunciation, and, especially, of the teaching of the pronunciation of English as a lingua franca (ELF). I can’t think of a person better qualified, therefore, to provide what is effectively the long-awaited and more practical follow-up to Jennifer Jenkins’ seminal book, The Phonology of English as an International Language (2000, Oxford University Press).
In the entry under phonological core in An A-Z of ELT, I defined it as being “those features of pronunciation that are considered essential in order to be understood when speaking English as an International Language (EIL)”. I went on to say that “proponents of the phonological core challenge the traditional view that the best model for teaching English pronunciation should be a native speaker one, and received pronunciation (RP) in particular. RP is used in native speaker-to-native speaker communication, but it is considered both unrealistic and inappropriate as a standard for English in its role as a global lingua franca…”
There’s no hint here of the controversy that the notions of both English as a lingua franca and the phonologicial core (PC) have generated. Jenkins’ subsequent book (2007), reviews – and attempts to defuse – some of this heat. Likewise, Robin Walker devotes a large section of his new book to demystifying some of the ‘concerns’ associated with an ELF approach, a principal one being that the phonological core represents a lowering of standards. As he points out, the standards are no less high, simply different. He might also have asked why the selection of certain core features of pronunciation to teach is equated with a lowering of standards, while selecting core vocabulary or core grammar is not? Language teaching, after all, has always involved prioritising certain features of the language at the (perhaps temporary) expense of others. And even if it’s the case that the bar has been lowered, isn’t it more realistic to make intelligibility your goal rather than the (virtually unachievable) goal of native-like accuracy (whatever that is)? Moreover, those, like Phillipson (2009), who critique ELF on ideological grounds, and equate it with linguistic imperialism, should be appeased (but probabaly won’t be) by the argument that ELF is a NNS-generated variety, not a NS imposed one. In short, Robin makes a good case for the phonological core, and for this alone the book is worth reading.
If I have any problem with the notion of the phonological core, it is that – useful as it is to know those features of pronunciation without which ELF communication is at risk – the exclusive focus on a set of discrete phonological features perhaps misrepresents, or under-represents, the notion of intelligibility. Successful communication, after all, is contingent on a great many more factors than simply pronunciation – not least the need and willingness of the communicating parties to communicate! In the end, it is not accents that are intelligible, but people – using all their available linguistic, paralinguistic, and metalinguistic skills.
To his credit, Walker (like Jenkins before him) acknowledges the importance of teaching what are called accommodation skills, accomodation being “the ability to adjust your speech and other aspects of spoken communication so that they become more (or less) like that of your interlocutors” (Walker, p.197). It’s not unlike the way I accomodate to the voice recognition software I’m using at the moment, by enunciating slightly more deliberately, and the way – over time – that the software accommodates to me, by remembering, for example, that there is a scholar called Vygotsky, not ‘the got ski’. Walker usefully integrates the teaching of accommodation skills into his suggested syllabus for ELF pronunciation, and recommends, as one way of doing this, having students dictate texts to one another.
Teaching communication skills of a more general kind may also help overcome differences in accent perception. As Kirkpatrick (2007) says: “Students … need to be taught the communicative strategies that aid successful cross-cultural communication […] These strategies include the accommodation of different linguistic and sociolinguistic norms and a range of repair strategies which can be used in the face of misunderstanding” (p. 194).
As a corollary to my initial doubt, I’m also wondering if the phonological core is less a cause of intelligibility than its consequence. That is to say (and to take an emergentist perspective), the PC must surely have developed out of the repeated co-adaptations over time of non-native speakers compelled to be mutually intelligible. Given a need and a willingness to communicate, something similar is likely to emerge in any discourse community whose members only partly share a common code. A (multi-lingual) classroom is just such a community.
According to this view, rather than adopting a top-down approach and teaching the discrete features of the PC (by using, for example, the many practical ideas that Walker provides), it might be as effective, or even more so, to have learners discover for themselves how to maximise intelligibility, simply through taking part in real-life, purposeful communication. Tantalisingly, Jenkins hints at just such a bottom-up approach herself, when she says, “the point of the LFC [lingua franca core] is that the pronunciation norms in any given interaction are determined by ELF users themselves” (2007, p.26). If this is the case, why not let the learners discover for themselves what it is to become a successful communicator? The skills and strategies that they develop in the ‘small culture’ of the classroom should be exportable to the big culture of the lingua franca world.
The problem is, of course, that in classrooms where all learners share the same L1, a locally-generated and mutually-intelligible accent will have very little export value: a Spanish-speaker speaking English to another Spanish-speaker will not need to make any adjustments or concessions in terms of accent – a point that Walker is well aware of, and a context for which his excellent practical ideas would really come into their own.
Jenkins, J. (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford University Press.
Kirkpatrick, A. (2007) World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.
Phillipson, R. (2009) Linguistic Imperialism Continued. Routledge.