TeachingEnglish
      Teacher-induced Neuroses: Pronunciation Angst

      Dear Readers, It's pretty quiet out there! I'm beginning to wonder whether everyone is Christmas shopping!!  Or are my entries on teacher-induced neuroses simply too near the bone? Today I want to write a little about pronunciation.  First, a few questions for you to think about before reading what follows:

      1. Is your own pronunciation perfect?  Does it need to be?
      2. If you are a non-native speaker, how do you like the way you sound in English?
      3. What do you do to help your learners tune into English?
      4. How do you respond when a learner mispronouces a word?

      Now a few remarks related to each of the four questions:

      1. Very few non-native speakers attain native-like pronunciation.  I don't think it matters, as long as a teacher can give learners a reasonable model to follow.  There is plenty of recorded material available to present native speaker models whenever a teacher feels it is important to do so.  I was once given the task, at a language school in Bournemouth, of working for an hour a day over two weeks on a German speaker's /r/ sound.  She was worried that it was betraying her as a non-native and had persuaded her company to send her over to England for 'remedial treatment'.  Her spoken English was just fine but she did have this one fixation.  The harder she tried, the worse it got, and I think she went back to Switzerland more worried about it than ever.  I'm sure I made her neurosis worse!
      2. Of all the language systems, phonology is the one most closely associated with identity, with who we are and how we feel about it.  Years ago, hitch-hiking near Freiburg in South Germany, I was picked up by a local businessman.  We got talking and after a while he asked me which part of North Germany I was from.  I was at the same time flattered and taken aback.  It was the first and only time I've ever been taken for a native speaker of German.  His mistake was understandable in one sense as the German spoken in the North is definitely closer to English, both in its sounds and in some of its vocabulary.  However, once I had got over my surprise and my initial thoughts of a career with the secret service as a bilingual spy, I realised that I didn't want to be taken for a German.  I'm British, and I'm really happy to sound English when I speak any other language as long as I can be understood and I don't actually offend anyone by murdering the language I am speaking.  By the way, I do have my preferences:  for some reason I have never much liked the way I sound in French and I'm much more at ease with my efforts at German, Spanish or Russian!  Something to do with early school experiences of French, I think!
      3. Just as attentive reading is one of the keys to good writing, I believe that guided and structured listening is the key to good speaking.  The advocates of Total Physical Response and a 'silent period' in the early stages of FL learning long ago reminded us of the value of exposure to the spoken language, and most learners do need a tuning-in period.  There can usefully be attention both to chunks of discourse and to words in isolation, as in the good old practice of distinguishing between minimal pairs such as 'push' and 'bush' or 'hide' and 'height'.  I have noticed that there is a tendency for teachers in some contexts to push learners into production before they are really ready, sometimes via a grounding in the phonetic alphabet. or drills at word level and this can result in frustration.  Adult learners, whose speech organ musculature is already moulded into the behaviours needed to pronounce L1, really do need as much exposure as possible to the sounds of the new language, and they need plenty of time to experiment with gradual approximations to the new speech organ 'gymnastics' required for L2.
      4. I once observed a class in a college in Russia where a teacher, plainly obsessed with correctness in pronunciation, reduced one of his learners (aged about 20) to tears because she couldn't produce what he called a 'dark /l/'.  I sat there struggling myself to know what this was supposed to mean, and was horrified when the young lady concerned rushed out of the class in embarrassment at her tears and her inability to  correctly repeat what the teacher wanted from her.  When I spoke to her afterwards, she simply told me that she couldn't hear any difference between /l/ sounds in English.  Perfectionism like this in a teacher can be extremely demotivating to learners and, as in the case of this student, damaging to their self-esteem.  By all means correct learners' pronuciation, especially when it might interfere with successful communicaton, but let them experiment and be happy with approximations as an interim stage in their progress along the 'interlanguage continuum'.

      English is as badly behaved in its phonology as it is in its grammatical and lexical systems.  Words often sound very different in connected speech from the way they sound in isolation, and there is such a variety of accents in the media, the cinema, on the internet, that perfection is neither definable nor attainable.  This is a message that most learners would find reassuring! That's all from me for today Best wishes  Rod

      Average: 4.4 (17 votes)

      Comments

      SaraWalker-elt's picture
      SaraWalker-elt
      Submitted on 20 December, 2008 - 22:59

      Mixed feelings.  After 40 years in Brazil, I often regret not having taken Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation more seriously... Yes, pronunciation is part of personality- but was I so intent on preserving my mother culture that I neglected the integrative advantage of better L2 pronunciation?

      If you ask students about pronunication, the results are often surprising (to me, anyway).  The young and youngish adults I teach in the context of the Brazilian diplomatic service usually say they do want to be able to pass as native English speakers.  More suprisingly, perhaps, my third-age conversations students want to spend considerable amounts of time on pronunciation, even though they can all communicate fluently and intelligbily already. They show a particularly strong interest in the 'badly behaved' elements of phonology and spelling...

      I think the secret,  where phonology is concerned, is to ask people what and how much of it they want rather than assuming anything in advance.

      Your terrible story of the student and the dark l is frightening, if not quite on a par with the Egyptian teacher on BBC news today, who was reported to have actually beaten an 11-year-old to death for not doing his homework. As teachers we have a dreadful power to be cruel. 

      In the Christmas spirit, let's spread a little kindness- is it Widdowson who talks about being authoritative without being authoritarian? I'll drink to that- join me?

      amazinanian's picture
      amazinanian
      Submitted on 21 December, 2008 - 09:12

      Creativity in the classroom is very impotant . Teachers mut be creative and innovator in creating an alive atmosphere in the class room. Considering student's interests in choosing teaching materials also lead to better class management and excellent

      Dear Rod,

       Hello,

      I really enjoyed your article about "Pronunciation Angst" and that's the case we usually face in our English classes.

      Sometimes our colleagues state that some students emphasize on pronunciations they have heard from their previous English teachers. Students say Mr. X is a recognized English teacher and he has pronounced this word quite different than yours. We say ok. We do not want to mention that the pronunciation of your  previous teachers or teachers at high schools are wrong but here at the university or language institute we are using either standard  British or American pronunciation recoded by famous organizations like Longman, Oxford and etc. So instead of arguing let's listen to the tape or video tape for judgment.

      I always say that nowadays we have fortunately access to good English or American teaching and learning materials: audio-texts, films and TV programs. Case is dismissed and we better listen to original native sounds in English.

      In my opinion, there must be a good, reliable pre-recorded TV or video-tape program performed by a native speaker in every English class. We, Iranian English teachers, are not British or American and have not been there from childhood to have acquired their accents so we better be cautious and teach them the correct pronunciations from a genuine resource.

      I have found TVs educational programs on BBC to be a good and useful example.

      I also agree with you on encouraging students rather making them frustrated in correcting their pronunciations which is really of high importance in teaching a foreign language. I tell my students that people born in different regions of Iran have different accents which are distinguish the rejoin they are from but when they want to give a lecture in Persian they better speak so that hearers do not criticize their bad intonations. We should consider this matter while speaking English and should do our best to speak as nearly as possible to native speakers. Of course we cannot correct someone's bad accent right away but it needs time and endurance and that's why we better listen carefully to a lecturer and never stop him. If we stop them to correct their pronunciations they may lose their self reliance and as you mentioned delicately reduced them to tears.

       Thanks again and have a nice time.

      A Mazinanian

       

       

      Rod Bolitho's picture
      Rod Bolitho
      Submitted on 22 December, 2008 - 12:57

      Sara,

       Thanks for this.  I guess my situation in Germany (which was temporary) contrasts with yours in Brazil (which is permanent).  I guess your motivational drive for Portuguese is and has been more strongly integrative than mine ever was for German.  Your comment also raises, for me, the question as to how  far we, as teachers, have a responsibility to manage our students' expectations and aspirations.  I've always found this to be a good topic for discussion with learners, particularly high achievers who put pressure on themselves, sometimes unreasonably, because of these aspirations.

       And I do agree with Henry W. if, indeed the distinction was his.

       Warm wishes

      Rod

      Rod Bolitho's picture
      Rod Bolitho
      Submitted on 22 December, 2008 - 17:30

      Dear A. Mazinanian,

       Thanks for you thoughtful contribution.  Good to hear from you again.  Some really useful suggestions here from your EFL perspective.  I really do understand the need for good recorded models in your teaching context in Iran. You know, some of the first EFL students I taught were Iranians, back in the seventies in Bristol, and I still hear some of their voices ringing in my ears!

       Very best wishes

       Rod

      carl hibbs's picture
      carl hibbs
      Submitted on 27 December, 2008 - 22:19

      An interesting subject Rod and as a native teacher working in France I have a big quest to get my students of all levels to pronounce 'th' and 'h' sounds.

      Most French students have a real complex about their accent and pronunciation so much so that it can impede the ability to learn.

      I always explain that I am not trying change their beautiful romantic accent but to avoid them making serious vocabulary mistakes by mispronunciation.

      I usually begin the lesson with a humourous examination of this sentence.

      'I hate my English teacher.' 

      By the way many French think that a strong English accent and mispronunciation of French is quite romantic.   

        

       

       

      laureen's picture
      laureen
      Submitted on 28 December, 2008 - 18:56

      Dear Rod,

       as usual a pleasure to read your views on different issues in ELT as it was to be able to attend the talk you gave in Montevideo, Uruguay, a few months ago. On rare occasions do we have the chance to see "the people behind the books" live, face to face!!
      As far as pronunciation is concerned I feel that a key word is AWARENESS. I always tell my learners that we will always sound "Uruguayans trying to speak decent English" but we need to be aware of several issues regarding English pronunciation if we wish to be able to understand what other people say in the foreign language and thus be able to communicate - so there must be a very close connection between listening (raising awareness of features of connected speech) and speaking (trying to produce what we've discovered as best we can)

      I usually take listening material a step further, after having dealt with it as a comprehension task I try to devise some activity that aims at raising awareness on any phonolgical feature that might appear in the listening text I'm working with.

       All the best for 2009 and I hope we can keep reading these interesting issues!

      Cheers from Uruguay!

      Rod Bolitho's picture
      Rod Bolitho
      Submitted on 30 December, 2008 - 10:15

      Dear Laureen,

       Thanks for your contribution.  You focussed on awareness ( a favourite concept for both of us, I think!).  I was very pleased to see that you use listening inputs to get your students to notice pronunciation features as I believe that this doesn't usually happen without prompting by the teacher.  I'm sure this helps.

       Very best for the New Year

      Rod

      Rod Bolitho's picture
      Rod Bolitho
      Submitted on 30 December, 2008 - 10:30

      Dear Carl,

       Thanks for writing in.  I was immediately amused by the sentence you choose to work on and by the idea of being eaten by my students.  If they had done that to me long ago, I'd never have made it to this blog!  The 'romanticism' of the French accent would be a great topic to look into in a research paper - much more interesting than some I have seen over the years!  But I honestly don't think my efforts at French are particularly romantic-sounding.  I do a good job of murdering a language that most people see as beautiful.

       Thanks for your interest and very best wishes for the New Year

       Rod

      laureen's picture
      laureen
      Submitted on 30 December, 2008 - 21:19

      Dear Rod,

       

      Yes, definitely AWARENESS is a very important word for me as well!

      Thanks so much for your reply. I hope other teachers round the world find it useful! I'm glad Teaching English gives us the opportunity to learn from people like you and to share our views with teachers round the world!

      Very best wishes for 2009

       

      Laura