Today I want to write a little about pronunciation. First, a few questions for you to think about before reading what follows:
- Is your own pronunciation perfect? Does it need to be?
- If you are a non-native speaker, how do you like the way you sound in English?
- What do you do to help your learners tune into English?
- How do you respond when a learner mispronouces a word?
Now a few remarks related to each of the four questions:
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
- 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