Pronunciation & Language Learning

Pronunciation

Used by ELTChat (2011)

The most recent ELTChat was related to pronunciation: “How and when do you teach pronunciation?”. Also my most recent seminar and lecture at university was coincidentally about phonology and pronunciation.  The ELTChat was quite interesting and there were many great suggestions by other fellow educators that contributed during the live chat with twitter.  I thought I would share some ideas and focus on some other areas that teachers mentioned in the most recent ELTChat discussion in this blog post.

Why should teachers focus on teaching pronunciation or including pronunciation work within the ELT classroom?  Many teachers seem to, as illustrated by the ELTChat, is often overlooked by teachers and coursebooks, teachers are quite passive and believe that pronunciation, stress, intonation as well as connected speech will be acquired by learners as if by osmosis (this point is also demonstrated by my own personal research with a local school), and the rules of phonology is hard to ‘pin-down’.  It has been recognised by Seidlhofer (2001; pp. 56-64), that pronunciation is the ‘Cinderella’ of language teaching.  However, some teachers just lack the confidence to formally include pronunciation in their lessons due to the fact that teachers “often aren’t trained to teach pronunciation” (ELTChat, 2011).  Nevertheless, what areas of phonology should we focus on in classes and when is the best time to include pronunciation work?

TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBC (2011)

When looking at the phonemic chart above, which is available to download for the iPad or on the internet (http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/try/activities/phonemic-chart), teachers are able to focus on pronunciation at the letter level with individual sounds but is this useful?  As with any teaching, the emphasis should be on meaningful and useful language yet with the phonemic chart, students are focused upon ‘letter level’ pronunciation.  This is neither useful nor meaningful if teachers are introducing new vocabulary.  It is only useful when focusing on particular sounds but I believe that this approach is limited as teachers are ‘unable to see the words from the trees‘.  Obviously, I do believe that phonemic chart does have its uses; for example if teaching monolingual classes, teachers could focus on target sounds that learners find difficulty creating (with Korean learners they have difficulty creating some vowel and consonant sounds).  Nevertheless, if teachers are analysing new vocabulary and looking at pronunciation at a ‘word level’, areas that may be focused upon could include; stress and unstress.  Scrivener (2005) introduces the analysing of word stress and unstress by various activities which include marking stress, finding stressed syllables, and sorting stress patterns (with the columns).  A good awareness raising activity (which was introduced at my University lecture/seminar) was to use similar sounding words which contain various vowel sounds and trying to get students to transcribe a partner’s telephone number by using words which have a corresponding number.  It is best illustrated by the example below:

Pronunciation Phone Numbers
Pronunciation Phone Numbers – Ten Vowel Sounds

Phonetics Focus – A Sound Choice (2011)

There are some great resources available on the internet which can assist in incorporating phonetics in the classroom, particularly with younger learners.  However, I have used Phonetics Focus with adult learners as it is visual and the visual cues can assist adult learners just as much as younger learners.  Furthermore, there are so many activities included and the fact that flashcards can be printed for classroom use is great.  I remember when I first came across this website almost three years ago and I used the flashcards to help create a pelmanism game.  For those unaware of the term ‘pelmanism’, it is referred to by Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2011) as “a game in which players must remember cards or other objects that they have seen”.  It is more common for learners to try to match a picture on one card with the corresponding word.  For further information about pelmanism, please look at the Teaching English | British Council | BBC website (2011).


When I visited my school (LTC Eastbourne) during the week, I asked some teachers and learners to fill out a questionnaire about pronunciation.  The questionnaire is available to view below:


Pronunciation Questionnaires
Pronunciation Questionnaires – Combined 2011


Teachers’ Answers
1. “Second language pronunciation cannot be taught in the classroom, only learnt outside it” – How much do you agree with this statement, and why?
All teachers interviewed disagreed with this statement.  One teacher suggested that a combination of both classroom and individual learning is required, another teacher suggesting that teachers could concentrate on individual sounds “specific to particular nationalities” and the other teacher suggesting that students need to be aware of pronunciation to “effectively listen” to differences.

2. How important is it for second language pronunciation to sound natural?  Why?
With regards to teachers, it was interesting to note that some teachers referred to pronunciation as important but in context.  For example, it “depends on the situation” with another teacher questioning what natural is.  However, it was generally acknowledged that students, if applicable, should be “understood outside the classroom”.


3. Do you believe it is possible to achieve pronunciation similar to a native speaker?  Why/why not?
Again, all teachers agreed that students should be able to achieve pronunciation native speaker ability.  However, the statement above does not take into account English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) or World Englishes.  One teacher suggested that intelligebility is more important than native-like pronunciation.  Obviously one area that is not mentioned by teachers is that perhaps individual student ability is not taken into account and perhaps some students are able to have a natural ability to acquire a recognised native-like pronunciation.


4. What can learners do to try to improve their pronunciation?
Some suggestions by teachers were to practice particular sounds, listen and imitate sounds, watch and listen to TV or radio as well as attend classes.

5. What can teachers do to improve their students’ pronunciation?
During the ELTChat discussion, some activities that learners could use could include recording “your students and use it to focus on pronunciation issues”, modelling “the shape of the mouth, and ask [students] to think about their tongues and lips” as well as taking “chunks of text and look at the connected speech”.  There are some great ideas suggested during the discussion.  The teachers that were interviewed suggested using drills, repetition to incorporate habits (Information Processing Theory), etc.

6. What factors influence pronunciation most?
All teachers interviewed considered L1 Interference as the most important factor that influences L2 pronunciation.  However, one teacher considered word stress, tone, intonation and pitch just as important.  Additionally, as referred to by one teacher, if a student is influenced by a particular culture perhaps the student decides to emulate that particular accent (such as British English or American English).


7. How do you feel when you meet someone who speaks another language well, with a good accent?
All teachers mentioned that they would be impressed if they meet someone if they are able to speak another language well with a good accent.  It is perhaps this perception of language ability connected with pronunciation which fails to recognise other foreign accents that may interfere with pronunciation but has no impact on intelligibility.  However, as with any language, intelligibility is more important than accent or pronunciation.

Students’ Answers
1. At what age did you start to learn English?
One student started learning English as early as 4 years of age whilst other learners started from either 9 years of age or 14 years of age.  The students that were interviewed were all from South East Asia.

2. How long have you been here in the UK?
All students have been in the UK for less than a year.

3. Have you ever lived in an English-speaking country before this course?
Most students had not lived in an English speaking country prior to commencing their course in the UK.  However, one Korean student had lived in India for 2 months.

4. What is your main reason for learning English?
Three of the six students interviewed decided to study English to get a good job in their home country.  Other students suggested that they wanted to speak English to a good ability.

5. In the future, who do you think you will speak English with?
Most students suggested that they would communicate with colleagues or foreigners in English.  It was all related to their future employment with some students relating their reason to whom they would communicate with in the future.

6. How important is it for your English pronunciation to sound natural?  Why?
All learners suggested that English pronunciation is very important to sound natural.  One learner mentioned that “good pronunciation” will assist the listener with what you say (Thai interviewee).  Furthermore, “clear pronunciation … [will help] understand the sentence that we speak” (Korean interviewee).

7. On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate your pronunciation?
It is interesting to note that Thai learners rated their pronunciation in the middle and scored it 5 whilst Korean learners were more confident and rated their pronunciation as 8 or 9.  Both sets of learners are Upper Intermediate students but this difference in perception could allow learners to judge their pronunciation accurately.

8. Do you believe it is possible to achieve pronunciation similar to a native speaker?  Why/why not?
Again the answers from the questionnaire is quite interesting.  One Korean learner suggested that pronunciation is quite easy to acquire as they had studied English since they were children.  Two Korean students made some suggestion to L1 interference with English pronunciation (“that’s not my mother tongue”).  The Thai leaners were more confident suggesting that “practice makes perfect” and pronunciation will improve over time.

9. What do you do to try to improve your pronunciation?
All students interviewed mentioned that they watch TV or listen to the radio.  One learner mentioned that they speak with L1 speakers and another learner suggested that they mimic native speaker pronunciation.  They were all quite active to improve their pronunciation and aware of the differences between their pronunciation and a native speaker.

10. What factors influence your English pronunciation most?
Half of the students interviewed suggested that the most important factor for their pronunciation was with their teacher; “When I heard good pronunciation I practised”.  The other learners suggested that it was with the other learners and that listening was just as important.

11. How do you feel when you meet someone from another country who speaks your language well, with a good accent?
All students mentioned that they were impressed if they heard a foreigner speaking their native language with a good accent.  One student said they would be very strange but proud of their own language.

12. “Foreign language pronunciation cannot be taught in a classroom, only learnt outside it” – How much do you agree with this statement, and why?
All students apart from one agreed with the statement and regarded the teacher being able to teach pronunciation formally in class; “natural pronunciation can be taught in the real situation”.  However, one Thai student disagreed with the statement saying that they would be able to learn outside the classroom perhaps by recording the inside or outside the classroom and referring to this back home to focus on pronunciation.

All in all there are some really interesting points suggested by teachers and learners.  Most students expect the teacher to formally introduce correct pronunciation but with most teachers suggesting that improved pronunciation is only achievable outside the classroom.  Additionally, there appears a difference in expectation between learners and teachers.  Perhaps with this knowledge, teachers could incorporate more pronunciation in class and provide learners the opportunity to focus on pronunciation in class.  As educators, we are able to record lessons (if all learners provide consent) and upload this for a podcast for learners to study in due course.  Additional resources could be introduced by teachers so that learners could study in their own time (http://www.englishcentral.com/speak).

Other resources suggested by the ELTChat discussion offered teachers and learners include the following:

 Personally, I would encourage teachers to read more about pronunciation skills for the classroom (there are some great articles on Onestopenglish.com), share ideas with other teachers, read some books on phonology and phonetics as well as write their own blog post about their experiences of pronunciation.  Try to use the questionnaires share above and try to incorporate in a lesson.  Your learners may provide completely different opinions compared to my learners.  It would be interesting to find out what European language learners consider important with pronunciation.  I only questioned six South East Asian students in my local school so the limitation of this is that they are all of a similar ability and in the same class.

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One thought on “Pronunciation & Language Learning

  1. I began learning French in 1971 in high school in the US. Anyone who's studied French will know that like English spelling, French spelling is not phonetic. Our teacher began by teaching us the IPA. For the first few months, everything we wrote was in IPA. I'd never studied a foreign language before so I didn't think this was unusual. When we started using conventional French orthography, it was fairly easy for me to figure out many of the strange spelling conventions and avoid many of the more common “spelling pronunciation” errors. I've never seen nor heard of this ever being done since. I expect it places the second language learner nearer the situation of a native speaker learning to read and write their own language, in that what we are doing is mapping known sounds to letters, rather than trying to “decode” pronunciation from completx grammatical, syntactic, and alphabetic context.

    Great blog, Martin.

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