Laura Patsko is a language and learning consultant, trainer, author and speaker, specializing in pronunciation, English as a lingua franca, and the practical applications of linguistic research.
The role of pronunciation in English Language Teaching has changed a lot over the past 100 years—and so has the world. A lot of the things that were considered true or desirable for English learners in the past are no longer realistic or useful now, and a number of popular and long-held beliefs need to be re-examined. This is the first post in a two-part series which addresses some common myths about teaching English pronunciation.
Myth #1: There is one correct accent of English
Variation is a natural, inevitable part of language, and this includes pronunciation. Everybody has an accent. An accent is just a particular systematic way of pronouncing a language, typically associated with a particular geographical region or social class.
This also means that “correct” and “good” are relative terms. They depend on a particular expectation or goal. Every accent has some associations for other people, perhaps positive, perhaps negative; but there is no such thing as a completely “neutral” accent. And there is no single accent that is inherently easier to understand than others. (I’ll come back to this point in the next blog post!)
But what about standard models, for things like education, the media, or dictionaries? Well, there simply isn’t a single official institution that dictates the features of one “correct” English accent (and rightly so!); even among large organizations, such as the mass media or major Anglophone universities, there isn’t widespread agreement on which English(es) to represent as standard. And a dictionary is merely a record of how people use words, not how they should use them. The transcriptions provided are for reference, not prescriptions for attainment.
Furthermore, as David Crystal pointed out, nearly twenty years ago: “We are already living in a world where most of the varieties we encounter are something other than traditional British or American English. We do our students a disservice if they leave our care unprepared for the brave new linguistic world which awaits them.” (2000, p.6)
Myth #2: It’s not that important to teach pronunciation
Research shows that learners with a greater sense of their own pronunciation ability tend to have lower “foreign language learning anxiety” in general (Shams, 2006; Baran-Łucarz, 2011). And the good news is: extensive research shows that pronunciation teaching really does lead to improvement (Saito, 2012; Lee et al, 2015). So time spent teaching pronunciation is time well spent.
But while pronunciation is obviously related to speaking and listening skills, did you know that it actually affects all areas of language proficiency?
For example, learners who are aware that “going to” might be contracted to “gonna” and “we will” might be contracted to “we’ll” will have a richer understanding of these grammatical constructions and be more likely to recognize them when they hear them.
The same is true for vocabulary: the pronunciation of English words is not always apparent from their spelling and it is tempting to avoid using certain words if we’re not confident in how to say them. Without study or instruction, how are learners to guess the pronunciation of words such as “through,” “tough,” “borough” and so on? And how might they try to spell these words in their written work?
We can see that pronunciation affects grammar, vocabulary, speaking, listening, and writing—and research has even found that learners with better phonological awareness have better reading skills (Walter, 2008).
So consider this myth definitively busted. It’s definitely important to teach pronunciation!
Myth #3: Pronunciation is more useful for advanced learners
If phonological awareness positively affects all areas of language learning, why wait until advanced levels? One large-scale analysis (Lee et al, 2015) reviewed 86 different research studies and found that learners in general benefit from pronunciation instruction, regardless of their level of proficiency.
And remember, many learners do not progress to higher levels of formal English education. Many will study for just long enough to be able to meet certain communicative needs. So pronunciation should be part of our courses from day 1. This way, it will quickly become an integral part of the language learning experience, just as essential and enjoyable as any other part of the syllabus.
Watch out for Laura’s next post where she’ll bust 3 more common myths about teaching English pronunciation. In the meantime, for some practical classroom ideas, check out these top tips for teaching pronunciation.
Baran-Łucarz, M. (2011). The relationship between language anxiety and the actual and perceived levels of foreign language pronunciation. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 1(4), 491-514.
Crystal, D. (2000). Emerging Englishes. English Teaching Professional, 14, pp. 3-6.
Lee, J., Jang, J. & Plonsky, L. (2015). The effectiveness of second language pronunciation instruction: A meta-analysis. Applied Linguistics, 36(3), pp. 345-366.
Saito, K. (2012). Effects of instruction on L2 pronunciation development: A synthesis of 15 quasi-experimental intervention studies. TESOL Quarterly, 46/4, 842—854.
Shams, A. N. (2006). The use of computerized pronunciation practice in the reduction of foreign language classroom anxiety. Unpublished PhD thesis, Florida State University, retrieved 10 June 2019 from https://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu%3A168412/datastream/PDF/view
Walter, C. (2008). Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra. TESOL Quarterly, 42(3), 455–474.