Teaching EFL Pronunciation: Why, What and How?
Mar 9, 2009 Pronunciation/Phonics 3958 Views
Pronunciation is an integrated and integral part of second/foreign language learning since it directly affects learners’ communicative competence as well as performance to a substantial extent. Notwithstanding, the teaching of EFL pronunciation has received varied treatment from having no room in the synthetic syllabus and the grammar-translation method to being the cardinal focus in the situational syllabus and the audio-lingual method in which emphasis is put on the traditional notions of pronunciation, minimal pairs, drills and mini-conversations. And with the advent of communicative language teaching in the late 1960s (Richards and Rodgers, 1986), the role of pronunciation in the EFL curriculum started facing questions: whether the focus of the programmes and the instructional methods were effective or not. Teaching pronunciation until then was ‘viewed as meaningless non-communicative drill-and-exercise gambits’ (Morley, 1991: 485-6). However, with a shift from specific linguistic competencies to broader communicative competencies as goals for both the teacher and the learner (Morley, 1991), the need for the integration of pronunciation with oral communication is clearly realized.
Until very recently, the teaching of English as a foreign language in many territories of the world including Bangladesh would give primary emphasis on the reading and writing skills and secondary and/or little emphasis on listening and speaking skills. But, particularly in Bangladesh, since the introduction of communicative language teaching a few years back to different levels of education, especially primary, secondary and higher secondary levels where English is taught as a compulsory subject, the listening and speaking skills have started enjoying some sort of status alongside the reading and writing skills, although the former ones are neither seriously taught nor formally tested. That is, it is now evidently understood that the learner’s communicative competence as well as performance is dependent on his/her command of all the basic skills of the target language encompassing listening and speaking. Though pronunciation is overlooked in the syllabus, material and even classroom activities, it does have an inseparable link to communication through listening and speaking (Gilbert, 1984, Celce-Muria, 1987).
Both as a learner and a teacher-researcher of English as a foreign language, I am aware of the syllabuses, materials and classroom activities at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels in Bangladesh and in many other EFL settings as well, which unfortunately scarcely have any room for pronunciation teaching. Therefore, based on my experience and a number of existing studies in varied EFL settings, this paper examines and addresses four major issues concerning teaching EFL pronunciation to learners at different levels.
Firstly, I have explored and uncovered the reasons for overlooking teaching pronunciation.
Secondly, I have endeavoured to justify the teaching of pronunciation together with the other skills of the target language.
Thirdly, I have tried to ascertain a level or variety and the aspects of EFL pronunciation that should be taught.
Finally, I have discussed some pronunciation teaching approaches and advocated a variety of techniques/ activities for teaching EFL pronunciation in the classroom.
Why is EFL pronunciation teaching ignored?
Teaching English pronunciation is still surprisingly and shockingly neglected and/or ignored in many EFL settings including Bangladesh, although the listening and speaking skills are now somewhat included in the syllabus and taught to equip the learner with adequate communicative competence. At the primary, secondary and tertiary level in Bangladesh, an English pronunciation course or English pronunciation as a component in the English course is hardly given any considerable place at all. In China, an English phonetics course is simply left to chance or given no room (Cheng, 1998). As in Bangladesh, some teachers in Taiwan might argue that English pronunciation is not important at all, for very few tests would require students to show abilities related to pronunciation or speaking (Lin, Fan and Chen, 1995). Similarly, English pronunciation is arbitrarily overlooked in Thailand (Wei and Zhou, 2002). In Mexico, pronunciation is described as “the Cinderella of language teaching”; that means an often low level of emphasis is placed on this very important language skill (Dalton, 2002). It is then conspicuous that teaching EFL pronunciation has little room in the syllabus, material and classroom. But why?
Though very few studies are found to have been carried out to reveal the reasons for neglecting the teaching of EFL pronunciation, based on my experience as a learner as well as a teacher-researcher of English as a foreign language, I would endeavour to disclose the secrets of the peripheral position of EFL pronunciation.
Firstly, the absence or exclusion of EFL pronunciation from the curriculum/ syllabus is indicative of the fact that the curriculum/ syllabus designer has deliberately or ignorantly overlooked its significance. Hence, the curriculum/ syllabus designer’s qualifications, expertise and honesty could be seriously questioned.
Secondly, the locally produced materials and/or the imported overseas ones used to teach/ learn EFL do not usually embody pronunciation components and lessons. This indicates that the local materials developers are either unaware of the importance of pronunciation or not capable of designing pronunciation materials or just blindly confined to the syllabus devoid of pronunciation components. Besides, the overseas materials incorporating no pronunciation tips and lessons attract our teachers and others concerned because very many of them do not have any formal and adequate training in English phonetics and phonology as well as EFL pronunciation teaching.
Thirdly, as most teachers do not have useful strategies or techniques for teaching EFL pronunciation and as they do not know what strategies are appropriate when they meet a specific problem, they simply avoid pronunciation instruction in the classroom by employing shrewd tricks. Dalton (2002) rightly says:
We are comfortable teaching reading, writing, listening and to a degree, general oral skills, but when it comes to pronunciation we often lack the basic knowledge of articulatory phonetics (not difficult to acquire) to offer our students anything more than rudimentary (and often unhelpful) advice such as, ‘it sounds like this: uuuh.
Finally, it is a fact that a substantial number of persons (of course more than fifty percent in Bangladesh) currently working as English curriculum/ syllabus designers, materials developers, educators, classroom teachers and test writers/ question setters in EFL settings have either literature background or insufficient training in ELT and hence tactfully avoid and/or consciously exclude EFL pronunciation items from the syllabus, lessons from the material and instruction from the classroom activities.
Why should EFL pronunciation be taught?
The usefulness of teaching second/foreign language pronunciation is a widely debated issue in the language teaching world. Purcell and Suter (1980:286) hold that pronunciation practice in the class has little effect on the learner’s pronunciation skills and, moreover ‘that the attainment of accurate pronunciation in a second language is a matter substantially beyond the control of educators’. Contrariwise, Pennington (1989) questions the validity of Purcell and Suter’s findings, and states that there is no firm basis for asserting categorically that pronunciation is not teachable or it is not worth spending time on teaching pronunciation. However, Stern (1992: 112) maintains ‘there is no convincing empirical evidence which could help us sort out the various positions on the merits of pronunciation training’.
Nonetheless, pronunciation is definitely the biggest thing that people notice when a person is speaking. Let us look at an anecdote:
Whenever I spoke to a person in America, they kept asking me “What? What?”. I would repeat my sentence again and again. Finally they would say “Ah-ha!” and then say my sentence, using exactly my words! It was very humiliating. I knew my words and grammar were good, but nobody would understand me, just because of my pronunciation (Antimoon.com).
Hence, Gilbert (1995: 1) believes that the skills of listening comprehension and pronunciation are interdependent, and contends ‘if they (learners) cannot hear well, they are cut off from language. If they (learners) cannot be understood easily, they are cut off from conversation with native speakers.” Likewise, Nooteboom (1983) suggests that speech production is affected by speech perception, and stresses the need of pronunciation in both listening and speaking. Wong (1987) points out that even when the non-native speakers’ vocabulary and grammar are excellent, if their pronunciation falls below a certain threshold level, they are unable to communicate efficiently and effectively. Tench (1981:1) rightly maintains-
Pronunciation is not an optional extra for the language learner, any more than grammar, vocabulary or any other aspect of language is. If a learner’s general aim is to talk intelligibly to others in another language, a reasonable pronunciation in important.
Varonis and Gass (1982) examine the factors affecting listening comprehension in native speakers of English exposed to L2 accents, and conclude that grammar and pronunciation interact to influence intelligibility.
Moreover, Wong (1993) argues that the importance of pronunciation is even more distinct when the connection between pronunciation and listening comprehension is taken into account. Wong (1993) also demonstrates that a lack of knowledge of pronunciation could even affect learners’ reading and spelling. According to Baker (1992), pronunciation is very important and learners should pay close attention to pronunciation as early as possible. Otherwise, the result will be that advanced learners find that they can improve all aspects of their proficiency in English except their pronunciation, and mistakes which have been repeated for years are impossible to eradicate. Scarcella and Oxford (1994) similarly postulate that pronunciation should be taught in all second (/foreign) language classes through a variety of activities. With the emphasis on meaningful communication and Morley’s (1991: 488) premise, that ‘intelligible pronunciation is an essential component of communication competence’, teachers should include pronunciation in their courses and expect their learners to do well in them.
Therefore, we should countenance what Morley (1991) puts forward: The question is not whether pronunciation should be taught, but instead what should be taught in a pronunciation class and how it should be taught.
What should be taught?
The question ‘What should be taught?’ encompasses two different points: (a) the level, variety or accent of EFL pronunciation and (b) the aspects, components or features of EFL pronunciation.
The level, variety or accent of EFL pronunciation
It has long been believed and accepted that ESL/EFL learners have to try to get as close as possible in their pronunciation to one of the dominant native-speaker accents, such as Received Pronunciation (RP), the USA equivalent. However, the time covering the last fifteen years or so with the trend of globalization has brought about such a significant change in the role of the English language throughout the world that it is unavoidable to reexamine and rethink this situation. English is currently the world’s most widely used and principal international language, as a result of which there are now more exchanges between non-native speakers of English than between non-native speakers and native speakers. It is, moreover, predictable that in the near future at least this situation is not going to change in favour of the minority of native speakers, and so suddenly the hegemony of their specific accents is under fire (Walker, 2001). Macaulay (1988) and Crystal (1995) also question the idea of a native-speaker accent as a model or norm for ESL/EFL learners.
What accent of English should the learner be exposed to then? Kenworthy (1987) puts forward the concept of “comfortableintelligibility’ as a suitable goal for the majority of learners. Morley (1991: 496) supports Kenworthy’s view and advocates that the goal of pronunciation should be changed from the attainment of ‘perfect’ pronunciation to the more realistic goals of developing functional intelligibility, communicability, increased self-confidence, the development of speech monitoring abilities and speech modification strategies for use beyond the classroom. The overall aim of these goals is for the learner to develop awareness and monitoring skills that will allow learning opportunities outside the classroom environment. Robertson (2003:4) quotes Morley (1991) in saying that ‘intelligible pronunciation is an essential component of communicative competence’.
Influenced by both the strands stated above, I am in favour of both a dominant native-speaker ascent, such as BBC English or standard American accent and an intelligible accent, but in a practical, convenient and useful manner. I, of course, advocate an intelligible accent; but to acquire that the learner has to be exposed to appropriate and adequate input being constituted of a standard or dominant accent, for instance, the Queen’s English, or a locally produced variety like Indian Accent, never an amalgamation of two or more dominant accents. However, the ultimate target of both the teaching and the learning of EFL pronunciation would be an intelligible accent.
The aspects, components or features of EFL pronunciation
EFL pronunciation teaching should cover both the segmentals and the suprasegmentals as well as the training of the speech organs, such as lips, teeth, alveolar ridge, palate, tongue, vocal folds, ears, etc.
The segmentals embody vowel and consonant sounds, preferably phonemes, as well as syllables. A phoneme is a set of similar sounds showing meaning differences or differentiating between words. And a syllable consists of a vowel as a compulsory element and one or more consonants at the onset and/or in the termination as optional elements, which is pronounced with a single contraction of the lungs. The English language has twenty vowel phonemes (twelve monophthongs and eight diphthongs) and twenty four consonant phonemes. While the vowels are articulated without any obstacle in the vocal tract, the consonants are produced with some blockage of the air passage. The treatment of the segmentals basically includes sound contrast in words, pronunciation of vowel and consonant phonemes. The phonemes which are not available in the learner’s mother tongue and problematic to him/her should receive special treatment in the teaching material and methodology and sufficient room in the learner’s practice.
The suprasegmentals are comprised of stress in words and connected speech, rhythm, pitch, loudness, length, quality, tone and intonation that play an essential and natural role in English speech production and perception. As the Bengali speaking learner’s mother tongue is syllable timed whereas English is stress timed, he/she inevitably finds mastering EFL pronunciation a very daunting task (Bell, 1996). Hence, the differences in suprasegmentals between the learner’s mother tongue and the target language are momentous topics that he/she should not only be aware of but should make a conscious effort to study and focus on (Thompson and Gaddes, 2005).
Moreover, the learner should be helped to retrain his/her speech organs which have so long been trained naturally and used to articulate the sounds in his/her L1. This tremendously helps him/her to comfortably and sufficiently use his/her articulators so as to produce the sounds of the target language in an intelligible manner.
How can EFL pronunciation be taught?
The question ‘How can EFL pronunciation be taught?’ comprises axiomatic, procedural and implemetational issues related to pronunciation teaching: teaching approaches and classroom techniques/activities.
In recent years, with the renewed professional support to enable learners to be effective and efficient speakers of English as an L2, there has been an incessant progress to bring pronunciation back on stage since, as a large number of prominent theorists and researchers uncover, it should be given preferential treatment. However, researchers and teachers are not yet completely convinced of which models, goals, approaches and methodology are more helpful for leaning and teaching pronunciation alike.
To have a look at the various approaches to pronunciation teaching, the ‘bottom-up approach’ begins with the articulation of individual sounds or phonemes and works up towards stress, rhythm, tone and intonation. On the other hand, the ‘top-down approach’ starts with patterns of intonation and brings separate sounds or phonemes into sharper focus as and when required. According to Dalton and Seidlhofer (1994), the former is based on the idea that if the segmentals are taught first, the suprasegmentals will subsequently be acquired without the need of formal instruction whereas the latter rests on the assumption that once the suprasegmentals features are in place, the necessary segmental discriminations will follow accordingly. The bottom-up approach and the top-down approach respectively correspond to the traditional approach and the research-based approach propounded by Scarcella and Oxford (1994). While the traditional approach is concerned with isolated sounds and native like pronunciation, the research-based approach deals with suprasegmental features and targets at communication.
However, based on existing studies, the top-down or research approach appears to be more effective in teaching L2 pronunciation. Jenkins (2002) maintains that starting holistically from voice quality and then moving to work on segmentals imply that the learner is pushed to adapt and use the target language articulatory settings with their articulators still geared towards the pronunciation of the sounds of his/her mother tongue. That is, teaching EFL pronunciation should commence from the suprasegmentals that are more indispensable and contribute more to intelligibility and accent than segmentals do.
Due to pedagogical reasons, it might be helpful to think about the teachability-learnability scale as introduced by Dalton and Seidlhofer (1994) which suggests that there are certain aspects of the English pronunciation which appear to be easily taught; namely, phonemes, stress while others, such as intonation, are extremely dependent on individual circumstances and thus practically impossible to separate out for direct teaching. Therefore, it could then be sensible to think that instead of pushing learners to strive for perfect pronunciation, a focus on pedagogic attention to those items which are teachable and learnable and also essential in terms of intelligible pronunciation appears to be a more reasonable goal. Based on the exploration and critical analysis of the different approaches to teaching pronunciation and what seems to be teachable and learnable for EFL classroom settings, I will now propose ten techniques and activities that, according to influential pronunciation researchers (e.g. Morley, 1991, Scarcella and Oxford, 1994, Fraser, 1999, Thompson, Taylor and Gray, 2001) and my own experience, appear to be useful for learners and teachers alike:
a. Utilization of known sounds: In the early stage of learning, the learner, especially the young one can be helped to compare the sounds of the target language with those of his/her mother tongue. This eventually helps the learner produce the EFL sound pattern to a considerable extent.
b. Explanation: Explanation of how to produce sounds or use pronunciation patterns appropriately should be kept to a minimum through directions about what to do with the vocal organs can help some young and adult EFL learners in some circumstances.
c. Communication activities: The teacher can design communicative tasks, such as dialogues or mini-conversations for both young and adult EFL learners according to their linguistic level to practise particular sounds, especially those which are not available in their mother tongue, for example, / I ?: f v ? ? ð/in case of Bengali speaking learners. Besides, the learner can be taught some useful communication strategies, such as retrieval strategies, rehearsal strategies, cover strategies which will help him/her give the impression that his/her pronunciation is better than it really is (Oxford, 2000).
d. Written versions of oral presentations: At the more advanced levels, learners can be given strategies for analyzing the written versions of their oral presentations. This helps them detect, identify and correct errors or mistakes committed in their oral presentations.
e. Modelling and individual correction: In this technique, the teacher reports the results of analyses of learner speech sample individually. The young or adult learner gets feedback from the analyses and stop repeating previous errors or mistakes.
f. Incorporation of novel elements: The instructor can add novel pronunciation elements, such as sounds, stress placement, tones to the old ones with the use of directions. This helps both the young and the adult learner get his/her EFL pronunciation further improved.
g. Tutorial sessions and self-study: Tutorial sessions commence with a diagnostic analysis of each learner’s spoken English, and an individualized programme is designed for each learner. This technique can be used for both young and adult learners
h. Self-monitoring and self-correction: Self-monitoring is the conscious action of listening to one’s own speech in order to find out errors and mistakes. This action is followed by self-correction standing for the process of fixing one’s errors and mistakes after they have occurred by repeating the word or phrase correctly. By teaching our adult learners to self-monitor and self-correct, we enable them to make their learning of EFL pronunciation more personal, more meaningful and more effective.
i. Computer-assisted language learning: Computer-assisted language learning or CALL can be an important tool when attempting to help the learner become more autonomous by allowing him/her to hear his/her own errors and mistakes and see both segmental and suprasegmental graphic representations. CALL benefits the learner by letting him/her study at his/her own pace in a semi-private environment as well as allowing him/her to build profiles that enable the teacher to monitor the learner’s improvement in EFL pronunciation. In addition, the teacher can exploit visual displays of speech patterns to teach intonation, stress and phonemes to individuals and small groups of learners. This tool can be used for both young and adult learners, but in an adjusted manner.
j. Reading aloud: The learner can be given a piece of spoken text to read out loudly. Here the teacher’s job is to identify pronunciation the errors and mistakes made by the learner, and then give feedback that will help the learner improve his/her EFL pronunciation.
Finally, these classroom techniques/activities for teaching EFL pronunciation are in no way exhaustive, but substantially useful when they are used on the basis of feasibility and suitability in a particular environment having particular learners. Moreover, according to Morley (1991: 507), the teacher can perform the role of a ‘speech coach’ or ‘pronunciation coach’ who, rather than just correcting the learner’s errors and mistakes, supplies information, gives models, offers cues, suggestions and constructive feedback about the performance, sets high standards, provides a wide variety of practice opportunities, and overall supports and encourages the learner.
It is evident that our teachers, syllabus designers, materials developers and policy makers consciously or indifferently avoid pronunciation teaching/learning because of diverse limitations indicating the lack of qualifications and expertise of the persons concerned.
However, EFL pronunciation should be viewed in the same light as the other facets and skills of the English language, such as vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, and so on, since it is a crucial part of communication, especially through listening and speaking. Therefore, pronunciation components have to be incorporated in the materials, classroom activities and testing tools; and the teachers have to be trained in EFL pronunciation as well as EFL pronunciation teaching.
The teaching of EFL pronunciation has to aim at intelligible pronunciation considered as an essential component of communicative competence (Morley, 1991). And to help the learner acquire intelligible pronunciation, he/she can be exposed to a model, such as BBC English, Standard American English, or a locally produced variety like Indian Accent through some suitable and effective techniques/activities presented above.
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