Pronunciation: The "Cinderella" of Language Teaching by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
teaching pronunciation is one of the most complicated yet significant
aspects of EFL / ESL teaching. That is why it has been looked upon as
the "Cinderella" of language teaching (Kelly, 1969; Dalton,
1997). What should be drawn to our attention is that, in the process of
communication, pronunciation (of both segmental and suprasegmental (prosodic)
elements) is of paramount importance, since successful communication cannot
take place without correct pronunciation (Celce-Murcia, Brinton &
Goodwin, 1996)-poorly pronounced segments and suprasegments may have the
result of disorienting the listener and inhibiting comprehension. Of course,
the notion of "correctness" with regard to pronunciation is
not tantamount to adherence to "native speaker" norms or Received
Pronunciation (RP) rules.
Is pronunciation teachable?
some researchers (Suter, 1976; Purcell and Suter, 1980, et al.) who have
cast doubt on the importance of pronunciation in EFL teaching. According
to them, pronunciation practice in class has little, if any, effect on
learners' pronunciation skills. In other words, 'the attainment of accurate
pronunciation in a second language is a matter substantially beyond the
control of educators'.
Effective teaching pronunciation: some considerations
In order to make pronunciation teaching (PT) effective, we have to take into account the following factors:
a) Biological factors
to the so-called "Critical Period hypothesis" (or "Joseph
Conrad phenomenon"), it is futile to teach pronunciation after a
certain age (after about 14 years of age), because of learners' decreasing
ability to develop native-like pronunciation in a second or foreign language
(Lenneberg, 1967; Krashen, 1973). However, Flege (1981: 445) claims: 'neither
physiological maturation nor neurological reorganization renders an adult
incapable of speaking a foreign language without an accent'.
b) Personality factors
Linguistic expectations of interlocutors, ego permeability, attitude toward the foreign language, and type of motivation (Celce-Murcia, Brinton & Goodwin, 1996), all have their share in the development of pronunciation skills. Outgoing, confident learners, for example, might have more opportunities to practise their foreign language pronunciation simply because they are more often involved in interactions with native speakers (Avery & Ehrlich, 1992). On the other hand, some learners feel stupid pronouncing "weird" sounds and, with time, they decide that English pronunciation is next to impossible to attain (Laroy, 1995).
c) Sociocultural factors
People from some cultural backgrounds (for example, speakers of Japanese or Chinese) often think that it is impossible for them to pronounce English well. In some cases, improving pronunciation may be frowned upon within some communities, and the EFL learners might be discouraged from making any progress. If English, let's say, is associated with invasion and oppression, then it may be very difficult for learners to master the language.
d) Mother tongue influence
Among other things, the sound system of learners' mother tongue might be trasnferred into the foreign language in the following ways:
there is a sound in the foreign language, which is absent from the native
sound inventory, or vice versa, learners might be incapable of producing
or even perceiving the sound.
e) Setting realistic goals
Attempting to completely eradicate a foreign accent in an EFL class is an unrealistic goal. It would be more reasonable to bring learners up to a point where they do not make pronunciation mistakes that would affect their being understood. As long as pronunciation does not impede successful communication, it should be considered acceptable. Once again, "native speaker" norms should not be the yardstick against which to assess learners' pronunciation performance.
f) Pedagogic factors
In general, EFL teachers must make sure that:
learners produce large quantities of sentences by themselves;
Principles of effective pronunciation teaching
Bearing the above factors in mind, teachers should follow some pronciples of effective pronunciation teaching. In particular:
should learn to describe pronunciation and show how foreign language sounds
are physically articulated (Phonetic or phonemic symbols can come in handy).
A few words on suprasegmental (prosodic) features
experience shows that it is worthwhile to introduce sounds in prosodic
patterns even at the initial stage of learning, as it brings the idea
of "contextualised" sounds into connected speech. It could be
argued that in speech, suprasegmental features of stress, rhythm, pitch,
and intonation are equally important in achieving cohesion and coherence-two
terms usually associated with written discourse only.
To sum up, teaching pronunciation is of paramount importance in foreign language learning. To ensure effective pronunciation teaching, there are certain factors that should be considered: biological, personal, sociocultural, pedagogic, mother tongue influence, and setting realistic goals. Nevertheless, pronunciation teaching should not only focus on segmental features, i.e., teaching specific sounds or nuances of sounds, but also on suprasegmental or prosodic features, i.e., stress, rhythm, pitch, and intonation, which greatly contribute to communication. Of course, all this cannot be achieved unless teachers follow certain principles of effective pronunciation teaching: learning to describe pronunciation, creating a non-threatening atmosphere, and teaching pronunciation step by step.
Allen, G. D., & Hawkins, S. (1980). Phonological rhythm: Definition
and Development. In G. H. Yeni-Komshian, J. F. Kavanagh, & C. A. Ferguson
(Eds.), Child phonology. Volume I: Production (pp. 227-255). New York:
Dimitrios Thanasoulas studied English Literature and Linguistics at Athens University and then did an MA in Applied Linguistics at Sussex University. After that, he earned an MBA from Mooreland University and is currently finishing the second year of my PhD studies in Education at Nottingham University. His academic interests include fostering cultural awareness and learner autonomy, as well as such issues as language and ideology, Critical Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics, Sociolinguistics, and the Psychology of Education. Dimitrios can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org