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Reaching for the stars - Comfortable Intelligibility

Goals of a different kind this week. Quite a lot of our students would like to sound like native speakers. There are others who want to retain some of their mother tongue accent when speaking another language. And there are others who are not interested so long as they are understood.

It is common to reply to the first group with 'Sorry, but only a few ever achieve that, so don't bother' followed by a discussion on 'comfortable intelligibility', a term coined by Abercrombie in 1967. This means that if the student is comfortably intelligible in situations they find themselves, then there is no reason to make a greater effort along the road to native speaker-likeness. This extra effort can be devoted to more important & attainable areas of language development. The Teaching Tip 'Getting a perspective' below looks at a few questions that can guide students to an awareness of the degree of native-speaker accent that they might need.

But maybe we are wrong about this as we are discouraging students from becoming better speakers of the language. Sure, there are reasons for this, but is it such a good idea? Why not let them try & encourage them to attain the highest degree that they can? A dampening of motivation is sure to have knock-on effects in other areas of their language learning.

Maybe as teachers, the best route is to point out that a native speaker accent won't come overnight & then proceed to show them the steps they need to achieve it. These steps include finding out yourself how the sound & intonation systems work & then what problems the different areas pose for the nationalities you are teaching.

Then you will need to consider how to approach the different areas, productively & receptively, as there are some areas that our students will only need to recognise, initially anyway. If for reception only, the students need to actually hear the area, then they will need to identify it & finally discriminate between similar aspects. If for production, the students will need the three previous stages plus a production stage to follow on. Encouragement, awareness of what is involved & building up logically stage by stage seems to be a sensible approach.

It is easy to inadvertently put students off when discussing their long-term goals & we have to be careful how we channel their ideas. Part of our job is to look hard at what they might be using English for in the future. The student will have a general idea & we bring our expertise to the detail in an effort to help them attain their goals.

Getting a perspective

Some students would like to sound like native speakers & I'm sure we all know some learners like this. And it would be lovely if all of our students could sound like native speaker but unfortunately for the majority this is hardly a reasonable expectation. So a degree of awareness on what level is required of individual levels can help to put this area into perspective. At the beginning of a course, or when beginning on a pronunciation strand, a discussion about this can be useful.

The following questions are designed to help you to think about the level of intelligibility you could aim for with your pronunciation.

1. Does it bother you if your pronunciation isn't very good? Would you prefer it to be better?

2. Would you like to retain your accent when speaking English?

3. Who will you be using English with in the future - native speakers of English or non-native speakers of English? Which might be the more tolerant conversation partner?

4. What kind of target situations might you be using your English in? E.g. on the phone, face-to-face business meetings, social eating & drinking?What different levels of pronunciation proficiency might be required in these different situations?

5. To what level do you want to get to with your pronunciation?

6. How could you develop your pronunciation outside of class?

Exposure to English is obviously very important for pronunciation development &, very probably, your students will be dealing with non-native speakers of English in English so it would seem sensible to use different non-native models in listenings in class. That's not to say we should discard the native model as it does give a catch-all level to aim for. A combination of the two would seem sensible.

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