What is the one area of English that the vast majority of English language schools and English language teachers shy away from and rarely teach?
Really? Yes, it is true. Even if pronunciation is covered in class, it is often an afterthought, or quickly glossed over.
Pronunciation is perhaps THE most important element in effective spoken communication. Yet it is much maligned and frequently overlooked in favour of vocabulary, grammar and reading etc. Even poor old writing which is often seen as the poor cousin in English teaching receives more attention than pronunciation.
But why is this? There are many reasons most teachers and schools do not teach pronunciation.
- Teachers who train for their Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) generally do not get taught the importance of pronunciation during the course. The focus is on lesson planning and structure, group dynamics and lesson management, ‘how to teach’…rather than ‘what to teach’.
- Most English language teachers embark on a career in EFL without having learnt or studied pronunciation or linguistics
- Most schools do not include pronunciation in their curriculum and consequently even if the teacher has previously learnt about phonetics, intonation, syllable stress etc, they quickly forget it through non use
- If you teach overseas most of your classes are monolingual groups. I used to teach groups of around 15 Indonesian students. All had the same pronunciation difficulties which could be easily attended to. But when a Japanese or Korean student joined the class, the problems in communication between students (and the teacher too) became very apparent and problematic – because their pronunciation was so different
- Students don’t feel the need to learn pronunciation…’It’s boring/ unnecessary/irrelevant’ They want vocabulary and grammar instead. That is until they try speaking with a native speaker or other English language learner, perhaps over the phone, in a meeting etc and while the student has excellent vocabulary and grammar and speaks very well, the reaction they receive is ‘Huh? Sorry, I don’t understand….”
- There has been a global shift towards a generic ‘American’ accent amongst learners. Many of my students in Indonesia and Malaysia spoke English with an American inflection…or a ‘twang’ They sounded quite American and I was impressed. When I asked if they had an American father or mother or if they had spent time living in the States or Canada very often the answer was no. They had never left their country. Really?….Yes, a constant diet of MTV, American films and television series had seen them develop an accent more in line with Los Angeles than Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur.
- The globalisation of accent in learners does not however account for the vast majority of learners from a huge variety of linguistic backgrounds. All of whom present particular problems with learning how to formulate correct vowel and consonant sounds, effective stress and rhythm and nuanced, communicative intonation. Take a learner (one of the over 1 billion people learning English currently) from Russia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Mexico and Algeria and you will discover a huge difference in how their English sounds…a complex pattern of sounds, dropped consonant endings, flat monotones, exaggerated intonation, confused consonant sounds, flattened vowels, unusual word stress etc etc. It is a linguistic minefield
Luckily I have worked in a school where pronunciation was given equal importance as reading, listening, speaking, writing, grammar and vocabulary. Two lessons per week were devoted to improving pronunciation. When you have a class of 6 students comprising a Swiss, Spaniard, Russian, Brazilian, Kuwaiti and Japanese you can understand why pronunciation was so necessary.
Many of the students experienced exactly the same problems in their first few days at the school. Based in the West Midlands of England, the students were immediately exposed to native English speakers in every situation. From interacting with a host family, taking a bus to school, buying lunch or train tickets, asking the way, buying a pint in a pub or ordering their fish and chips….
This is a summary of what they found
- “I can understand the teacher and the staff in the school, but I can’t understand people in the city….Why?!” The reason is simple. As teachers we speak with a clearer, more careful pronunciation dependent on the level of the student. In the ‘real world’ outside of class the students were faced with ‘fast native speech’. I explained that actually they did understand. They knew all the individual words…But it was the speed and the way native speakers link or connect words together that was the problem.
One student panicked in a shop when the assistant asked her..”Wudyalikabag?”…Say it quickly and it is one very fast utterance.. a noise. But we are used to hearing it in context, regularly. The student looked to me for help. “Would..you..like..a..bag?” Ah, I understand she said. She knew the words, the sentence. Easy. But it was understanding fast speech that caused all her problems
- They expected most people to speak English with a standard English accent; ‘Received Pronunciation’. The English they would most probably have heard via course book listening exercises, the BBC radio and online…’Oxford English’ as it is sometimes known. What they discovered was a variety of English accents which often changed in a very short geographical distance. Within 120 miles / 200km of our school the accents of Birmingham, Wales, Oxford, Bristol, London, Manchester and Liverpool were as diverse and different as you could find.
- Added to the accents the students experienced a range of dialect….vocabulary and expressions, idiomatic language that caused them more problems in following native speaker pronunciation.
- When they spoke to native speakers, although most people tried to help and were patient in listening, some would get frustrated and a few would walk off or say ‘no, sorry, can’t help you’. Not very nice. But the root cause was not bad grammar or poor vocabulary. It was how the student asked the question. The use of pronunciation. Take an example of a pleasant, friendly Russian man. Let’s call him Vladimir. He approached a person and asked ‘Can you tell me way to station?’ However his natural tendency as a Russian speaker is to speak with a very low monotone. A flat ___________________________ sentence. No up and down, rise and fall.
“can….you…tell…me…way…to…station?” – Of course there a couple of articles (the) missing; typical of Russian speakers. And can would be better as ‘could’…and don’t forget…’Excuse me….please?’ People would not answer. People would walk away. Why? Grammar, vocabulary…missed article?
No. A low, monotone sounds angry, sad, fed up, bored, aggressive, annoyed, tired, direct, impolite etc etc….. Vladimir soon learnt the importance of rise and fall in intonation to create the correct feeling and to get the appropriate response from the listener.
- With a few structured lessons looking at individual aspects of pronunciation such as shifting syllable stress (I want to reCORD a new REcord….We would like to preSENT you with a leaving PRESent), word stress – SUpermarket…not (French speakers) suPER marKEET , intonation and understanding common fast expressions (gonna wanna gotta d’ya (do / did you?)) students very quickly adapted to their new environment and began to understand and communicate more comfortably both in and outside of school.
- Once students had studied pronunciation, almost every one said how important they felt it to be in helping them improve. And they could understand why their meetings, presentations, conversations, phone calls etc, were unsuccessful and frustrating previously.
As some students quickly realised, there is a very big difference between these sentences; (say them quickly)
“This is Mr Peter Smith, my boss. He is a very IMportant man”
“This is Mr peter Smith, my boss. He is a very imPORTant man”
So, in summary, what is the value of learning pronunciation, or in teaching it?
- Students are able to make progress more quickly, by developing more effective spoken skills. Their pronunciation supports their development of the other key skills and allows them to be more successful in all conversational and speaking situations.
- Students lose the fear of speaking publicly, the worry that ‘no one will understand me’. They quickly gain confidence in the knowledge that native speakers and other language learners of all linguistic backgrounds can understand what they say.
- Students develop a more natural and fluent way of speaking. They begin to eliminate errors that cause confusion or a poor, unexpected reaction (e.g losing their monotone speech or overly exaggerated sentences).
- Teachers are able to create a more harmonious and collective learning environment within their classes as everyone understands everyone else!
- Teachers can introduce realistic role plays, authentic listening materials and ideas that can be immediately put to use outside of the classroom environment (whether in a native English speaking country or even in watching native level English video, Skype calls, meetings with expatriate native speakers etc).
- While vocabulary and grammar are essential, without effective pronunciation, a breakdown in communication is inevitable.
- Pronunciation lessons do not have to be boring, uninspiring and irrelevant. They can be exciting and varied. They can be pitched at every level from beginner to advanced. Even beginners need to understand ‘Wasyaname?’ ‘Whereyafrum?’and ‘D’yahav’nyquestions?’
- Pronunciation is often neglected in EFL, but if you incorporate pronunciation into your lessons and curriculum, you will be gaining a significant advantage over teachers and schools who ignore pronunciation.
- The improvement in student confidence, ability to be understood and to understand other speakers of English is often very rapid. Pronunciation can be the catalyst to accelerated learning and overall improvement in their English level.
As part of my online English teaching, I am happy to focus on aspects of pronunciation that students find problematic. This could include voice coaching for presentations, conversational techniques, intonation or individual phonetic sound problems. All you need to do is ask …although when speaking to you, I may be able to advise you immediately which aspect of pronunciation you would benefit from working on.