In the ELT industry, the topic of teaching the sounds of English has many names from phonemics and pronunciation to phonetics, phonology and sound charts. Each of these could be considered a variation on a theme or, alternatively, individual aspects of the overall topic of teaching pronunciation. Some carry an air of academia, such as phonology, while others hint towards Young Learners e.g. sound charts and phonemics.
Regardless of what we call it, teaching the sounds of the language is an important part of English Language Teaching. Yet, very much like grammar and lexis, it is somewhat of a divided topic with some defending the old fort while others push for change.
Debunking a few Myths
The importance of pronunciation is perhaps one of the few universally agreed facets of the multi-faceted ELT world. If a learner cannot produce the sounds to string together a word or pronounces words beyond comprehension, it is fair to assume most, if not all, teachers would agree on the need to correct this.
However, that is as far as universal agreement goes. The degree to which pronunciation should be taught, corrected and worked on is widely disputed in our industry. When I was working at IH Oxford, on the topic of fine-tuning pronunciation a colleague once said to me: “as long as they’re understandable, I don’t bother with correcting their pronunciation.” This attitude is a stronghold among ELT professionals and is born out of a certain degree of logic: if we are teaching them to be communicative, why try to perfect their pronunciation to the level of a native?
The idea of teaching native-like pronunciation, teaching to a standard or even RP is a recurring theme among those who are dubious of the place pronunciation has in the ELT classroom; it is also a myth – one which I would like to debunk.
It is true some institutions, such as universities, do indeed offer courses in Received Pronunciation. However, the fear of teaching our learners RP in the ELT context is non-existent, given that almost all natives do not know RP and as a result are therefore unable to teach it. Those who identify themselves with RP will most probably be speakers of Estuary English, not RP.
In parts of the ELT world there is an association between a learner’s shortcomings in pronunciation and regional or national identity. The idea that a Spaniard wouldn’t sound like a Spaniard if he didn’t add an additional /e/ sound to words beginning in ’S’, such as ‘Spain’ and /espein/, and that he should do this in order to maintain some of his identity when using L2. However, as sound as this logic may seem, it all falls apart when you meet a Spaniard who still sounds likes a Spanish person, yet pronounces his home country as /spein/. Why is that?
The Segmental Approach
Teaching individual sounds and what happens to them when they come together to form words is referred to as the segmental approach to pronunciation: it is this approach which is most often left behind by teachers, for the reasons mentioned above.
However, given that sound production and accent are two separate and independent entities in the world of phonics – hence the Spanish example above – surely there is no real argument against teaching our learners the sounds of English, regardless of age, level and ability? While teaching the basics might often be reserved for YL courses, perhaps it could be worthwhile to teach the exact mechanism in producing Schwa – a sound all too often absent in the languages of our learners’ L1.
What about adult learners who are above elementary level? Should we bother with a segmental approach for them? A majority of native teachers have a penchant for neglecting the teaching of phonetics with adult courses, yet I cannot understand how they can standby and watch as a class all misproduce key vowel sounds, such as pronouncing the ‘i’ in ‘bird’ as /ɪː/ and not /ɜː/. Surely, this not only points to the agreement to incorporate segmental teaching into our courses but also identifies a clear need for it.
The Suprasegmental Approach
English is a “stress-timed” language, which means it has a regular rhythm with certainly words in a sentence being stressed and others being unstressed. Native speakers use stress-time in a very unconscious way and are unwittingly unaware of the meaning it entails – changing stress-time can very often completely change the meaning of a sentence.
The main implication of stress-time for learners is the fact it very often makes English sound as though it were being ‘sung’ rather than spoken. This perception is created by the necessity to move between two stressed words in a sentence by saying words in-between quickly, efficiently and above all in an unstressed form. Take a look at the following sentence as an example; the stressed words are highlighted in bold; clap your hands as you say the stressed words, making sure you keep a steady rhythm over all four claps:
one and a two and a three and a four and a
The words ‘and’ and ‘a’ are, when said in isolation, pronounced as /ənd/ and /eɪ/. However, they are not pronounced like that in the sentence above; in fact, the exact pronunciation is /ənə/. We chop off the final /d/ – this phonological process is called elision – and we change the vowel sound into its weak form: schwa /ə/.
Elision, unstressed forms, stress-time and rhythm are all facets of the suprasegmental approach to teaching sounds, which includes many other processes, such as pitch and intrusion. It is something which is often revered as ‘complex’ and requiring a lot of ‘explanation’ and as a result is reserved for higher level learners. Very much in the same way a segmental approach does not have to be reserved for Young Learners, nor does a suprasegmental approach have to be put off until upper-intermediate level. Using a clapping, drilling and hand gestures, my group of 10 year olds are now able to produce questions with initial do/does with making full use of stress-time, rhythm and unstressed forms.