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Pronunciation - what are the limits?

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the problems faced when teaching English pronunciation.


Most foreign language learners would agree that the improvement of their pronunciation is a desirable and necessary objective. How realistic, however, is the expectation amongst adult learners in particular that such an objective can be attained?

There is a whole range of material available on the market designed to give learners practice in different aspects of pronunciation, from individual phonemes to intonation patterns, but how effective these materials are is open to debate. Market forces dictate that most published pronunciation materials are of a general nature and not geared to learners from a specific linguistic background. Thus, in a mixed nationality class it is entirely possible that learners may waste time practising the pronunciation of individual English phonemes that they are perfectly able to pronounce anyway, as these phonemes have virtually identical, if not wholly identical, equivalents in their mother tongue.

In the case of phonemes, it would appear to be worth devoting attention to this area only if there are clearly defined problems caused by mother tongue interference that affect intelligibility. If this is the case, it should be possible to identify those vowel, consonant and diphthong sounds that cause particular problems to learners from specific linguistic backgrounds. If this is done, it can be argued that practice in the pronunciation of individual phonemes is worthwhile, even if any improvement is perceived as minimal. Having clear objectives (for example: these are the six sounds that you need to work on) is surely the key in this particular area of pronunciation.

Unfortunately for the learner, however, effective pronunciation is much more than the stringing together of a series of sounds. The "facial set" of a particular language will have a significant impact on attempts to pronounce another. By the time adulthood is reached, the facial muscles used in the articulation of the sounds of the mother tongue will have developed to the extent that it requires genuine effort to adapt these muscles to the sounds of a different language. Changing this facial set to approximate that of English requires the learner not only to be willing to attempt this change but to have an awareness of what he or she needs to do in order to achieve it. This can be a very difficult process.

Just what is the facial set of English? Some learners have said that English sounds to them as if it is mumbled. Others say that there is little or no apparent jaw movement, that English sounds "lazy". In his book "How to be an Alien", the Hungarian writer George Mikes writes "If you want to sound English, just put a pipe in your mouth and say ‘actually’ at the end of every sentence". These observations might be over-simplifications, but they are nonetheless significant, as they tell us something about how the pronunciation of English is perceived by others. It can be argued that pronouncing a foreign language is, first and foremost, to demonstrate an ability to switch to a different persona, one in which the learner takes on the facial set of that language. The learner also needs to be able to identify particular features of phonemes, stress, rhythm and intonation that give the language its distinctive sound.

An interesting, if not always successful experiment, is to ask learners to imitate an English speaker speaking their language and then to invite them to suggest what was different about the way they were speaking to the way they normally spoke their mother tongue. The results can be very informative and often produce similar comments to those mentioned above. This exercise has overtones of imitation, even mimicry, and can only be performed successfully after extensive exposure to examples of spoken English.

Listening is of paramount importance to the process of acquiring a more comprehensible pronunciation. If pronunciation is only affected slightly by this kind of awareness, at least some progress has been made. The goal of pronunciation teaching must be increased comprehensibility, however limited that increase may be. In the final analysis, the development of perfect, native-speaker-like pronunciation may not only be an unachievable objective, it may also be undesirable as it raises questions of identity. After all, English spoken with a "non-standard" accent will often sound extremely pleasant to the listener, and why in any case should Budapest English or Bremen English be regarded as in any way inferior to Belfast English or Birmingham English.

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