Rethinking How We Teach Pronunciation

Expressive cartoon mouth articulation, talking lips animations. Lip sync animation phonemes for say expression affront, speaking and animated characters talk accents vector set
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When I teach pronunciation, a feeling of unease claws at my chest. I scan the expectant faces from Iran, Turkey, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, China, Korea, Columbia and Cameroon. How do I respond to the needs of such an internationally diverse group?

Inevitably, I sigh and forge ahead. The schwa, long vowels and short, voiced and unvoiced…Whatever is the unit of the day. The students regurgitate the sounds en masse. They avidly scrutinize the exaggerated shape of my lips, the position of my tongue.

They desperately want to master the so-called “standard” English and sound like a so-called “native” speaker. After scrawling some phonetic symbols on the board, I walk around the desks, watch and listen. The students from Columbia and Cameroon are in luck because I know some French and Spanish and kind of get what their mouths are doing. The other students, though? All I can do is model the sounds and hope for the best. After all, I am a native English speaker, and they should use me as their model.

At least, that’s what I thought until I discovered linguist Jennifer Jenkins, who did extensive research on the core pronunciation features necessary for non-native speakers (NNS) to communicate with one another intelligibly. Based on her data, Jenkins proposed a teaching model known as Lingua Franca Core (LFC). She designed it specifically for learners who will ultimately communicate in English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and consequently need to be understood by other NNS and able to recognize and accommodate each other’s accents (Patsko, 2013b). Since most English speakers worldwide are now NNS (seeFigure 1)and since we live in a globalized context in which ELF is the most widely used language (Patsko, 2013a), it struck me that we should not only change our teaching model but also change our whole mindset about what constitutes “Good English.”

Jenkins divides pronunciation elements into those seen as coreto intelligibility and those that are noncore, or nonessential (Patsko, 2013a; Spicer, 2011; Mooney & Evans, 2015). In proposing this model, Jenkins redetermines what we think of as “pronunciation errors” and not only does she not try to rid students of their accents, she accepts them as an integral part of a learner’s identity (Spicer, 2011).

I now make a point of showing Kachru’s Circles representing Global Englishes to my mixed-L1 classes. The students look both surprised and empowered to learn that they, as NNS, vastly outnumber native English speakers. They are even more surprised to hear that there is no shame in keeping their accents. (We just need teacher training courses and IELTS and other international testing organizations to go along with this, and until they do, we are more or less compelled to focus on the unrealistic, impractical norm of NS pronunciation in a NS environment. For an interesting article on this, see Spicer, 2011.)

Although the idea of using LFC as a teaching model seems unusual and even scary to some, I think it is worth considering. At the very least, we owe it to our students to prepare them for the strong likelihood that they will need to communicate intelligibly with other NNS in international settings.

Not everyone agrees with Jenkins’ proposed list of core and noncore features. And that’s okay. We, as educators, are free to add to, subtract from, and amend Jenkins’ model and use her research to inform our teaching in any way we choose. Jenkins herself was the first to admit that more research needs to be done (Patsko, 2013a), so join in!

Laura Patsko (2013a), for example, did a study on teaching LFC to promote intelligibility in mixed-L1 classrooms. For the study, she developed a grid for teachers that highlights the overlapping pronunciation challenges of students from various countries. This is a fantastic resource and is just one of many available on the Lingua Franca Core website, including a minimal pairs battleship game that also caters to the pronunciation needs of mixed-L1 classes.

If anything, Jenkins’, Patsko’s, and Kachru’s research has encouraged me to think more about my students’ pronunciation goals. One thing is for sure: I no longer see myself as some sort of “pronunciation beacon” for my students. It’s more the reverse.

References

Mooney, A., & Evans, B. (2015). Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. (4th Ed.) New York: Routledge.​

Patsko, L. (2013a). Using the Lingua Franca Core to promote students’ mutual intelligibility in the multilingual classroom: Five teachers’ experiences. Unpublished MA Dissertation. London: Kings College. Retrieved from https://laurapatsko.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/patsko_ma_2013.pdf

Patsko, L. (2013b).  What is the Lingua Franca Core? Retrieved from https://elfpron.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/what-is-the-lfc/

Spicer, E. (2011). The impact of Jenkins’ lingua franca core on the teaching of pronunciation on CELTA and DELTA courses. International House Journal of Education and Development. (30). Retrieved from http://ihjournal.com/the-impact-of-jenkins%E2%80%99-lingua-franca-core-on-the-teaching-of-pronunciation-on-celta-and-delta-courses-by-eleanor-spicer

POST COMMENT 5

5 thoughts on “Rethinking How We Teach Pronunciation”

  1. Hi Jennifer

    Delighted to see this post, and glad you found my work so helpful. I would only point out that Jennifer Jenkins originally proposed the LFC not as a “teaching model” per se, but merely as a set of core features that learners should have in their repertoires, for use when appropriate.

    In other words, the LFC isn’t a representation of a particular speaker that learners should copy, but more a research-based representation of the repertoire of pronunciation features that effective ELF users use in their speech. I’d think of it as more of a syllabus than a model, if anything. And she pointed out – as do you, above! – that “we, as educators, are free to add to, subtract from, and amend [this] to inform our teaching”.

    It’s great to see more and more teachers gaining awareness of this approach and adapting their teaching to suit the needs of their students! Keep it up!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  2. Thanks, Laura. Am happy, and flattered, that you read my post.

    Yes, I agree that “model” isn’t the best term to use, as it implies a template to emulate and not a “repertoire” as you say.

    I am impressed with your research in this area. Thank you for sharing it with us!

    Jennifer

  3. Jennifer,
    I cannot LOVE this post enough. Five stars. It’s high time we teachers of English as an additional language get up to speed on the latest perspectives on this topic. When a students tell me they want to eliminate their accents (as opposed to being intelligible), I bring up very successful people who had accents, such as Zha Zha Gabor and Henry Kissinger.

    I remember when I first started out in this field ten years ago watching (as a teaching assistant) as the literacy instructor forced a room full of Karen refugees to make the TH sound. He used a video in which a man is being really derisive of people who cannot produce a “proper” TH in English. His colonial mindset and the way he tortured this eager-to-please new arrivals made my skin crawl.

    I have a Romanian friend who uses /f/ instead of voiceless TH and /z/ instead of voiced TH. My German friend says “Sank you” and “close ze door.” I understand both of these friends perfectly.

    I hope your blog post generates much needed and very long overdue discussion and re-evaluation of what we value (and why!) in the teaching of pronunciation.

    1. Thanks, Kelly!

      It’s a great idea to give students examples of successful, intelligible people with accents. We could show little video clips of them in class.

      By trying to get rid of their accents, students put too much pressure on themselves and end up feeling defeated. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard comments such as “my accent sucks” or “I’ll never sound like you.”

      It’s certainly hard to get them to participate and to speak up when they feel so insecure.

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