Changing times

As promised in the previous post, back to the IH World Organisation DOS Conference in Greenwich last weekend. This was very special for me for lots of reasons, one of which was that I had the very great honour of having Brita Haycraft in the audience. Back in 1978 Brita wrote one of the very first manuals on the teaching of pronunciation. As soon as I mentioned Brita’s name to my wife, who teaches at the local university, she knew exactly who I was talking about: The Teaching of Pronunciation. A Classroom Guide was a key reference work for many young teachers at that time.

During my pronunciation workshop at IHWO DOS. Brita Haycraft can be seen sharing her vast experience on the left of the photo.

During my pronunciation workshop at IHWO DOS. Brita Haycraft can be seen sharing her vast experience on the left of the photo.

Talking to Brita after my workshop, she said that she’d written a second pronunciation manual, English Aloud, which she had prepared with the language laboratory in mind, but which hadn’t had as much success as her first book.

So what ever happened to those language labs and their pronunciation drills and skills? Well, communicative language teaching arrived and segmentals went out of the window. Suddenly it was all to do with suprasegmentals because, as Stevens put it in 1989, “in the absence of the absolute mutilation of phonemes by a nonnative speaker, the suprasegmentals will carry the day because they bear the meaning of the message”.

With the passing of time, the occasionally obssessive interest with suprasegmentals has waned, and a more even balance seems to have been struck today between a focus on the sounds of English and a focus on what happens at higher levels, when sounds meet in words, and words meet in discourse.

This recent equilibrium between segmental and suprasegmental aspects of English pronunciation is welcomed by most, but I wonder how long we are going to have to wait until an equally healthy balance is struck between teaching pronunciation with a focus on a specific accent, and teaching it with a focus on intelligibility. True we often refer  to ‘comfortable intelligibility’, a term put forward by Abercrombie in 1949, as the goal for pronunciation teaching, but Abercrombie meant comfortable for a native-speaker listener. What about making room for a goal of comfortable intelligibility for nonnative speakers in ELF contexts, which is not  the same thing?

That would be a sign of changing times, and we should be in no doubt, in terms of teaching pronunciation, the times, they are a-changing.