Intelligible… Sorry, what did you say?

As many of you will have spotted, I’m rubbish at posting things on my blog. But at this point in the game, I have to just accept that a leopard isn’t going to change its spots. However, I’ve decided to post today because I’ve just been to the TESOL-SPAIN Annual Convention in Salamanca, where I talked about an issue that has occupied a lot of my thinking over the past few years. I’m referring to intelligibility (and yes, I do think from time to time!).

The unwritten goal of pronunciation teaching throughout a large part of the 20th century was native-speakerness. Progress even in sophisticated international exams was usually measured in the presence/absence of any L1 phonological features in the speaker’s accent in English. Success was the total elimination of all L1 transfer.

The 2018 CEFR update, however, has re-written the descriptors for phonological control entirely, and has eliminated all references to native-speakerness in learners’ accents on the grounds that:

… the phonological control of an idealised native speaker has traditionally been seen as the target, with accent being seen as a marker of poor phonological control. The focus on accent and on accuracy instead of on intelligibility has been detrimental to the development of the teaching of pronunciation.

Major exam boards have not been slow to spot this shift away from native-speakerness and towards intelligibility, and all of them now reference a candidate’s intelligibility in speaking tests, rather than how much they sound like a native speaker. And all of them had shifted to intelligibility long before the CEFR was updated. (See the CEFR 2018 Companion Volume).

But what has made me uncomfortable at times, is the growing doubt as to whether or not we are all referring to the same thing when we say that a speaker is intelligible. These doubts led me to making intelligibility the central theme of my session in Salamanca.

I started the session by explaining in some detail the reasoning for this significant CEFR change in pronunciation goals, and then moved on to look at the term ‘intelligibility’ in depth. On first encounter the term appears to be self-explanatory, but closer examination reveals that it is not without its difficulties. Is intelligibility objective? Can it be measured in ways that are easy to reproduce and carry through into classroom practice? What is the relationship between intelligibility and comprehensibility, or between intelligibility and accent? Is there any difference between intelligibility when using English with its native speakers and intelligibility for international (lingua franca) communication? And how can intelligibility be taught and learned in classrooms around the world?

These were the questions I asked in Salamanca, and hopefully answered. The presentation I used can be viewed here:

Still got doubts? I’m not surprised. This is an essential but complex issue in 21st century ELT.

2 thoughts on “Intelligible… Sorry, what did you say?

  1. Thanks for a great talk in Salamanca, Robin, and for giving us lots to think about.

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