When I arrived in Spain back in 1981, I quickly became fascinated by one of my colleagues at the university. Born and raised in Birmingham, he had faultless Spanish, accent included.
– Born in the UK?
– So he lived in Spain as a child?
– So has a Spanish mother?
– Really, honestly learned Spanish at school and university?
– Really, honestly.
– Well if he can do it, I can do it, I thought to myself.
And so my learner goal was set and I was on my way. (Pity that I failed, but that’s another story).
Despite the wide recognition of its importance, goal setting has often occupied a marginal place in the ELT endeavour. With so much else going on, that’s hardly surprising – it isn’t always easy to find the time to sit down with learners and talk them through what they want from our classes. This is especially true when it comes to pronunciation. Perhaps that explains why of all of the pronunciation teaching manuals on my shelves, only one (Kenworthy, 1987) includes ‘goals’ in the index. Glottal stops get far more attention in manuals, which makes you think, [dʌniʔ].
On the other hand, perhaps it’s not necessary to go to all the bother of asking learners about their goals since there are studies that make it quite clear that they want to sound like a native speaker. One of the studies most often cited is the one that Ivor Timmis did while working at Leeds Metropolitan University. Timmis used invented statements to represent native-speaker competence (EFL) and accented international intelligibility (EIL or ELF) as Student A and Student B, respectively:
Students A: ‘I can pronounce English just like a native speaker now. Sometimes people think I am a native speaker.’
Student B: ‘I can pronounce English clearly now. Native speakers and non-native speakers understand me wherever I go, but I still have the accent of my country.’
The results left little room for doubt.
A massive two-thirds of the 400 responses that came in from 14 different countries sought the goal of native-speaker competence. The goal I sought on arrival in Spain.
But is it that simple? It’s interesting to note, for example, that two–thirds of the students from South Africa, Pakistan and India, countries with well-established Englishes, each with their respective accents, opted for Student B. It makes sense. South Africans no more need to sound English or American than Pakistanis or Indians do. They are themselves, with their own Englishes.
Is it possible, staying with the idea of ‘owning your English’, that back in 2000 when Timmis did his work and when the notion of English as an international language (EIL) was still in its infancy, even students that predicted that they would use their English more with non-native speakers were still drawn to the Student A response because they lacked the confidence to accept that anything other than a native-speaker accent was failure?
This implicit goal of native-speakerness is what the updated Common European Framework is referring to when it says that ‘… the phonological control of an idealised native speaker has traditionaly been seen as the target, with accent being seen as a marker of poor phonological control‘ (See my post ‘A’ is for accent (2) for more on this). But as we move further into the 21st century, there are signs that things are beginning to change, and that the native-speaker is no longer being seen as the ultimate goal.
More recent studies of learners’ pronunciation goals and aspirations, for example, reveal some interesting issues. In a study carried out in the US, Julia Scales and her colleagues found that although 62% of their respondents stated that their goal was to sound like a native speaker, only 29 percent were actually able to identify an American NS accent in listening tasks. Even more interesting was the instance of a learner from Columbia who commented that her Asian classmates were difficult to understand, but who in a blind listening test went on to choose the Chinese accent ‘as the easiest to understand and the one she liked most‘ (Scales et al., 2006: 734).
Also interesting in this respect is a survey of school students in Finland which found that they ‘do not seem to have aspirations to native-like pronunciation’ (Tergujeff, 2013). Could it be that as the concept of English as a language of international communication becomes more widely assimilated, learners are moving closer to the position of the South African, Pakistani and Indian speakers in the Timmis study?
Whatever the answer, what should be apparent from what I’ve said so far is the need for teachers to talk to their learners about their pronunciation goals. This doesn’t mean doing full–blown surveys and needs analysis each time you meet a new group. But it could be useful to bring up the idea of learner goals when you start teaching pronunciation, and of indicating to your learners that although the ‘default’ setting might be that idealised NS accent that the updated CEFR refers to, there are meaningful, achievable, alternative goals.
One example of this sort of teacher initiative in action was given back in 2002 by Simon Cole, who deliberately explained the difference between EIL and EFL goals to his students in Japan and found that they were ‘pleasantly surprised’ to discover that they had a choice. In my own teaching I used to do something similar with my students at the University School of Tourism here in Asturias, in Northern Spain.
Looking back at that work, I think I would accept that I was passionate about English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) at that time (understatement), and was probably guilty of not heeding Jennifer Jenkins’ perfectly judged warning:
‘… it is important that we should all guard against political correctness in the sense of telling our students what their goals should be: in particular that they should not want to sound like native speakers if they clearly wish to do so’ (Jenkins, 1998).
In my defence, though, I can honestly say that I openly encouraged my tourism students to come and seek help if their chosen goal was a NS accent, given that we wouldn’t have time in class to deal with everything they would need to be competent in to reach their goal. Interestingly, in almost ten years of open discussion of learner pronunciation goals, only one student ever came to me to take me up on my offer: ‘It’s not that I want to sound like native speaker‘, she explained. ‘It’s just that I don’t want to sound Spanish.’
With private clients I had more time to spend on goal setting, and usually that was where I began. With one client who worked for a large US petrochemicals company from it’s European admin base here in Asturias, I started by asking him why he had sought my help and what his goals were for his pronunciation. He emailed me his reply as requested:
My goals would be to:
- Improve my entonation
- Have as little Spanish accent as possible (how need to determine where we can get)
- Detect and eliminate specific mistakes that I might be repeating
- Learn how to interpret the phonetics in a dictionary
- Be more confident when dealing with unknown environments (I mean when you dont know the audience or there are other “risk” factors I see that my ability to express myself in English decreases).
- By better knowing the phonetics and the pronunciation I hope to improve my listening as well (??). In business conversations, meetings, training, etc I understand 99% but when watching a film for example I think can understand about 70-80%)
His goals weren’t what I expected, but they gave me an unbeatable starting point for our work together. They also finally made it crystal clear to me that we need to know what our learners’ goals are before we start teaching pronunciation. In fact, determining goals is key to good pronunciation teaching. Admittedly, it can be complicated when different learners have different goals. But it’s not impossible, as Mark Hancock and I have already tried to explain (Hancock, 2019; Walker, 2019), and not determining goals, and more importantly not determining realistic goals, can have a dire effect on the outcome of your work. Tell me about it!
- we don’t take goals seriously enough in pronunciation teaching
- learners’ goals appear to be changing as the notion of English as an international language becomes more widely understood and accepted
- teachers need to find out what goals their learners have
- our job is to help learners to achieve their pronunciation goals
Cole, S. (2002). An investigation of the role of vowel quality in oral interactions between NNSs of English as an international language’. Speak Out! 29,: 28–37.
Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment Companion Volume with New Descriptors. (2018). Council of Europe. Retrieved from https://rm.coe.int/cefr-companion-volume-with-new-descriptors-2018/1680787989
Hancock, M. (2019). Beyond Dogma and Denial. Speak Out! 60. Available at http://hancockmcdonald.com/ideas/elf-beyond-dogma-and-denial
Jenkins, J. (1998). ‘Which pronunciation norms and models for English as an Interenational Language?’ ELT Journal 52/2: 119–26.
Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.
Tergujeff, E. (2013). Learner Perspective on English Pronunciation Teaching in an Efl Context. Research in Language, vol. 11.1: 81.
Timmis, I. (2002). ‘Native-speaker norms and International English: a classroom view.’ ELT Journal 56/3: 240–49.
Walker, R. (2019) From being intelligible to being themselves: pronunciation for today. Modern English Teacher 28/3: 64–67.
Such an interesting and succint article. As a non-native English speaker teacher (NNEST), I always go through these issues with my students urging them to aspire to a high level of intelligibility but not get too hung up on their accent. I’ll never forget the London cabbie who took me home after my night shift at the Hungarian Section of the World Service complimenting on how he could understand each and every word I was saying (I was so tired, I was blabbering away) and adding that the way I used words sounded extraordinary to him. Local taxi drivers in Ecuador praise me for my Spanish, and I have also acquired a bit of the sing-song intonation of Cuenca, but English still remains my second best language (after my mother tongue Hungarian). I would call my English accent ‘neutral European”.
A couple of weeks ago I was a team member in a Vocabulary Challenge Tournament and by Week 2 (of 4) I ran out of words to practise! The organizers said the vocabulary tests were not meant for ‘native speakers’, but I am worse: I studied Latin and learnt reasonable Modern Greek when I lived in Crete, so I was etymologising and could guess words that appear like three times in a million running words :-). In the end, the other seven contestants decided to keep me on the team and do more than their fair share, and we won the competition :-). Just as well: no greater joy than your colleagues and students surpassing you.
Thanks for the feedback, Elizabeth. It’s really good to see that you go through the issue of pronunciation goals with your students, and as I show in my 2019 article in MET, high levels of international intelligibilty don’t exclude a learner’s options for going on to whatever accent they final decide to aim for. Quite the opposite, in fact, since everything that is needed to be internationally intelligible is also part of native-speaker accents.
It was interesting to see that you’ve picked up the intonation of Cuenca. Intonation is one of the aspects of pronunciation that isn’t really teachable (i.e. responds to direct teacher action in the classroom). But it is very learnable in the sense that it can be acquired (in the Krashen sense of ‘acquisition’) by regular contact with a specific speech community. This is especially the case when you have strong reasons to become fully integrated into that community.
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