Jenner and Jenkins

My lords, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to bring before you now the two academics who many would argue have done more than anyone else to shape the world of pronunciation teaching as we know it today. With no expense spared, and in the sincere desire to quench your limitless thirst for knowledge, from the University of Vienna (though previously of Christ Church College Cantebury), please welcome the very affable and wholly inimitable Dr Bryan Jenner. And from the University of Southampton (though previously from Kings College London), the irrepressible, the indomitable, the one and only, Professor Jennifer Jenkins.

[SFX – loud cheers and some jeering. One or two members of the audience leave their front-row seats in disgust.]

I warned you last week that I was going to introduce you to a highly original double act, but joking aside, what we are looking at when we consider the work of Bryan Jenner and Jennifer Jenkins is the reaching of a turning point in the history of pronunciation teaching. The end–point of this sharp change of direction you are all aware of (or should be). How it came about is less well–known, but is a story that I think is worth telling.

The aim of pronunciation teaching may have initially been seen as providing learners with a native-speaker accent, but as early as 1949 voices were being raised against this unrealistic goal. The most significant of these was David Abercrombie, the first Profesor of Phonetics at the University of Edinburgh, who argued that most learners ‘need no more than comfortably intelligible pronunciation’ (Abercrombie, 1949: 3). His idea was taken up later by Joanne Kenworthy in Teaching English Pronunciation when she also argued that for most learners being comfortably intelligible’ was a far more reasonable goal than aiming for a native-speaker accent (Kenworthy, 1987: 3).

[Exeunt Abercrombie and Kenworthy. Enter Jenner Stage R.]

In an article published in Speak Out!, the journal of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group, phonetician Bryan Jenner put forward a concept that, unbeknown to anyone at the time, was a game-changer. Earlier work by Jenner had gone into significant detail as to how to master a native-speaker accent of English (Jenner, 1987), but in 1989 he surprised quite a few of us by changing track altogether, and arguing that it was:

now appropriate also to consider those learners who, for one reason or another, do not want or need to sound entirely native–like, and to establish a lower-level objective for them. In order to be able to do this, it seems to me essential to establish what all native speakers of all native varieties have in common which enables them to communicate effectively with native speakers of varieties other than their own. The will enable us to set up a common core for pronunciation, which would offer the learner a guarantee of intelligibility and acceptability anywhere in the world (Jenner, 1989: 2. Italics in original).

Jenner’s deliberations resulted in an order of priority for the ten points of pronunciation that he felt were required for learners to achieve the aim of minimum intelligibility. These were:

Jenner’s Common Core scanned from Speak Out! 4: 4. (Why on earth back then did we think that it was useful to print on orange paper?)

Given its historic importance, it’s perhaps worth stopping to look at some of the reasoning behind Jenner’s list of priorities. Vowel quality is noticeably absent from the ‘top ten’, for example, because, as he argued, ‘[n]ative accents show such enormous differences in vowel quality that it cannot be claimed that these are vital for mutual intelligiblity’. He then went on to state that vowel quantity or ‘length’, ‘would have a much higher priority for our minimum objectives’ since ‘[a]ll native varieties make oppositions based on vowel length; i.e. they all have some long vowels contrasting with some short vowels, and the loss of these contrasts seriously impairs intelligibility’. (Jenner, 1989: 3).

Jenner also argued that Englishes around the world tended to be rhotic (i.e. to always pronounce an ‘r’ found in the spelling of a word), that the distinction between clear and dark /l/ was not vital, and that consonants were more important for intelligibility than vowels. Similarly, he argued that while their are subtle but minor phonetic differences between intonation patterns of regional varieties of English, what was common to all varieties, and hence important to our learners, was the the use of prominence (i.e. the highlighting of certain words in an utterance), the placement of the tonic syllable (i.e. the focusing of the listener’s attention on a specific word), and the use of a binary set of tones (i.e. the movement of the pitch of the voice up or down).

Vowel quantity, but not vowel quality. Consonants seen as more important than vowels. Rhoticity ‘yes’, but dark /l/ ‘no’. Prominence and placement of the tonic syllable. Is this all beginning to sound familiar to you? Yes? So go and do something else with your time. I’ll see you next week (please!). No? Then read on.

Jenner’s proposals don’t look that radical today, but they were fairly controversial when they came out. The communicative approach had sent members of groups like the PronSIG scurrying to determine the priorities for pronunciation teaching now that the goal of ELT was much more about the ability to communicate through English than the attainment of native-speaker levels of competence. Barbara Bradford, for example, added to the deliberations of the time with her article on The Essential Ingredients of a Pronunciation Programme (1990), and I contributed my own thoughts in my first ever publication on pronunciation, Phonetics in a Communicative Classroom, also in Speak Out! (Walker, 1994). Sadly, Speak Out! was not (and is still not) very widely read, so most of our deliberations fell on deaf ears, save for the ears of one notable and exceptional listener.

[Exeunt Bradford and Walker. Enter Jenkins Stage L.]

Having just finished her doctorate on the acquisition of second language phonology, Jennifer Jenkins was working as the Head of Teacher Training at the English Language Teaching Centre of King’s College London. She quickly spotted the importance of Jenner’s Common Core, but set about modifying it because of the significance of the changes in the role of English in the world. Seven years is nothing in the development of a living language, but the seven years between 1989 and 1996 could have been seven centuries in terms of what happened to English, which almost overnight (or so it seemed at the time) had become a global language.

Openly acknowledging Jenner’s work and the importance of guaranteeing ‘intelligibility and acceptability anywhere in the world’, Jenkins set about modifying the common core in order to take into account various factors, key amongst which was the changing demographics of the use of English. Even back then (and it’s not actually that long ago), it was understood that English was being spoken far more between NNSs than between NSs and NNSs, i.e. that English was predominantly being used as a lingua franca (ELF) or international language (EIL). Jenkins agreed with Jenner that ‘the starting point is intelligibility for the listener’, but deliberately took into account the new role of English, and hence clarified that ‘whereas Jenner’s listener is a NS, mine is a NNS’ (Jenkins, 1996: 17).

The rest, as they say, is history. Jenkins’ modified common core finally morphed into what is now widely know as the Lingua Franca Core (LFC). This is such an essential construct if you want to understand pronunciation teaching today that I’m going to post about under the ‘L’ (surprise!). But I think it would be useful to round off this post by pointing out three major differences between the Jenner and Jenkins cores:

  1. Jenner’s Common Core examined the way in which native-speaker varieties of English manage to be mutually intelligible (if indeed they do). By identifying the common features of all NS varieties, he argued, we would know what to teach learners to make them comfortably intelligible to NS listeners. Jenkins’ lingua franca core took the nonnative–speaker listener as the default setting, relegating NS norms to a back seat for the first time. ‘One small step for (wo)man. One giant leap for…’, or something to that effect.
  2. Jenner’s work was based principally on his extensive knowledge of the phonetics and phonology of different native speaker varieties of English. Jenkins’ data was strictly empirical and came from ‘a large corpus of data collected in multilingual classrooms’ (Jenkins 1996: 17). For far too long pronunciation work had been based on assumptions, theoretical considerations, or data gathered under laboratory conditions. Jenkins had dared to go out into the real world to see how pronunciation worked in conditions of authentic communication between NNS interlocutors.
  3. Numerous commentators such as Jenner, Bradford, myself and others, saw lists of priorities as offering learners an attainable but lesser goal than that of a NS accent. Jenner talks of ‘a lower–level objective’ (1989: 2), and even today many of us make explicit or implicit references to the notion of ‘going for gold, but settling for silver’ (i.e. of not winning, i.e. of failing). Even Jenkins’ own work also initially contains references to the idea of the LFC being in some ways ‘basic’ or ‘less than’. But such references quickly disappear as it becomes clear to her that competence in the LFC isn’t an indicator of failed native-speaker competence. Rather it’s the foundation of full ELF competence, and is the first step on your learner’s road to global success in the pronunciation of English. But more about that in two week’s time when we get to the letter ‘L’.

[Exeunt all.]

References

Abercrombie, D. (1949). Teaching pronunciation. English Language Teaching, 3: 113–122. 
Bradford, B. (1990). The Essential Ingredients of a Pronunciation Programme. Speak Out! 6: 8–11.
Jenkins, J. (1996). Changing Priorities. Speak Out! 17: 15–22.
Jenner, B. (1987). The wood instead of the trees.  Speak Out! 2: 2–5.
Jenner, B. (1989). Teaching Pronunciation: The Common Core.  Speak Out! 4: 2–4.
Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Longman.
Walker, R. (1994). Phonetics in a Communicative Classroom. Speak Out! 13: 23–29.

 

PS.
Throughout this post and in the references immediately above I have made numerous references to Speak Out!, the journal of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. Articles from the journal can be obtained via IATEFL but if you are at all interested in pronunciation teaching, then get the articles free by joining and supporting the PronSIG. The group has been at the cutting edge of the development of pronunciation teaching for over 30 years now.

 

5 thoughts on “Jenner and Jenkins

    • Actually Mark, In Speak Out! 21 both Bryan and Jenny run articles on English as an International Language. Bryan takes a theoretical approach to propsing a vowel system based on 12 pure vowels and three diphthongs, and Jenny looks at teachability, learnability and intelligibility when it comes to teaching intonation. The two articles together are a great example of the power of the comined approach. And by then Bryan was at Vienna so must have known Barbara Seidlhofer, but was also, perhaps, beginning to wind things down on the work front.

      But a powerful tandem, and it was necessary to bring Bryan into the picture to show where Jenny was coming from. She didn’t just arrive out of thin air. She was following a line that others had worked on, but took a step that at that point nobody had thought to take – look at what NNSs were doing.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great article, thanks. I would like to introduce another ‘character’ to the cast: the principle of functional load, which in its wider sense largely explains the findings of both Jenner and Jenkins. It also suggests, contra Jenkins and her ELF ideology, that there is no significant difference between NS-NS, NS-NNS, or NNS-NNS intelligibility in terms of core features.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Androcles. A bit off the beaten track, but I wanted to shine some light on how we got to the LFC and an ELF approach to pronunciation. And I mentioned functional load in my post for ‘F’. It’s a really useful concept but thanks for pointing it out.

      Can I correct you, though, re ‘Jenkins and her ideology’? It isn’t ‘hers’ and if she were following this blog, she’d be the first to say that. She took an important step, especially for the teaching of pronunciation, but at the same time, Barbara Seidlhofer was working on lexico-grammar in Vienna and Anna Maurennen was working on ELFA – ELF for academic purposes. Alan Firth had been involved in helping to define the concept back in the late 1990s – early 2000s, when it was still referred to as English as an International Language. And then there was Andy Kirpatrick and David Deterding both beavering away in SE Asia. I could go on, but I guess you see my point. ELF is not Jenny Jenkins’ ideology and she would be appalled to think that people see it that way. More importantly, though, I think she (and all of the others) would be appalled to think that people see ELF as an ideology, because it isn’t one. It’s an attempt to rationally understand how English operates when it is facilitating international communication, and like most aspects of applied linguistics, it is based on a tandem of empirical evidence and scientific research. This is the empirical+theoretical combination that Mark cites in his Comment above.

      I think it also needs clarifying that Jenkins has never made a difference between NS–NS, NS—NSS and NNS–NNS interactions in terms of pronunciation. From very early on she propsed that we treat L2 accents of English as regional accents. So you can have Scottish accent or a Spanish accent – they’re just regional accents. Also from very early on she attempted to remove the NS and NNS labels because of the seriously restricting effect they have on our thinking, proposing instead BES (bilingual speaker of English) and NBES (non-bilingual speaker of English). These are hugely clarifying terms since most ‘NNS’ teachers of English are BESs, but many ‘NS’ teachers are only NBESs,

      Quite a different issue was the collection of data. She and most other researchers deliberately avoided interactions including NSs because of their ‘intimidating’ effect they had on any NNSs present. But this is nothing new. It quite standard practice, and given the demographics of English and the percentage of daily interactions that do not involve NSs, there are very legitimate reasons for focusing primarily on NNS–NNS interactions, or on interactions in which the NSs are in significant minority.

      However, it is time to move on and both Mark Hancock (see previous Comment) and I have written about how to avoid opposing NSs and NNSs and allow everyone a place in Engish today. You can see Mark’s article at http://hancockmcdonald.com/ideas/elf-beyond-dogma-and-denial and mine at https://englishglobalcom.wordpress.com/articles/ (It’s ‘From being intelligible to being themselves: pronunciation for today’).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Kenworthy, J. (1987: 4–9) | englishglobalcom

Comments are closed.