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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
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.
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.