Priorities for pronunciation

I have a Word doc where I store ideas for future posts under the letters of the alphabet. Novel idea, eh! Not surprisingly, some letters look thinner than others (any ideas for Y other than yod?), and others could keep me going way past the end of even the worst pandemic. P, for example, could be for so many things that it’s hard to know which to choose. But let’s go for priorities, an essential part of the teaching of pronunciation.

Pronunciation Practice
Activities.

This should be an easy post, then. I just need to do a quick literature search, summarise the best ideas, and and hey presto, I have my post! Except that when I did this earlier today, I found that the word ‘priorities’ was like ‘goals’ – it barely appeared in handbooks on pronunciation teaching. In fact, of all the books on my shelves, only Martin Hewings’ Pronunciation Practice Activities and my own Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca carry any specific guidance as to what our teaching priorities might be.

Given that as teachers living in a ‘not-enough-time-and-too-much-to-do’ world, we constantly need to prioritise for our students, why the dearth of guidance when it comes to pronunciation? Well, I don’t know, but it seems to me that it’s not helpful to start a course without a clear idea of where your priorities lie.

First things first, then, which is that not everything can be given priority when teaching pronunciation. In a given place, at a given moment in time, with a given group or learner, some things will matter more than others and need to be prioritised, whilst others need to be ignored. Odd as this last might sound, ignoring certain things deliberately isn’t a dereliction of duty. It’s strategic planning. It’s having a game plan and sticking to it, to paraphrase Carolina Marin’s winner’s maxim.

Carolina Marín: “Tenía mucho miedo a perder” | Deportes | EL PAÍS
Carolina Marin. Badminton player.
Olympic and three-time World Champion

OK, you say, but the game plan, the identification of priorities for my students? Where do I get this?

A fair question, and as a start to my answer I would say that there are five areas that you need to look at to find out what matters most for your learners:

  • the learners’ pronunciation goal(s)
  • the learners’ L1 pronunciation(s)
  • the learners’ level(s)
  • the impact of different pronunciation features on intelligibility
  • the functional load of a given feature.

These are not in any specific order, although determining the learners’ goal(s) would be my first consideration.

Learner goals. I’ve already spoken about goals in my post for G, but the priorities for learners hoping to achieve a (near–) native speaker accent are different to those just wishing to be comfortably intelligible to NS listeners (EFL / ESL). And the priorities are different again for learners aiming to use their English predominantly with other L2 users, i.e. as a language of international communication (ELF / EIL).

Here’s a little exercise to help you see what I’m getting at. Try to complete the table below. Decide which pronunciation features are Very important (VIP) , Important (IP), or Not Important (NP) for each of the three pronunciation goals. I’ve completed three cells to get you going.

Goal 1 – native speaker accentGoal 2 – Comfortable intelligibility
(NS listeners)
Goal 3 –
International intelligibility (NNS listeners)
1. ConsonantsVIP
2. Vowels
3. ClustersIP
4. Sentence (tonic) stress
5. Word stress
6. Stress–timing
7. Weak forms
8. Schwa
9. TonesNP
Priorities for different pronunciation goals

Done it and want the answers? Don’t have time to do it and want the answers? Remember doing this with me in a workshop but can’t remember the answers? Can’t be bothered to do it … Whichever of these is you, click here. It’s an article on goals and priorities that I wrote a while back for English Teaching professional. The answers you’re looking for can be found on page 9.

The learners’ L1(s). My previous post was about the learners’ mother tongue and how useful it is when teaching the pronunciation of English. As I pointed out there, a knowledge of the learners’ mother tongue can vastly lighten the teaching load since their L1(s) already equip them for a lot of the features of English. At the same time, specific L1s generate specific problems. Learners whose L1 is Brazilian Portuguese, for example, have a real issue with /h/ and /r/ at the beginnings of words. But this is specific to them and working on this feature with learners from other L1s would be a waste of their time. Our basic list of priorities, then, as determined by Goals 1, 2 and 3 above, is significantly fined-tuned by examing our learners’ L1(s).

The learners’ level(s). What I work on with beginners is not the same as what I expect from intermediate of advanced learners. Beginners work largely at word level and do a huge amount of early vocabulary work in order to be able to put together simple acts of communication. The decades-long debate amongst pronunciation experts as to the relative importance of individual sounds over prosodic features of pronunciation such as stress, rhythm and intonation is of limited significance to real beginners. They’re struggling far more with the vowel sound behind the ‘ou’ in ‘enough’ or with the clusters in ‘breakfast‘ than with the appearance or not of linking ‘j’ in a phrase like ‘the apples’. (Hurray for the yod!)

The impact on intelligibility. This is a really interesting point. Features of pronunciation that are considered high priority for one learner goal are not necessarily priority for a different goal. (Are you beginning to see why determining goals is the first step towards identifying priorities?). Word stress is fairly high priority for learners whose goal is comfortable intelligibility for native speaker listeners (Goal 2 in the ETp article). But the evidence that word stress is important for Goal 3, international intelligiblity, is quite thin, and most current data suggests that its not that important. Even more interesting are connected speech features to do with vowel reduction, particularly the use of schwa and weak forms. Both are considered very important for Goals 1 & 2 in our ETp table, but are actually thought to be potentially damaging to international intelligiblity. i.e. the priority is to NOT teach them for production purposes.

Functional load. I mentioned functional load in my post on the fricatives. The simple fact is that some sounds just don’t appear often enough in English to warrant much attention. A classic in that respect is the consonant /ʒ/ as found in words like ‘leisure’ or ‘television’. I’m sure that a phonetician could wax lyrical about this sound, but it hardly ever appears in English, and unless your goal is a NS accent, then most learner substitutions will be intelligible to their listeners. In short, not found often in key lexis so not a priority. Here’s a list of the frequency of the English phonemes. Frequency is not actually the same as functional load, which takes other factors into account, but it makes interesting reading, and it’s fun to see where you favourite sounds are. /ʒ/, for example, is the least frequent consonant sound of English, and /n/ the most!

English Phonemes by Commonness
Relative frequency of English Phonemes

Do you want your pronunciation teaching to be effective? Of course you do, so sit down with your students if you haven’t already done so and work out their goal(s). Once you’ve done that you can turn your attention to what matters now, which are the priorities. Learner goals will heavily determine these, but their level of English and their L1, together with the importance of individual features in terms of intelligibility or functional load, will help you to fine-tune your list. You then only need to choose a teaching model and you are ready to start. I can’t deal with models here but you can read about choosing them in the third part of my ETp article, Horses for Courses. Have fun!

References and further reading

Blumeyer, D. 2012. Relative frequencies of English Phonemes. Available online at https://cmloegcmluin.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/relative-frequencies-of-english-phonemes/

Hewings, M. 2004. Pronunciation Practice Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walker, R. 2010. Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. 2014. Horses for Courses. English Teaching professional, Issue 91, 8–10. Available online at https://englishglobalcom.files.wordpress.com/2020/07/etp_91_p8-10.pdf

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