Oh the power of this question in the mouths of young children as they flex their early language and logic muscles! ‘Why?’, they ask with apparent innocence, driving their exhausted parents deeper and deeper into their dwindling reserves of patience and logic. ‘Why?’, the child asks.
Later we become adults and stop asking. Or ask far less than we should. But for a moment let’s become children again. Let’s take an innocent, detached look at teaching English, and ask why this should include the teaching of pronunciation when there is so much else to do.
And the simple answer?
‘Because it’s there!’, to borrow George Mallory’s famous comment on why climb Everest.
OK. At least it’s an answer. But I’m guessing it’s too trite for most of us (or too enigmatic), so what other reasons can I come up with? Well, how about these two?
- Studies show that learners value pronunciation highly, and often more highly than their teachers.
- Pronunciation isn’t a marginal issue in ELT. It is central to success in everything else we do.
Let’s take these one at a time.
Learners value pronunciation
Over the years studies of learners’ perceptions of pronunciation have repeatedly shown that it is one of their priorities. A study in Malaysia (Rajadurai, 2001), for example, revealed that over 90% of the contestants considered good pronunciation to be important. Admittedly the subjects of this study were participating in a course that would give them access to a B.Ed in TESL, and consequently might have had a different perspective to that of the average adult learner. But a later study in Malaysia with secondary school students (Abu Bakar & Ridhuan, M. 2015), found that these younger learners strongly agreed with the notion of pronunciation as important for oral communication in English. A similar study in Finland (Tergujeff, 2013) uncovered quite a high degree of dissatisfaction among secondary school students with regard to how much attention was given to pronunciation in their English classes:
There’s way too little focus on that, as pronunciation is much more important than you’d figure from the amount of practice at school. I think we practise pronunciation very little. Anna. Lower secondary. (Tergujeff, 2013: 90)
A study done in Turkey at around the same time as the Finnish study, reached much the same conclusion, with the responses demonstrating that:
… pronunciation conveys a significant role in the target language learning, and it needs to be specifically handled by the instructors throughout the teaching process. (Çakır & Baytar, 2014: 99)
Pronunciation isn’t a marginal issue in ELT
Speaking. As practising teachers, but also as language learners ourselves, it’s obvious to us that poor pronunciation will impact negatively on a learner’s fluency and their overall confidence as speakers. Interestingly, despite this relationship between poor pronunciation and poor speaking appearing to be self-evident, there are surprisingly few research papers to confirm what we feel intuitively as teachers. Perhaps this is because it seems so obvious that nobody can get support to carry studies out. Of the few studies I’ve come across, is one by a PhD student at Victoria University, Melbourne (Vasarin, 2007). The author first trained Thai school teachers in pronunciation and language learning strategies, the outcome of which was a clear improvement in their pronunciation and increased confidence as speakers. These teachers then taught small groups of students, where, once again learners showed improvements both in their pronunciation and in their confidence in speaking in English.
Listening. Another no–brainer, you’re thinking. And you’d be right, though once again there seems to be a dearth of studies that set out to directly examine the link between listening and good pronunciation skills. However, as with speaking, your own experience will have left you with countless examples of where poor pronunciation got in the way of successful listening. I remember myself wondering why a B2 group was looking totally lost while listening to a relatively simple recording given their level. In the end I stopped the recording and asked them what was up. ‘We don’t understand this. He keeps talking about /eɪʒ/ or something like that. What is this? He says it all the time.’
I had no idea what they were referring to, but in one of my more intelligent responses to my students’ problems, I invited them to raise their hands the minute they heard this word again, and set the recording going once more, but from the beginning. After only a few seconds the hands all shot into the air. ‘Oh!’, I said, as I turned to the board. The word he’s saying is ‘Asia’. My students were flabbergasted. The word is spelt exactly the same in both English and Spanish, but is pronounced completely differently (/ˈeɪʒə/ versus /ˈasia/). One word they had failed to recognise in its spoken form and one whole recording that they had failed miserably to understand.
Writing. ‘Hake with crap sauce’. Again and again I got this from my second-year students at the University School of Tourism where I worked for over twenty years. ‘Is this some sort of a joke’?, I’d ask myself. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘crap’ in class, so where is this coming from. Yet year in, year out, there it was. Eventually, the penny dropped.
Of course I wasn’t saying ‘crap’. I was saying ‘crab’, the basis of a rich, savoury sauce often used to accompany white fish in our local cuisine. But the difference between ‘crap’ and ‘crab’, pronunciation–wise, is a question of quantity, with the vowel in ‘crab’ being longer. The are no such vowel-length differences in Spanish, so while I was saying ‘crab’ my students were perceiving ‘crap’ and this was spilling through into their writing. I’m sure you can think of examples of your own of pronunciation coming through in writing.
Reading. Reading? What has reading got to do with pronunciation. Well, it turns out that it has a lot to do with it, particularly with beginner and low-level readers. For these learners pronunciation is not an optional extra because of the way in which the written forms of English words are processed in the brain. What we see on the page is ‘rehearsed’ in our working memory prior to being sent to the long-term memory for use or safe keeping. The rehearsal is done by sending the words we read around what is referred to as the phonological loop. Poor pronunciation makes this process very fragile. The sound-trace of words we can’t pronounce confidently can easily decay as it goes around the loop, often leading to the word never getting from the working memory to the long-term memory. It’s almost as if we hadn’t read anything.
In an article based on her research into reading in English as a second language, Catherine Walter concluded that ‘a factor in poor L2 processing of written text is, counter-intuitively, an unreliable L2 phonological inventory. This suggest strongly that teaching phonology will help L2 learners to read better.’
When I first heard Catherine talk about the work that she had done in this area in a talk she gave together with Michael Swan at IATEFL in 2008, I was both excited and intrigued. Excited because I now had links between pronunciation and all four language skills in English. Here at last was evidence of what I had felt for some time – pronunciation matters not because of any inherent importance it might have in itself, but because it underlies everything else that we try to do in the English language classroom. Rather than an add-on and an additional load that teachers and learners have to bare, pronunciation is the slave-system that is crucial to the successful operation of the more tangible systems of speaking, listening, reading and even writing.
I could bore you now by going on to explain how pronunciation ties into the successful teaching of grammar and vocabulary, but I won’t. You probably already have quite a good idea about this yourselves. What I will do, however, is point you in the direction of the first of a sequence of articles I wrote for English Teaching professional a few years ago. The title of the article in question is Pronunciation Matters, and it does.
Why? Well, you tell me. Or better still, make a point of explaining why to less-advantaged colleagues. Begin with the two reasons I’ve elaborated on here, and then add any others you can think of from your own experience.
It’s a win-win situation. Honestly.
Further reading and references
Abu Bakar, Z. & Ridhuan, M. (2015). ‘Importance of correct pronunciation in spoken english: Dimension of second language learners’ perspective.’ Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 23: 143 – 158.
Çakır, İ., & Baytar, B. (2014). Foreign language learners’ views on the importance of learning the target language pronunciation. Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 10(1), 99-110.
Rajadurai J. (2001). ‘An investigation of the effectiveness of teaching pronunciation to Malaysian TESL students.’ Forum, Vol 39 No 3: 10–15.
Tergujeff, E. (2013). Learner Perspective on English Pronunciation Teaching in an EFL Context. Research in Language, 2013, vol. 11.1: 81–95.
Varasarin, P. (2007). An action research study of pronunciation training, language learning strategies and speaking confidence. (Unpublished PhD thesis). Victoria University. Retrieved from http://vuir.vu.edu.au/id/eprint/1437
Walter, C. (2009). Teaching phonology for reading comprehension. Speak Out! Vol 40: 4–7.