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Foreign accent? Don’t stress!

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Marek Kiczkowiak of the University of Leuven reveals six things he wishes he’d known about pronunciation as a newly qualified teacher.

I’d always assumed that the more ‘native-like’ your pronunciation is, the better. This had been made very clear during my BA in English philology. As a result, I’d always considered ‘native-like’ pronunciation as the ultimate (if unachievable) goal for language learners – myself included – until I came across Lingua Franca Core (LFC). 

1. What is Lingua Franca Core? In a nutshell, LFC is a pronunciation syllabus based on research carried out initially by Jennifer Jenkins in the late 1990s and since replicated by numerous others, who were all interested in which pronunciation features are important for intelligibility in international settings. It turns out that many of the sounds or pronunciation features we typically focus on in class and consider important are inconsequential in international contexts. Other pronunciation features seem particularly important if we want to help our learners be more intelligible. 


2.Pronunciation features unimportant for intelligibility. Pick any two general English course books. Take a look at the pronunciation syllabus and count how many times word stress, connected speech, weak forms and stress timing appear on it. I’ll wait. The short answer is probably: a lot. As a teacher, I’ve focused on these with my students countless times. And before as a learner too, I’d stress over getting the stress timing right, and stress out when I misplaced the word stress.

The idea is that getting all this right makes you sound much more ‘native-like’ – and as a result, more intelligible. However, the vast majority of our learners will not communicate exclusively or even mainly with ‘native speakers’. As a result, a group consisting only of ‘native speakers’ judging learners’ pronunciation, as has been the case with 99 per cent of research on pronunciation, can lead to skewed findings. Indeed, typical features of ‘native-like’ pronunciation, such as stress-timing and weak forms, can actually hinder intelligibility in more diverse and international contexts where the interlocutors will have a variety of different L1s. This is illustrated by points 6 and 7 in the table (right) from Walker and Zoghbor (2015, p. 439). If none of the above is important, which pronunciation features should we focus on in class then? 


3. How can we help our learners be more intelligible? According to research, it seems that paying more attention to LFC syllabus in class can improve students’ intelligibility more than a focus on either Standard British English or the General American syllabus. According to the table from Walker and Zoghbor (above), the pronunciation features that are very important if we want our students to be intelligible to a wide variety of interlocutors are:

  • All consonants, except the voiced and voiceless 
  • Consonant clusters (especially at the beginning and in the middle of a word)
  • The contrast between long and short vowels (however, vowel quality is much less important
  • Aspiration after voiceless consonants starting a word, e.g. pot
  • Nuclear or tonic stress

So while you might want to raise your students’ awareness and practise weak forms for receptive skills to help them improve listening, there is little point in spending a lot of time on getting your students to produce weak forms. This time would be much better spent focusing on consonants, for example. 

4.Having a foreign accent is OK: If you’re a ‘non-native-speaker’ teacher, you’ve probably worried at some point about sounding foreign. Or about not sounding ‘native’ enough. What will my students think? What if I teach them ‘bad’ English? Have I just mispronounced this word? I’ve had these thoughts more than once. They can be really debilitating, because they tend to spiral out of control into an almost obsession-like level, where as ‘non-native speakers’ we beat ourselves down and think we’re horrible teachers because we sound foreign. So one thing I really wish I’d known is that there’s nothing wrong with having a foreign accent. In fact, foreign accents are lovely. Think about that tinge of Spanish in Antonio Banderas’ voice. It would be a horrible shame if he sounded completely American or British. It just wouldn’t be like Antonio Banderas any more. After all, your accent is an important part of your linguistic identity, and there is no reason why you should hide it behind a ‘native-like’ pronunciation. 

5.Intelligibility and accent are not the same thing

Our obsession with ‘nativeness’ in ELT in general, and in pronunciation in particular, has led to a situation where ‘non-native speakers’ are frequently depicted in course books either as learners or tourists and hardly ever treated as valid models of language, let alone of pronunciation. It shouldn’t be surprising then that some students do still see ‘native speakers’ as better language models, and by extension as better teachers. However, over a decade ago Vivian Cook argued that it is time we based language teaching on successful second language users. From a practical perspective, using ‘non-native speakers’ as valid models of language (pronunciation included) can have many benefits. For example, it:

  • Reflects the reality of the English language and its users – there are at least three times as many ‘non-native speakers’ out there, many of them highly proficient;
  • Reflects who many of our students will interact with outside their classes;
  • Can be very motivating – seeing an example of a successful second language user who can also speak the same first language as you do, for example, can help students gain confidence;
  • Is a more achievable model – let’s be honest, how many students will actually be able to pass off for ‘native speakers’?
  • Prepares students for the variety of English(es) out there;
  • Avoids the ‘native speaker’ fallacy, or the belief that any ‘native speaker’ is a priori a better model and a better teacher of the language;
  • Gives students a choice about how and which English they’d like to use in the future;
  • Raises their awareness of the incredible diversity of world Englishes. 

6.‘Non-native speakers’ can be great models of pronunciation

OK, that sounds very nice, but wouldn’t a foreign accent have a negative effect on intelligibility? In other words, won’t people have problems understanding me if I sound foreign? The short answer is a resounding NO! A more nuanced answer is: it depends how strong your accent is. However, this also goes for ‘native speakers’ – many of their accents are completely unintelligible to outsiders. In fact, ‘native speakers’ are notorious for being the least understood in international settings where English is used as the lingua franca. So in a nutshell, you should only worry about your students sounding foreign if this affects intelligibility, since most researchers agree that accentedness and intelligibility are at least partially independent. Finally, if as a teacher you have a foreign accent, there is no reason to despair either. A study conducted this year (Levis, Sonsaat, Link, & Barriuso, 2016) showed that there was no difference in learners’ improvement in pronunciation between those who were taught by a ‘native speaker’ and those taught by a ‘non-native speaker’. 

In conclusion, while in most pronunciation teaching we do still takes for granted that students should imitate a standard ‘non-native speaker’ model, research shows that a focus on LFC can actually yield better results. Of course, many questions still remain, but one thing we know for sure is that ‘native speaker’ pronunciation isn’t necessarily the best model. In fact, some typically ‘native-like’ features can hinder intelligibility in international contexts.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can help your learners improve their pronunciation and prepare them for the global nature of the English language, take a look at my online course: ‘How to teach pronunciation: the ELF perspective. A 6-step practical guide for English teachers’  

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