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Don’t stay consonantally challenged


Many varieties of English lack some of the consonantal sounds of RP, but it’s crucial to teach them all, says Peter Trudgill

Non-native learners using English as a model are normally taught Received Pronunciation (RP), and encouraged to master RP phonological contrasts.

Modern RP has twenty-four consonants, but several other accents have many fewer.

For example, accents in the north-west of England lack contrastive /ᵑ/ as in bang and bank.

Many accents in England and Wales lack /h/, as do many forms of Caribbean English.

The fricatives /ᶿ/ and /ᶞ/ are absent from many varieties, corresponding to /t/ and /d/ in some Caribbean and Irish accents, and, increasingly, to /f/ and /v/ in the speech of millions in England.

Some accents, like those of the Bahamas, lack a contrast between /w/ and /v/. And the English in Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic lacks
/z, ʒ /, having /s/ in has, and /ʃ/ in vision.

So in different native-speaker Englishes around the world, seven of the RP consonants are missing, leaving a common core of seventeen.

A question therefore presents itself for EFL teachers: if native English speakers cope with, say, nineteen consonants, how justified are we in spending time teaching all non-native learners, regardless of their needs, all twenty-four RP consonants?

Couldn’t we decide that, if native-speaker mutual intelligibility is assured with nineteen consonants, the same will be true of non-natives, and reduce the number we teach accordingly?

In fact, this would not be a good idea at all. It’s true that non-natives are learner-speakers who might prefer simpler pronunciation goals.

But they’re also learner-listeners.

And while listening in one’s native language is effortless, listening in a second language can be frustratingly difficult.

Also, because of their lack of background knowledge and information about word-frequency and collocations, non-natives are more dependent on phonological information than native-speakers.

Ironically, however, they’re often less able to make use of this information because of the phenomenon of the ‘perceptual foreign accent’.

If speakers can’t produce a phonemic contrast, this reduces their chances of hearing it.
Work on teaching non-native learners to produce vowel and consonant contrasts will therefore also have benefits for their comprehension.

Peter Trudgill is emeritus professor of English linguistics at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.