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Iatefl 2018: Let’s make pron more than an add-on

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Pronunciation is regarded by many as a ‘frill’ in language learning, but teachers owe it to students to make it a core part of their lessons, writes Wayne Rimmer

I was sitting in the teachers’ room one afternoon when my colleague Dan wandered in and asked, ‘Where do they keep that pronunciation stuff?’

I pointed out a clutch of books stranded in beautiful isolation on a particularly inaccessible shelf and watched as Dan flicked through a few titles randomly, scratching his head.

‘I didn’t know pron was your thing,’ I said a bit cheekily. ‘It’s not,’ said Dan, ‘I’m being observed tomorrow and I need something to make the lesson look good.’

I don’t know how Dan’s observation went but he was sure to get the brownie points he craved by including a bit of IPA. Everyone says that pronunciation is important, we should teach more, we shouldn’t neglect it, blah, blah, blah… But the reality is that for most teachers pronunciation is an optional extra which comes very far down the list of other classroom priorities.

Pronunciation sounds nice and academic, though, so it’s great for wheeling out in observed and demonstration lessons just to show the boss that you’re a real teacher. Then after your party trick of pronunciation, you can get back to the usual fare of ploughing through a course book and a grammar syllabus.

Hang on, that’s not fair, course books do include pronunciation, you might point out.

True, there is usually the obligatory pronunciation splotch squeezed into a corner of a double-paged spread, but you can be sure that this is the one part of the book that teachers are most likely to ignore.

Teachers might get round to pronunciation if they run out of other things to do, but most see this material as a distraction. Given that the pronunciation supplied is often related only marginally to the topic and main language point, teachers can be forgiven for seeing it as redundant.

Also, international course books have to cater for everyone, everywhere, so the pronunciation area selected in the course book may be irrelevant or very low priority for their particular learners. Everyone needs the present perfect but the same can’t be said for bilabial fricatives.

Far easier to stick to the grammar.

If this sounds a bit of a mess, it is. Most teachers don’t have a clue what pronunciation to teach and how to teach it.

A soft target for criticism would be the short initial training courses, like Celta, which many teachers, especially native-speakers, use as a passport to launch themselves on unsuspecting learners as qualified professionals.

These courses are so short they can’t provide much of anything, so it’s a little unfair to lambast them for undercooking pronunciation. After a four-week course, a teacher would be doing well to write a transcription of their own name.

The real problem is what happens after the course: nothing. Institutions that have the resources and will to train new teachers properly are thin on the ground and at best probably offer support that helps teachers just to survive in the jungle of the classroom. These survival tips wouldn’t include pronunciation because, again, pronunciation is seen as a fancy add-on rather than a core competence.

And not that much is being done professionally to encourage best practice. The ‘experts’ are hopelessly at odds and confused about pronunciation models.

For example, standards like Received Pronunciation are attacked as elitist and unrealistic, and an extreme reaction has developed along the lines of ‘it doesn’t matter how you sound as long as people understand you.’

Really? People in the real world, i.e. not an ELT classroom, pay a great deal of attention to your pronunciation. Teaching learners that anything goes when it comes to pronunciation is patronising and does them a massive disservice.

And when it comes to methodology, for all those glossy books and nice-looking apps out there, we haven’t moved on from the ‘listen and repeat’ drilling that teachers used to torture learners with in language laboratories. The only difference is that mobile devices make the instruments of torture more portable.

The reality is that the communicative era and decades of prioritising meaning over form have squeezed pronunciation out of the curriculum and turned it into a luxury item rather than an essential. Learners have never bought into this – but who asks them?

Wayne Rimmer is the co-ordinator of the Iatefl pronunciation special interest group at Iatefl.

MYTHweb Myth: Adults acquire L2 phonemes in exactly the same way as young children

Despite the popularity of natural acquisition theory in the field of English language teaching, neuroscientists have found that not all adult learners acquire L2 phonemes naturally.

The number of languages they speak already and the average age they were when they started to learn them predicts whether they will pick up new foreign words from speech going on around them, research from Finland suggests.

Neuroscientists have already shown that adults acquire new words in their first language quickly and automatically when exposed to them in speech.

This rapid-learning effect can be measured by using an EEG to record greater neural responses in the perisylvian area of the brain.

Does this process also occur when we learn a foreign language? To find out, researchers from the Institute of Behavioural Sciences at the University of Helsinki recruited 22 Finnish native speakers who were neither monolingual nor natural bilinguals.

Two had acquired some of their second language before the age of seven, and on average the subjects knew two foreign languages.

During the experiments, subjects were played familiar native words and two kinds of novel word forms, one with native phonemes and the other with non-native phonemes.

The research found that, the more languages a subject spoke and the lower the average age they started learning them, the higher they scored on rapid learning for word forms with non-native phonemes.

However, this multilingual group struggled to acquire new words in their first language.

Some other subjects, who started language learning later, did not show any signs of rapid learning L2 sounds but did well with the ‘new words’ in L1.

The Finnish researchers repeated the experiment, this time asking subjects to focus on the L1 and L2 sounds. Once again, the fewer languages a subject spoke and the later they had started learning, the less well they could do the task.

None of the subjects in the study were monolingual adults, but the research suggests that they would struggle to pick up L2 phonemes naturally.