Unchained

I remember when I was in a kinder garden, we had English classes there, and one day, my teacher approached my mom and complained that I was pronouncing ‘father’ with the Russian rolling /ɾ/ instead of the English /ɹ/. ‘You have to pronounce it right’, my mom said. Okay, I got it, I have to pronounce it right, end of story.

I never questioned pronunciation and kept taking in for granted, even when I became an English teacher myself. As a student, I worked hard on getting rid of any tiny hint of Eastern European accent and felt the happiest when someone would say ‘You’re from America, aren’t you?’. I was proud of my enormous effort paying off.

And then the ELF concept came in. I was in my second year at university as a teacher and one of our CPD readings for summer was Murray’s English as a lingua franca and the development of pragmatic competence. While this one does not touch pronunciation (as follows from the title), my further research on ELF quickly led to the fact that everything I knew about pronunciation and its place in ELT instruction was not what it seemed.

The main question is: Does it make sense to aim for 100% accuracy (something I used to think was compulsory)?

The answer is no. And yes.

What makes this difficult is the fact that L2 proficiency is still most likely judged through the speaker’s pronunciation (Goodwin, 2001). Hide and Poel report that, in their study, the learners with audible foreign accents “were perceived as unintelligent, stubborn and malfunctioning by people in their academic and administrative environments” (2000, p.17). However, at the same time, everything we need is just to achieve a “threshold level” of speaking ability where we become intelligible to most listeners (Celce-Murcia, 1996).

Simply saying, while the main concern is intelligibility (i.e. how well you’re understood by your listeners), the anti-foreign accent views still prevail and having a foreign accent indeed becomes a sign of bravery.

So what we, as teachers, should do about this? Educate our students about ELF, teach them the basics (as prescribed by the ELF methodology) and then let them go and face those views on their own? Or do whatever we can to help them get rid of their L1 accent thus contributing to the world-wide hegemony of native speakerism?

There’s no win-win solution to this issue.

What I personally think is that it’s always a matter of choice. We can let our students know how the situation is right now, tell them about various approaches and let them decide what they want: bare intelligibility (which is good enough) or a ‘native’-like pronunciation (which is also good enough). It is they who will use this language to communicate, so it is up to them how and what they want to learn.

Before, whenever my ability to copy ‘native’ pronunciation would let me down and I would produce something Russian-sounding, I would feel devastated. Now I feel nothing close to this. It does not matter how I sound. I am Russian, so what? I am learning Norwegian at the moment and while I pay close attention to articulating single sounds, I do not get crazy about copying the very melody of the language. That is how Norwegians speak, and it is beautiful, but I am a foreigner. I am still proud of how far I got with mastering English pronunciation, but not because it makes me sound ‘native’-like. It is because it makes it easier for me to help my students when it comes to pronunciation.

Of course, it depends on your goal. If you want to integrate into local society, then probably mastering every single aspect of local pronunciation makes sense. However, most of our students simply learn the language to travel or to use it with foreign clients. Pronunciation in business is a tricky matter though, but as a client, do you expect to come to Italy and find native English speakers there to have business with? No, you will do business with Italians (and any other foreigners who work at a particular company you choose), and as long as you understand each other, it is fine.

Give your students a choice, show the opportunities they have; do not decide for them. When they make an informed choice, it becomes much easier for them to cut all the noise around them saying that sounding foreign is bad.

We feel the most insecure and unhappy about the decisions we made because we were told to.

References:

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D.M., & Goodwin, J.M. (1996). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Goodwin, J. (2001). Teaching pronunciation. In Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a Second Language (pp.117-138). Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Hide, Ø. & van de Poel, K. (2002). Interlanguage phonology: Implications for a remedial pronunciation course for Chinese learners of English. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b814/8424020b61cb8b0cb6db6379e977b1e81d15.pdf.

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