Why on earth would you teach pronunciation?

This very reasonable question comes from Michael Grinberg who as you’ll see from his posting teaches in Moscow. I’ve been reflecting on this question, and leaving aside obvious kinds of answer such as “because it’s in the book” or “because we have to” I take the question to mean something like “What is the benefit of teaching pron ….given that it appears not to come easily for most then on what grounds can you say that the struggle is worthwhile?”
In order to keep this posting to a manageable length, I’ll list the relevant responses that come to me, which will probably sound like a list of (unprovable) assertions, but here goes:

Pronunciation is not just a feature of speaking aloud. It is present in thinking, it is present in inner language rehearsal when using the inner voice, it is present in writing when the inner voice is operative, it is present in reading silently when some form of subtle inner voice is usually operating too, and of course it is present in reading aloud. But it is also present in listening. Pronunciation is in the ear. Pronunciation in listening is part of how we discriminate what we are hearing and how we make allowance for different speakers. In other words pronunciation is deeply embedded and omni-present in language

In the behavourist view of language learning it is often said that the ear teaches the mouth, ie listening comes before speaking. And so it may. However it is also true that the mouth teaches the ear, as you know from when you have learned to get your mouth round a new vocab item and suddenly you can hear it clearly, or when you have learnt to say a typical piece of rapid reduced colloquial speech such as wassatime or owjado. In this way pronunciation has to do with recognition, and since the mouth also teaches the ear, then what the mouth can say becomes accessible to the ear to hear. I think that this fine-tuning of the ear is much overlooked as a reason for developing pron. If your accent is thick, and you speak to people from elsewhere, it can slow things up but you can usually negotiate your way….But if you are listening to another, if the accent of your ear is thick it is much harder to negotiate your way through a piece of communication.

And this connects to something else: Pronunciation is also the physical side of language. It uses muscles and breath and movement and great coordination and precision, and in this respect it is not so different from learning dance, or piano or sowing or juggling ….. The rest of language, grammar and vocabulary and meaning are in some sense cognitive activities, but pronunciation is physical (and by the way I think the main reason that pron teaching is such a disaster zone is because we persist in teaching this physical activity as if it were a cognitive activity). Now this physicality means that a whole other side of our nature can come to bear on language. Like many teachers I consider that the more ‘memory hooks’ we can bring to bear on learning, the more the new items may be able to stick. In learning vocab there are many possible memory hooks, there is the spelling, the meaning, the possible collocates, the translation, the original context, other contexts, the connected grammar, and there is the sound of it. The pronunciation is rich in memory hooks: How it sounds in the ear, how it works in the mouth, the feel and sensation of saying it, the physical postures and the differences and similarities of sounds to the mother tongue, the sense of foreignness, the sense of fear or accomplishment in saying it, the delight in plunging into it when suitably helped to do so. And then there is the so-called stress pattern, the distribution of energy across the syllables, that give such a characteristic sound and flow and all of which is due to muscle manipulation and breath.

I would say this all makes it worth teaching, plus the fact that there is an immense psychological impact in knowing that one is sounding like a competent speaker of that language, even if only for a single sentence. This has an effect on self confidence and self esteem, and perhaps openness to more success. And this does not mean I have to sound like a native, but it means I know I can if I want to.

It is worth teaching as long as one plays to the learning strengths of the learner. This means avoiding over reliance on weak learning strategies like repeat after me, and focussing on strengths such as making conscious contact with muscles in order to learn new movements as when learning dance, or knitting, or violin, or football etc. But I think we have tended to embrace weaker teaching strategies, ones that do not work that well, neither for teachers nor students, such as listen and repeat. And now everyone is in a tizz. The other thing as I have said elsewhere is that learners and teachers need a (friendly) mental map of the territory, and something equivalent to the whiteboard but applied to sounds. And for me the pron chart meets these two needs.

With a bit of luck you disagree with some of this, and also have further answers to Michael’s question. What is important to you about pron? Why do you teach it? Do you teach it? There are no right answers to any of this, but what do you think?

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3 Responses to Why on earth would you teach pronunciation?

  1. Michael Grinberg says:

    Hi Adrian!
    First of all, thanks a lot for another great post and sorry for being slow to respond! I totally agree with everything you wrote here. Pronunciation is not an isolated area of the language, and it’s not a kind of topping to go with your English cake (spelling is much more ‘superficial’, I would say, and yet everybody cares about it!).
    I could suggest that one of the reasons pronunciation is the Cinderella of language teaching is that we don’t have any adequate tools to motivate our students to do pronunciation work, esp. low-level adults. How exactly can we enable the students to discover the set of ideas from the posting above, esp. when we don’t want / find it impossible to lecture them? For me that is the key question at the moment.

    Best wishes,

    PS: I’ve just discovered an interesting #ELTChat on . It takes some time to read, but I think it’s worth looking at.

  2. Yes thanks for this Michael, as you say …Pronunciation is not an isolated area of the language… to which I would add that maybe what makes it a bit different is precisely its physicality, in contrast to the cognitivity (?) of our treatment of the other language systems. And it is our failure to work properly with that physicality which I think contributes to the problems around pron teaching and learning, and this isolates it. You make a nice comparison with spelling, saying how every one cares about spelling. Yes exactly, and perhaps in a way this bears out my point: spelling is nicely cognitive and neatly wrong or right, so it conforms to our preferences about teaching and learning styles.

    For you and I’m sure for a huge number of teachers the key questions with pron boil down to How do you motivate language learners to do pronunciation work? I propose that we do have the tools, but we don’t recognise them. What are peoples’ experiences about this? It would be good to hear, and I will post something about my own experience on this in the next few days.

  3. Elvira says:

    Thanks Adrian and Michael for your posts. I really think that the fact that pronunciation is physical is the reason why it is so attractive for my students. It’s a liberation from the cognitive approach. The games included in Sound Foundation are brilliant. My students love playing hangman (a great way to revise all the sounds) and also trying to work out in groups the phonemic transcript of some words. For exam reasons, they deliver every month an oral presentation. Part of my feedback consists of giving them a list of words for which they have to find the transcript. I like students to feel the sounds of each word and for that I encourage them to shout, whisper and exagerate as much as possible. I feel that by doing that they grasp better the sounds and at the same time is more fun. Fun is vital. I think that all real learning is emotional, not so much cognitive.

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