Pronunciation and Accent: A Teacher’s Perspective
Although it is perhaps less common than it used to be, every year a number of students approach me with concerns about their pronunciation and accent. Some feel that their accent is not “American enough” while others are concerned because at least one of their non-Korean friends or instructors has told them that they are ‘hard to understand when they speak English”. While I try to downplay the first as unimportant in most cases, the second is probably a more valid concern which does need to be addressed if the students encounter it more often than just with one friend or teacher. Let me first differentiate between accent and pronunciation and then I will try to suggest a few approaches and resources to helping student improve their overall accent and pronunciation.
What are accent and pronunciation?
According to one Quora user, “Proper English pronunciation is important only if you intend to speak English. There’s no practical difference, but we usually use “pronunciation” to refer to individual words, and “accent” to refer to a person’s entire vocabulary. Accent mostly means to put stress on a syllable in a word.” I think this sums it up nicely. However, in my experience, most students need help with only a few pronunciation issues (e.g. l and r or f,v, th in Korea) rather than their overall accent. Especially at a time where global Englishes are starting to be widely studied and appreciated, the pursuit of a perfect “American” accent seems a bit misguided assuming there is one preferred American accent (sometimes referred to as General American or Standard American English).
One fun activity I have used with my students is tongue twisters. I had a list of popular tongue twisters I would hand out at the beginning of the term and then each day we would practice and repeat one per day. It served as a nice 5 minute start to the lesson targeting different sounds and – with more advanced classes – we would discuss any words or terms they did not understand before we started the day’s lesson.
Before the internet.
A few years ago I also purchased an American Pronunciation kit at a local bookstore which still sits on my shelf. It has a workbook and Cds and any time a student came to ask for pronunciation help I would offer to lend it to them for a few weeks. To date, I have probably let at least 10 students borrow it and each of them has returned it to me and thanked me for letting them borrow it.
A few suggestions based on some of my favorite sites.
Now that the internet is full of mostly free sites for practicing their pronunciation or improving their accent, I just tell them to visit one of these sites to practice on their own.
Soundsofenglish.org by Sharon Widmayer and Holly Gray offers a variety of videos, lessons and activities for various minimal pairs that are problematic for students.
Manythings.org/pp has Game-like Minimal Pair Practice using Flash and MP3 Files, Minimal Pair Practice & Quizzes, “Listen and Repeat” Videos, and Tongue Twisters as well.
The Accent Archive and IDEA archive offer thousands of scripted and unscripted transcripts of native and non-native speakers with some reading the same paragraphs so that students can practice listening to or repeating after the speakers.
What I will NEVER suggest my students do.
One approach I do not suggest is having students record themselves reading a passage and then comparing their pronunciation to a native speaker’s. Unless their accent is quite similar or their language learning ego is very robust, this is more likely to make them feel inadequate because their accent and/or pronunciation differs from the native speaker. I would only recommend this strategy for students who are quite advanced and simply need to polish their pronunciation a bit or for students who refuse to accept that their accent is not close to a native speaker’s and where their accent is a factor in doing or getting a job in a particular area or working with speakers who mostly have the accent they are comparing their own to.
Finally, allowing students and others in education to continue to value only one English accent is doing our students a disservice since many of them will never be able to achieve an identical accent no matter how hard they may work at it. It is far better to focus on a few key issues with their pronunciation that will improve their overall intelligibility. Exposing students to accents other than our own as instructors is also essential as not all their instructors or the English speakers they meet will speak with that accent. Students should learn not to be ashamed of their own accents and not to aspire to be “native speakers” for whatever reason. In the end, Pronunciation is only a barrier to communication where certain sounds are not clear (e.g. l and r). This is something that both instructors and students can work on with the expectation that pronunciation and overall accent will improve as a result.