What Can Cinderella Tell us about the Role of Pronunciation in L2 Teaching?

Cinderella

By Vasiliki Lismani

The well-known fairy tale of Cinderella with its adorable, yet miserable and unfortunate heroine has always been one of my favourites.

In very few words, we have the story of a girl who seems to have a promising life growing up in a wealthy family with her parents’ love and care until disaster strikes and she finds herself  hidden, isolated and neglected, living all alone with her mean stepmother and her two jealous stepsisters who always have priority. Despite the hard time she is given by the three women, she never loses hope that one day she will be rescued and find true love.

Now, one could wonder what this fairy story has to do with the teaching of pronunciation in an L2 teaching context.

Anyone questioning my choice would be more than sensible, but I can defend myself by quoting pronunciation expert Adrian Underhill (2010) who suggests that “pronunciation is the Cinderella of language teaching; it has been neglected and disconnected from other language learning activities”, so there you have the similarity.

As all languages have oral communication based on sounds at their core, the idea of pronunciation suffering from isolation within the context of the L2 teaching process sounds  unbelievable and unthinkable. One would imagine that pronunciation should be at the core of L2 pedagogy and yet just like Cinderella’s life, attitudes towards the teaching of pronunciation have gone through a series of ups and downs.

Over the years, different L2 teaching approaches have adopted different attitudes towards its prevalence ranging from the extreme, not to mention compulsive interest in pronunciation to almost its rejection (namely from the Audio-Lingual method) to the cognitive and behavioural approaches of L2 teaching.

Since the end of the 19th century, scholars have linked pronunciation to the use of IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and in the early 20th century, it was evident that as teachers were reluctant to teach pronunciation in their classes, incorporating phonetics and its transcription system into language teaching might have been the panacea to pronunciation teaching and learning problems (Datko, 2013).

Gregory’s opinion (2005) based on her observation and research about pre-service teachers of Spanish as a second language supports the idea of teaching pronunciation to pre-service teachers, claiming that teachers “are not likely to acquire such knowledge unless it is taught in applied linguistics classes” (p. 202).

Could this have been the Prince Charming of pronunciation coming to the rescue of explicit phonetics and phonology?

Personally, I feel that there are some points in this rescue operation that need to be further examined before I sign with relief. I would like to draw attention to two issues from the aforementioned Gregory’s study. First of all, she stresses that teachers’ efforts should focus on helping non-native speakers to achieve native-like pronunciation. Furthermore, she presents the results of her study putting emphasis on the articulation of specific phonemes.

Whilst I don’t question the validity of her research, I do question the underlying principles and concepts of the research itself. To start with, although she claims that it is quite hard to achieve native- like pronunciation from non-native speakers (unless they are taught from a very young age), efforts should be focussed on promoting exactly this kind and quality of pronunciation. I really do not know if or how this is achievable in terms of learning Spanish in L2 but I feel that it is a rather outdated idea as far as the English language is concerned.

It has been estimated that non – native speakers of English outnumber native speakers (Fiedler, 2011) and that the majority of communication in English takes place among non–native speakers. Therefore, unless we want to continually promote the idea that native speakers are the elite and native speech should be the standard, it seems to me that there might be no point in continuing the laborious and arduous task of achieving the “perfect” pronunciation against any variants or regional accents.

It is now universally accepted that English is a lingua franca (EIL) and an international language (EIL) and that comfortable intelligibility is now the new correct according to Adrian Underhill.  The new attitude towards language learning is the learner-centred approach where the learners’ individual needs are prioritised. Therefore, we cannot turn a blind eye to what contemporary needs dictate. Although the two widespread varieties of native English: Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA) (Jenkins, 2009) will always exist, it is no longer necessary to spend long periods of time and endless energy attempting to replicate them as a means of perfection. After empirical research, Jenkins conducted the Franca Core (ibid.) where she concludes that the ability of a non-native English speaker to pronounce some particularly difficult “English” sounds is not necessary in order to accomplish an efficient communication in ELF.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that prospective teachers should not get efficient instruction in pronunciation or not include pronunciation in their own teaching practices with the aim of comprehensibility. I believe that there should be a shift from teaching pronunciation through activities which focus on segments and individual sounds to a more communicative approach which gives priority to other elements such as suprasegmentals (Datko, 2013). Teachers should incorporate interactive activities while teaching pronunciation (Datko, 2013; Hişmanoğlou, 2006) as research has revealed that the teaching of segmental phonemes isn’t enough for intelligibility in communication (Hişmanoğlou, 2006).

At the end of the day, before we start planning pre-service teacher training on pronunciation, we should rethink who they are going to teach and what the needs of their future students are. Is there still hope for our Cinderella to find her Prince Charming to save her from loneliness and isolation in the world of EFL teaching? By all means yes, as long as it gives pronunciation the opportunity to reconnect with real-life needs.

References

  • Datko, J. (2013). The role of pronunciation within the different approaches to foreign language teaching. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from https://www.researchgate.net.
  • Fiedler, S. (2011). English as a lingua franca – a native – culture – free code? Language of communication vs. language of identification. Apples – Journal of Applied language Studies, 5(3), 79 – 97. Retrieved March 23, 2019, from http://apples.jyu.fi/article_files/Fiedler_final.pdf.
  • Gregory A.E. (2005) What’s phonetics got to do with language teaching? In: N. Bartels (Ed.) Applied Linguistics and Language Teacher Education. Educational Linguistics, 4, 201 – 220. Springer, Boston, MA.
  • Jenkins, J. (2009). (Un)pleasant? (In)correct? (Un)intelligible? ELF speakers’ perceptions of their accents. In: A. Mauranen & E. Ranta, (Eds.) English as a lingua franca: Studies and findings (pp10 – 36). Cambridge Scholars Publishing.