3 Apr 2013

Pronunciation and prejudice

The class was dynamic: the students young, engaged, goofy, courageous. They were Chinese high school students with excellent vocabularies and confidence to spare. I took to them instantly. Perhaps it was mutual.

I gave them fun tasks and then some challenging projects and they surpassed my expectations every time. But. 

The students often complained that nobody in the shops or restaurants, on the streets, or on campus understood them and their often simple requests. You see, outside of the classroom and beyond my protective #ELT net, my students' English accomplishments fell on deaf ears. Or, to re-phrase, their words fell on ears unaccustomed to their accents and, seemingly, reluctant to stretch a lobe familiar boundaries. For the untrained and impatient listener, these students were very difficult to understand. On the surface, it might even seem and feel like prejudice, much like when my mother-in-law pretends not to understand someone helping her out from a call centre halfway around the world. 

But let's face it. Pronunciation prejudice goes both ways and might be summed up thus:

1) Native listeners and speakers who can't be bothered to negotiate misplaced stress, an off-vowel, or a fumbled consonant cluster


2) English language learners who may have mastered the syntax, vocabulary, grammar, and meaning of an utterance but don't take honing their pronunciation seriously

Of course, when discussing "intelligibility", it is more complicated than that and ongoing research has resulted in a multitude of explanations, none of them mutually exclusive. 

I remember in my early teaching days, repeating to my students a theory I half-remembered from a lecture that suggested "stress misplacement" was the most significant cause of misunderstanding, or lack of intelligibility, between speaker and listener.  I hadn't ever bothered to source my assertions but I certainly had vats of empirical evidence in my own classroom and in my own life. However casually I tossed this theory out to my students, it seemed to make them seriously consider and invest in the pronunciation component of their language learning. Thanks to Dr. Google McLinguist, I have no trouble these days finding support for my then-flimsy pedagogy.

An example:

"some accounts of speech processing raise the possibility that the stressed syllable of a word provides the listener with a code that links directly to the representation of the word in the mind"

and in this paper's conclusions: 

"the consequences of misinterpreting even a small
number of content words can be extremely damaging to global understanding"

full paper here

In other words, what I had been saying to my students all along: "They don't understand you, despite your good grammar and natural vocabulary, because it's not how they expect to hear you say it".  The listener is already programmed. ESL teachers, on the other hand, have a certain listening flexibility after years of negotiating intelligibility and meaning with non-native speakers of various backgrounds.

I am obviously far from an expert in this field but the crux of it is this: we can't train all the listeners.  All the perfect grammar and stellar vocabulary in the world may just fall on deaf ears if we don't include or even emphasize pronunciation teaching and practice. With globalization, pronunciation teaching has become a bit of minefield of accents, dialects, and political correctness. Educators wonder what to teach and what to correct or accept. As with any other aspect of language learning, it is a delicate balance and an environment in which ultimately, the educator can only share his or her own experience and knowledge.

In the end, we want our students to be confident, to be successful, and to be heard. After all their hard work, that's the least we can give them. 

p.s. speaking of experts, the talented and brilliant Dr. Bill Acton of Trinity Western University has created an intuitive, effective haptic pronunciation program called, yup, "Acton Haptic". If you're like me and so-so at pronunciation teaching and not sure where to start, this all-inclusive video-based program does it all. Press play and you and your students learn together. Test run Acton Haptic here and read about Dr. Acton's research here.

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