Pronunciation priorities

Uh-oh! Here comes a ‘Teacher Pete thinking something through out loud’ moment. Tut. I hate these…

Mark Hancock shared a good article on LinkedIn the other day called ‘Pronunciation Teaching Post-ELF’. It’s got me thinking about my own attitudes towards pronunciation and what features of pronunciation should be addressed in class.

According to Hancock, what we need to teach is pretty much established:

I’ve seen these particular priorities outlined before in Gibert’s ‘Six Pronunciation Priorities for beginning students’. I asked him how he arrived at these essential features. Was it based on research, a certain model like the Lingua Franca Core (LFC), intuition etc? He commented:

‘Not research or LFC, and I don’t think it’s intuition either. I think it’s more or less by definition: features of reduction and simplification in the sound stream in connected-speech are speaker oriented, i.e. for ease of articulation – and the clue is in the label. Reduction. Simplification. Linking. Etc. Pretty much tautology then. The fact that there is some overlap between the LFC could be coincidental. Except that it probably isn’t, [the essential features] are found to be essential for intelligibility and for good reason!

Jenkins’ LFC highlights some similar priorities from a research-based perspective…

I understand the premise in general – equipping learners with these pronunciation features is essential for ensuring intelligibility in a global context. Some things confuse me though…

From Jenkins (in Walker 2010:143)

‘Essentially, then, the Lingua Franca Core consists of: most consonant sounds; vowel length (but not quality) distinctions; absence of word-initial and – medial consonant deletion; and nuclear stress. For ELF, all the rest is in the realm of ‘non-core’.’

I guess ‘non-core’ is kinda Hancock’s ‘superficial’. However, both authors highlight that teaching these non-core features is worthwhile for receptive purposes. Phonology and listening are obviously linked (I’m still on the Cauldwell bandwagon by the way), which makes Jenkins fleeting categorisation of features of connected speech as ‘inconsequential’ seem a bit strange to me. The priority really is, as Hancock suggests, whether we are trying to understand or be understood. Good point, but if it is to be understood then is it right, according to Jenkins, to go for such a narrow pronunciation focus? I like Wells’ response to this…

‘The Lingua Franca Core (LFC) approach can be represented … as saying that we should ignore the parts of English that NNSs tend to get wrong. If we applied similar proposals not to phonetics but to grammar, it would arguably mean ignoring such difficult matters as the articles (coffee—a coffee—the coffee), the number system (singular vs. plural, dog vs. dogs), the distinction between countable [C] and uncountable [U] (so that we could happily talk of informations and furnitures)…’

Thinking from a teaching perspective, I don’t feel that certain claims from Jenkins actually tally. For example, I don’t see how word stress is ‘unteachable’. Hang on, words have a nuclear (tonic stress) and teaching nuclear stress is critical in the LFC – how can I do so if word stress in general is unteachable? I also don’t see the logic in avoiding teaching weak forms because they are ‘unhelpful to intelligibility’ – they are a fairly natural part of spontaneous speech. The LFC seems well meaning but unrealistic as I don’t see how it aligns with a realistic pronunciation model. I think I just don’t get the practicalities of it to be honest.

Like the consonant inventory. Based on Jenkins’ priorities, should I just ignore /θ/ and /ð/? She mentions how lots of speakers replace these with other sounds anyway – commoners like me make /θ/ an /f/. Lucky for my learners then. But what if the most commonplace pronunciation model in the classroom, the teacher, is a /θ/-er (a fer-er, as I would call it…). I mean they use /θ/! That would mean that they are not teaching a sound in their own, perfectly acceptable inventory of phonemes – adapting their own perfectly acceptable model of English. Or are they not? Are the just meant to say ‘when I say think I use a /θ/, but don’t worry about that. You just use an /f/…’

I do actually say things like that at times to be honest! The trouble is, if the LFC became my main guideline for what pronunciation features to teach I feel this type of clarification or justification would be ennnnnndless:

‘When I say ‘I am’, I say ‘I’m, but you don’t have to worry about that…’

‘The word ‘confused’ has two syllables and the stress is on the… wait, you don’t have to worry about that, and you probably wouldn’t understand. However I demonstrate it, it’s unteachable. Wait, no – you need to know about nuclear stress. Oh hell I don’t know’.

Yeah I know, I’m being  a bit facetious. It’s just the thing I don’t get about the LFC is why it seems to encourage such a small focus on such a rich model – whoever’s intelligible model that should be.

Aargh, that’s another minefield – not only which features should be prioritised but which model of pronunciation should be adopted. I’ll leave the Szpyra-Kozlowska (2015) Native English as a Lingua Franca stuff I’ve been reading for another time – needs more processing.

Speaking of native speakers (bullet point 2), check out Wells’ own pronunciation priorities:

I agree on the contrastive analysis front. I mean, if you don’t bother to compare the differences (re: pronunciation) between English and the learners’ L1 then to me you might not cover the right ground. Rephrase: you might do – but you might be effective and not efficient. If I prioritise Jenkins’ focus on vowel lengths, for example, I’d be doing my Thai students a disservice. Thai tones are often dependent on vowel length, so the idea of long/short vowels is pretty ingrained for them. And for me – my Thai teacher loves going on about it… Anyway, I’m teaching learners with the same L1 so I guess this contrasting is manageable. Naturally, you teach what needs to be taught – but if they don’t need that vowel distinction then that’s even less of the LFC I need to cover. At least Jenkins says consonant clusters are important, because if they weren’t then the boundaries of intelligibility re: my learners would be pretty broad…

What I feel I’ve understood by dipping my toes in the water here re: pronunciation priorities is (I think) the following:

  • The people best placed to judge which features of pronunciation should be prioritised is a) the learner as a lot depends on their goals b) the teacher as they would be well placed to understand how intelligible their learners are and what the priorities should be in relation to intelligibility
  • Guidelines like the LFC are interesting but not necessarily practical, and they are relevant if the priority is productive (intelligibility) rather than receptive. By ‘not necessarily practical’, you could also read ‘poorly understood by me’
  • There are actually people who disagree with the LFC, and there are also people who think native English is a preferable model of pronunciation. I thought both were few and far between
  • The latest Hancock article is worth a read, and it’s given me more to think about too…

Selected references

Jenkins, J. (2002). A sociolinguistically based, empirically researched pronunciation syllabus for English as an international language. Applied Linguistics, 23(1), 83-103. DOI: 10.1093/applin/23.1.83

Szpyra-Kozłowska, J. (2015) Pronunciation in EFL instruction: A Research-Based Approach. Multilingual Matters

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a lingua franca (Vol. 345). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Feature image: Flickr

Categories: General, reflections

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4 replies

  1. Interesting to read your ruminations on the LFC and pron priorities. It’s worth going back to Jenkins’ original book (2000) as she goes into much more detail about what the LFC was based on. This is also a relatively small part of the book — there’s a lot more about phonological accommodation, i.e. receptive competence/listening. And (re-)reading her discussion of both of these areas might help address the confusion you mention about “why it seems to encourage such a small focus on such a rich model” — for example, she’s very clear that the LFC is not a monolithic model and will, of course, not be relevant to *everybody’s* goals; it’s simply a small set of repertoire features, based on careful research and observation of communication between L2 users of English, which a speaker can draw on *if and when required* in order to facilitate intelligibility. She (and others, including us at ELFpron!) also argues that there are many possible models for learners’ pronunciation (and from an ELF perspective, any successful ELF user can be a model, regardless of their L1, so the status of teachers with L2 English is especially elevated!).

    Of course, Jenkins’ original research took place 20 years ago now and there have been lots of further studies which drew similar conclusions. Some of these are detailed here and here

    My last piece of advice would be to read Szpyra-Kozlowska’s and Wells’ positions with a grain of salt — both are generally native-oriented, neither is particularly receptive to the notion of ELF, and some of their work seems to betray a general misunderstanding/ignorance of — and, in my view, unwarranted hostility towards — what most researchers focusing on ELF-aware phonology and pedagogy have written. For example, the screenshot you’ve included here of Wells’ own pron priorities is entirely consistent with what Jenkins originally argued! It’s never clear to me exactly what he’s objecting to…


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey! Wow, response from the ELF expert, awesome!
      I’ve been going back through Jenkins’ early lit recently. Actually, I didn’t feel there was too much on receptive competence in the original book – re: accommodation theory and convergence yes, but not re: practicalities of what to teach. Or, whether aspects of connected speech should actually be taught for receptive purposes – I feel like Jenkins puts the onus on the learners and self-study outside class when it comes to the more these skills. I’ll look back in more detail for sure though, as I could well have misinterpreted this. Does she go into more detail re: reception in any later studies that springs to mind? I’ll ply through the resources you’ve linked as I’ll likely find the answer there!
      Re: careful research. She does a good review lit for the original book, but her interlanguage talk data doesn’t sound massively comprehensive. I’d guess that was bulked out and supported later down the line though, after all it was 20 years ago! Sometimes the justification for omitting features from the LFC is less strong than others, like with weak forms:
      ‘Although weak forms are often taught in EFL classrooms in Britain… learning rarely follows…’
      ‘The vast majority of learners use few weak forms other than ‘a’ and ‘the’…’
      Could be true but seem like generalisations – not much supporting evidence listed IMO.
      The Szpyra-Kozlowska’s needs much more thought, I don’t want to dismiss it without digging deeper.
      Really appreciate your direction to more resources to help me explore this topic more! Cheers

      Liked by 1 person


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