How Can I Teach Pronunciation?

This question was asked recently by a French person who came to the Agen Workshop in July, 2014. She is perfectly bilingual and a creative, hard-working and conscientious teacher of English. She admitted that she didn’t feel comfortable teaching pronunciation.

Personally, I think we put way too much importance on pronunciation. I was both amused and shocked to discover that some friends who are trying to develop a program to teach new immigrants French were offered training which consisted entirely in pronunciation exercises.

I don’t really think we should “teach” pronunciation. I have complete faith in Krashen’s theory that we acquire language best when it is used in context. When we isolate pronunciation in order to teach it, we are divorcing the sounds from their meanings, which makes the entire operation meaningless. (See the article about Cato the Elder and Night Blooming Flowers.)

In context we are modeling pronunciation all the time. There’s no reason for a non-native speaker to feel uncomfortable about the model they give their students because if it is comprehensible, it is already an excellent model. Krashen has some interesting thoughts about why even highly competent speakers retain some accent. He suggests that it may be an unconscious desire to keep their identity. To acquire a perfect native speaker accent, we have to feel that we belong to the club and we must be ready to reject our attachment to our own original language family. So to begin with, we must be realistic in our goals. Unless we are working for the CIA, we are not trying to teach our students to sound like native speakers. We want them to be comprehensible.

If a student means “beach” and you hear “bitch”, you need to explain that they may not be understood correctly. I model for them, exaggerating the long vowel sound. I find giving pointers like this on the spot is more effective than drills and exercises on the long and short vowel sounds. When the sound is linked to meaning, they can understand the purpose of being a bit more careful with their pronunciation. When the student starts hearing the difference, they will be able to pronounce the words so that they can be understood.

Of course, the best thing they can do to improve their pronunciation is to listen to compelling, high quality input. I find that students who follow their favorite series acquire an excellent American accent. No drills or exercises, just listening to compelling, comprehensible input.

One of my stories that I repeat often because it taught me something:

I had a student in an advanced level class who had a terrible French accent, making all the classic mistakes, so much so that it almost seemed like she was doing it on purpose. I did pronunciation exercises and drills with them, I had them acting and learning dialogs by heart, I taught them not to aspirate before a vowel, but nothing changed, it seemed she was getting worse and worse.

Then, one day, I realized that it wasn’t her problem, it was mine. I was the only one that was worried about her accent. She actually had no problem at all. She was a very pretty girl with a lovely smile. If she went to the States or England with her thick French accent, what would happen? Most people would be able to understand her, but the boys …… would be dropping like flies. Why in the world would she want to change her accent? I stopped worrying about her and she did very well on her exam.

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