The Role of Pronunciation
in a Foreign Language Program
Although the usefulness of teaching pronunciation is one of the most widely debated subjects in the field of language teaching, current pedagogical thinking and research on pronunciation reveals that intelligible pronunciation is a very essential component of communicative competence. Mastering a foreign language pronunciation is not something impossible as far as the students and the teacher participate together in the total learning process. Thus, to succeed a pronunciation program, the teacher must then set achievable goals that are applicable and suitable for the communication needs of the student. The student must also become part of the learning process, actively involved in their own learning. The content of the course should be integrated into the communication class, with the content emphasizing the teaching of suprasegmentals, linking, intonation, with listening comprehension, and allowing for meaningful pronunciation practice. Rather than as a mere checker of pronunciation, the teacher must act as a ‘speech coach’. He should facilitate learning by monitoring and modifying English at two levels, speech production and speech performance.
Key Words: pronunciation, consonants, suprasegmentals, intonation, tongue-twister.
The growing emphasis on communicative approaches for the teaching of English has placed higher demands for correct pronunciation. In some countries, including Indonesia, tests for both listening and speaking now comprise portions of high school. Despite this fact, the usefulness of teaching pronunciation still remains one of the most widely debated subjects in the field of language teaching. The proponents of the importance of teaching pronunciation, supported by some current research results would suggest that teachers can make a noticeable difference if certain criteria, such as the teaching of suprasegmentals and the linking of pronunciation with listening practice, are fulfilled. On the other hand, the opponents of pronunciation instruction, also supported by some research results, would suggest that teachers can make little or no difference in improving their students’ pronunciation.
This article, in light of the past and current researches, practices, and pedagogical thinking on pronunciation, tries to see whether pronunciation can be successfully taught or not. In order to prevent ambiguity, the term ‘foreign language’ in this paper refers to English and ‘pronunciation’ is defined as a way in which a language is spoken, especially the way that is accepted or generally understood.
In the field of language teaching, the role of pronunciation has varied widely from having virtually no role in the grammar-translation method to being the central focus in the audio-lingual method where emphasis is on the traditional notions of pronunciation, minimal pairs, drills and short conversations (Castillo, 1990: 3). According to Richards and Rodgers (1986), the situational language teaching, developed in Britain, also reflected the audio-lingual view of the pronunciation class. In the audio-lingual method, “The pronunciation class … was one that gave primary attention to phonemes and their meaningful contrasts, environmental allophonic variations, and combinatory phonotactic rules, along with … attention to stress, rhythm, and intonation.” (Morley, 1991: 484).
During the late 1960’s and the 1970’s questions were asked about the role of pronunciation in the ESL/EFL curriculum, whether the focus of the programs and the instructional methods were effective or not. Otlowski (2001) notes that this era was dominated by the view that little relationship exists between teaching pronunciation in the classroom and attained proficiency in pronunciation. Pronunciation programs until then were ‘viewed as meaningless noncommunicative drill-and-exercise gambits’ (Morley, 1991: 485-6). This view was supported by Purcell and Suter’s (1980) researches. The study, done on twenty variables believed to have an influence on pronunciation revealed that pronunciation practice in class had little affect on the learner’s pronunciation skills and reached the conclusion ‘that the attainment of accurate pronunciation in a second language is a matter substantially beyond the control of educators’. The findings were qualified by stating that variables of formal training and the quality of the training in pronunciation could affect the results, as would the area of pronunciation that had been emphasized, that is segmentals (individual sounds of a language) or suprasegmentals. Consequently, the teaching of pronunciation was pushed aside in many language programs.
In contrast with that view, Pennington (1989: 203-220) noted that there was no ‘firm basis for asserting categorically that pronunciation is not teachable or that it is not worth spending time on…’. He believes that teachers, with formal training in pronunciation and teaching suprasegmentals in a communicative language program, can make a difference. This view is in parallel with the result of a year of systematic study of English phonetics carried out in Binzhou Teachers’ College in Shandong, China, which helped the student-teachers make great progress in their English pronunciation (Fangzhi, 1998). In addition, the results of a highly specific research conducted in a language laboratory in Korea in 2003 supported the view that pronunciation training does help the student in his second language mastery, and is an effective tool in the teacher’s repertoire. The research, using 300 students aged 12-14 (Korean age) and 60 adults aged 24-55, showed that those in both groups who undertook six hours of pronunciation training recorded noticeably higher computer analyzed results of pronunciation than those whose training omitted the pronunciation program (Robertson, 2003).
Present Ideas on Pronunciation and Learning
Changing outlooks on language learning and teaching have influenced a move from teacher-centered to learner-centered classrooms. Concurrently, there has been a shift from specific linguistic competencies to broader communicative competencies as goals for teachers and students (Morley, 1991: 481-520). Morley states the need for the integration of pronunciation with oral communication, a change of emphasis from segmentals to suprasegmentals, more emphasis on individual learner needs, meaningful task-based practices, development of new teacher strategies for the teaching, and introducing peer correction and group interaction. (Castillo, 1991: 4) Research has shown that teaching phonemes isn’t enough for intelligibility in communication (Cohen, 1977: 71-7). With the emphasis on meaningful communication and Morley’s (1991: 488) premise, that ‘Intelligible pronunciation is an essential component of communication competence’ teachers should include pronunciation in their courses and expect students to do well in them. Without adequate pronunciation skills, the learner’s ability to communicate is severely limited. Morley believes that not attending to a student’s pronunciation needs, ‘is an abrogation of professional responsibility’ (1991: 489).
Other research gives support to Morey’s belief in the need for ‘professional responsibility’ when the results show that “a threshold level of pronunciation in English such that if a given non-native speaker’s pronunciation falls below this level, he or she will not be able to communicate orally no matter how good his or her control of English grammar and vocabulary might be” (Celce-Murcia, 1987:5). It is in parallel with Baker’s (1992: 1) statement that “advanced students find that they can improve all aspects of their proficiency in English except their pronunciation, and mistakes which have been repeated for years are impossible to eradicate.” The experience of student-teachers at Binzhou Teachers’ College in Shandong, China, revealed that their progress in pronunciation skills helps enormously in developing their speaking skills (Fangzhi, 1998).
The current research and the current trend reversal in the thinking of pronunciation shows there is a consensus that a learner’s pronunciation in a foreign language needs to be taught in conjunction with communicative practices for the learner to be able to communicate effectively with native speakers. Gilbert (1984:1) believes the skills of listening comprehension and pronunciation are interdependent: “If they cannot hear English well, they are cut off from the language … If they cannot be understood easily, they are cut off from conversation with native speakers.” Nooteboom (1983:183-94) also suggests that speech production is affected by speech perception; listening is an important factor in communication discourse. This illustrates the need to integrate pronunciation with communicative activities; to give the student situations to develop there pronunciation by listening and speaking.
Pronunciation and Communicative Teaching
According to Morley (1991: 500), the goal of pronunciation should be changed from the attainment of ‘perfect’ pronunciation (a very elusive term at the best of times), to the more realistic goals of developing functional intelligibility, communicability, increased self-confidence, the development of speech monitoring abilities and speech modification strategies for use beyond the classroom. The overall aim of these goals is to develop student’ spoken English that is easy to understand, serves his individual needs, and allows a positive image of himself as a speaker of a foreign language. The student needs to develop awareness and monitoring skills that will allow learning opportunities outside the classroom environment. To achieve it, pronunciation teaching requires teaching methods and objectives that include ‘whole-person learner involvement’, which could be realized by providing three dimensions: the learner’s intellectual involvement, affective involvement, and physical involvement (Morley, 1991: 501).
The learner’s involvement in the learning process has been noted as one of the best techniques for developing learner strategies, that is, the measures used by the learner to develop his language learning (Morley, 1991:506). It is the teacher’s responsibility to develop the learning process so the learner has the greatest chance to develop the learning strategies that are unique to each individual learner. The teacher also has a special role to play in the communicative learning program, a role that Morley describes as one of ‘speech coach or pronunciation coach’ (1991: 507). Rather than just correcting the learner’s mistakes, the ‘speech coach’ should supply information, give models from time to time, offer cues, suggestions and constructive feedback about performance, set high standards, provide a wide variety of practice opportunities, and overall supports, and encourage the learner’ (Morley, 1991: 507). It can be seen the teacher’s role is not only to ‘teach’ but to facilitate learning by monitoring and modifying English at two levels, speech production and speech performance.
Guidelines for Effective Teaching Pronunciation in EFL Situation
After discussing the ideas and concepts presented in the previous sections, we are now on the position of arranging tips and guidelines for teaching pronunciation to help our students develop their abilities. For the sake of practical presentation, these tips are arranged in three sections which are parallel with the three pronunciation learning stages: comparing pronunciation in a meaningful and interesting way.
Comparing the Students’ First Language and English Sound Systems
Familiarizing oneself with the sound system of the target language he wants to master is very essential. By comparing the sound system of the students’ native language with that of the target language, the teacher can predict the likely that his students will encounter and plan teaching strategies accordingly. Pardede’s (2007) study, for instance, revealed that five sounds of English fricatives, namely were difficult to produce by the Indonesian students. They are often replaced either by a similar Indonesian consonant or by another English one. For instances while pronouncing ‘that’, some said /det/; to pronounce ‘with’, the majority of subject said /wIt/ and some other said /wId/; and to pronounce “issues”, some of the subjects said /Isu:s/ and some others said /Isu:z/. Also, under the influence of Indonesian syllabic structure of “consonant + vowel,” the students tend to insert vowels between English consonant clusters. Thus, “station” and “plural” are pronounced as /seteIsien/ and /pelurel/ respectively. Moreover, in Indonesian consonants are not differentiated to aspirated and unaspirated ones like those in English. Consequently, Indonesian speaker of English tend to pronounce all consonants without any aspiration at all.
After identifying the most difficulty consonants for the students, The following techniques teaching English consonant phonemes, or a combination of them, are recommended to use. These include: 1) a description of the speech organs as the sound is being produced; 2) a diagram of the speech organs; 3) a comparison with the nearest sound in Indonesian; and 4) a modification of a known English sound. For example, in dealing with consonant clusters, such as ‘spr’ or ‘pl’, it is advisable to first describe and demonstrate the different places and manners of articulation of each consonant. Then the students are asked to produce each sound correctly, pay attention to the glide from one place or manner of articulation to another, do the change quickly and without squeezing any vowels into them. Meanwhile, each student is asked to hold a piece of paper in front of his or her mouth to observe the different movement of the paper. The paper is moved by a puff of air in producing aspirated /p/ as in “pick”, and the paper moves very little in producing unaspirated /p/ as in “spring” or “plot”.
Developing Speech Perception
Perception and production refer to the process of perceiving and producing the sounds. Obviously, perception should be more important than production because it provides the necessary means for acquiring the accurate phonemes, the intonation curves, or the stress patterns. Perception is important in the sense that production would be impossible without perception.
Perception training can be done with the teacher as producer or with audio-recorded models. However, in practice, the combination of the two seems better. Teacher can start using teacher-produced models because it enables students to see the shape of the lips or the amount of tension in the facial muscles which they need to distinguish one sound from another.
If the students should learn from the most basic level, it is necessary to let the students listen to the tone of English and ask them to distinguish high-fall from the low-fall, high-rise from rise-fall, etc. Then they are let to listen to authentic audio to train their ear. They should be able to hear the differences between these tones and produce them correctly. When they are able to recognize the actual use of the different tones in connected speech, that means they have reached an adequate level of perception and production.
After the work on perception, the teacher can have the students practice in pairs and tape-record their dialogues. Then he can develop a follow-up activity by asking some of the students to hum the dialogue instead of actually saying the words. He can start by doing this himself, first in English and then in the students’ first language so as to show the difference, between the two languages in using the tones, stress, and rhythm. For another follow-up activity after class, the students could be assigned to practice the intonation by imitating the selected recordings. These recordings are of immense help in developing the students’ perceptual and productive skills.
Teaching pronunciation in a meaningful and motivating way
Good pronunciation is closely linked with clear oral communication; therefore it is advisable to place students in a meaningful and contextual situation, rather than present them with a series of isolated sentences. In practicing the phoneme /u:/, for example, students are made to repeat sentences like “Your new blue shoes look truly beautiful with that suit.” “That would be a good book to read.” Though these isolated sentences have a high concentration of the sound to be practiced, they are not sentences frequently used in everyday conversation. The students when are trained in this way tend to make more pronunciation errors when speaking spontaneously. What is more, such a pronunciation class is not motivating. The students sit passively and are bored by the parrot-like repeating task. In order to improve the situation, the following strategies are effective to use.
1. Providing meaningful materials.
In selecting or designing materials, the teacher needs to pay special attention to those which contain not only a sufficient concentration of the sound to be practiced, but short dialogues, pair word, or other contextual practices as well. The students first learn stress accompanied by basic intonation in meaningful sentences; then work on the difficult sounds. This meaningful practice has the advantage of making the students aware of the stress and intonation patterns from the beginning. As the course precedes, the teacher can choose several articles of various styles from the student textbooks to use as models for practicing linking, rhythm, stress, or intonation. Students feel that the pronunciation class is relevant to their regular course work. Thus, they become active participants in their pair or group work, applying the phonetic rules they have learned to the actual practice. Through these meaningful and contextual activities the students can learn to speak both intelligibly and accurately .
2. Using songs, games, and tongue twisters
Using songs, games, and tongue twisters can increase students’ motivation in a pronunciation class: motivation is a highly significant factor in pronunciation. The more motivated the student is to improve his speech, the more rewarding the teaching will be.
In choosing songs, the first consideration is that they should be simple enough for the students to practice stress and rhythm as well as individual sounds. In teaching the difficult phoneme /eö/, for example, the first verse of the song Let it Be Me is recommended:
I ‘blessed the ‘day I ‘found you.
I ‘want to ‘stay ar’ound you.
And so I ‘beg you: ‘Let it ‘be me.
The teaching procedures include: 1) read the words containing /ei/ sounds: 2) mark out the stress: 3) sing the song to the students: 4) repeat the words chorally, tapping on the desk to establish the rhythm: 5) put the words into the tune. Eventually, the song helps the students pronounce the phoneme /eö/ and allows the weaker ones to feel a real sense of achievement when they are able to sing it.
Using games in a pronunciation class can also increase students’ motivation. Pronunciation and sound-discrimination games can make practice in this area lively and entertaining. MINI-BINGO is a good game for discriminating sounds and WILD GUESS is suitable for practicing the uses of intonation. The teacher can also design the games himself, as far as the games are appropriate to the level and interests of the students. Since they are designed in order to meet the students needs and conditions, they might be very stimulating.
Tongue twisters are particularly useful for the students who have unique pronunciation problems. Before teaching the students the English /s/ and /x/, for instance, the teacher can first ask the students to make a clear distinction between the both phonemes. Then he can let them pronouncing the tongue twister like “She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore” repeatedly.
3. Assessing students’ progress.
Assessing progress is a crucial factor in maintaining student motivation. The teacher should provide learners with information about their performance from time to time so that they may know what they have accomplished and what they still have to do. The style of assessment adopted by Fangzhi (1998: 37-39) is recommended due to the many advantages it can give. He used tape recordings to keep a record of the students’ progress. At the beginning of the course, each student was given a cassette to record the assigned exercises. The recordings supplied him with useful information in diagnosing the students’ original pronunciation. He listened to the tapes carefully and took detailed notes. In the notes, he listed such items as the student’s personal data and individual pronunciation problems. The personal data was an important indicator of some regional pronunciation problems: it helped him to analyze where some of the students’ difficulty laid and to work out plans for those who would need special help to eliminate regional accents. During the term, the students were assigned to use their cassettes at regular intervals to record oral homework or carefully chosen materials with emphasis on particular phonetic points. These assignment included pure imitation tasks and individual work on applying the phonetic rules to actual speech production. For example, when practicing stress and intonation. he asked the student, to mark out the stress first; then divided sequences of utterances into separate tone-groups and decided what tones were most suitable to adopt according to the context or the kind of sentence. Although the primary emphasis was on stress and intonation, other phonetic aspects, such as assimilation, length, or linking were by no means neglected. After listening to each cassette, he set a consultation period to work with one small group of students at a time, replayed their recordings, and offered help to correct their pronunciation errors.
As the students’ achievement reach a certain level, he attempted to make the learning process more motivating by involving the students in a speaking activity (a role play, a discussion, a communication game, a story-telling activity, or a speech contest). It was aimed to train the students to acquire accurate pronunciation when speaking spontaneously. During these activities, he always used a tape recorder so that at the end of each activity the students could listen to themselves and evaluate their own speech.
The value of such using tape recorders to assess the students’ progress lies in the fact that it can provide immediate feed-back and form the basis of individual “pronunciation clinics” with the teacher, or workshops which may be part of consultation period with a very small number of students. Students know that the teacher will be working with the whole class on certain general priority areas, but it is vital that the students feel that their individual problems are being catered as well.
Research has shown and current pedagogical thinking on pronunciation maintains that intelligible pronunciation is seen as an essential component of communicative competence. It is obvious that if the students and the teacher participate together in the total learning process, all students can do well in learning the pronunciation of a foreign language. With this in mind, the teacher must then set achievable goals that are applicable and suitable for the communication needs of the student. The student must also become part of the learning process, actively involved in their own learning. The content of the course should be integrated into the communication class, with the content emphasizing the teaching of suprasegmentals, linking pronunciation with listening comprehension, and allowing for meaningful pronunciation practice. With the teacher acting as a ‘speech coach’, rather than as a mere checker of pronunciation, the feedback given to the student can in itself encourage learners to improve their pronunciation. If these criteria are met, all students, within their learner unique goals, can be expected to do well learning the pronunciation of a foreign language.
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This paper was presented in the FKIP-UKI English Department Bimonthly Collegiate Forum held on October 13, 2007.