martes, 1 de diciembre de 2015

Teaching pronunciation,
why is it so difficult?

By Maria De La Lama

Teaching pronunciation is still the “ugly duckling” in our English courses. To begin with, instructors seem to be fond of grammatical rules, but unfortunately those are the only rules that our students are exposed to. But what about phonological rules?  As a matter of fact, when I have asked a teacher to explain just one phonological rule as a vowel reduction, they have looked puzzled wondering where they could have learnt about such thing. It’s is not surprising then that usually teachers skip pronunciation explanations and drills without realizing that teaching that would enhance their students’ listening comprehension skills.

Frequently, educators avoid teaching pronunciation for the following three reasons:

1. It seems to be a difficult subject for teachers to learn.

2. Only English native speakers can teach it.

3. Students may find it boring.

The issue is, how valid are these reasons? Let’s summarily analyse each of them:

1. Pronunciation seems to be a difficult subject for teachers to learn.

Pronunciation is not really a strenuous matter. Unfortunately, it is rather a topic which instruction does not go on well done. Very frequently student-teachers are overwhelmed with phonetic transcriptions without even understanding the difference between a phoneme and an allophone. Pronunciation courses should  start  with  an understanding of the main  phonological differences between English and Spanish or with very important topics  such as  rhythm and intonation , stress placement or sound assimilation, to mention only a few. How can student-teachers be asked to transcribe a language without first being trained in sound assimilation or on the rules for fast speech? 

2. Only teachers who are English native speakers can teach pronunciation.

It should be considered that when teaching students which are older than 15 years of age, teachers need to provide students with easy to follow instructions for pronouncing a given sound. Without having a sound knowledge of the English phonological system and its main differences with the Spanish one, English instructors will not succeed at teaching pronunciation irrespective of being native or non-native language trainers.

3. Students may find pronunciation boring.

On the contrary.  I have found that students consider the learning of pronunciation as something “new” and quite interesting and challenging. Indeed, my best classes have been the ones in which my students learnt “vowel reduction” or compared the English intonation pattern vs. the Spanish one. I believe that we must describe and explain in class, in very simple terms, the main characteristics of the English phonological system. Not only our   students will have a better knowledge of the target language (the language being studied) but their oral production will be more accurate and clear, which will in turn have a positive impact on their self-esteem and motivation to continue mastering this tongue.


DE LA LAMA, MARIA  Master´s Degree in Applied Linguistics and Bachelor´s Degree in Theoretical Linguistics from the University of California;  MBA  Universidad del Pacífico.  Current Director at Centro de Idiomas de la Universidad del Pacífico.