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How does that sound?

Teaching pronunciation isn’t nearly as obscure and enigmatic as it was in the past, but some teachers might still consider it a rather intimidating task. In informal conversations with teachers, they often mention their lack of confidence in planning a lesson whose main aim or sub-aim is pronunciation. Students, on the other hand, tend to be more emphatic when explaining their struggles regarding grammar or vocabulary. More often than not, pronunciation is lower on their list of priorities.

As for teachers, I wonder why some of us don’t feel confident enough. If it’s a lack of theoretical knowledge, it’s only natural to feel insecure about teaching phonological features. However, it’s a problem which the wealth of literature available on the subject can definitely help us solve. Alternatively, not being a native speaker may also be a contributing factor: “How can I teach my students about the difference between short and long vowels when I still get them mixed up sometimes?”.

Well, if that’s the case, allow me to repeat something which we often tell our students and might forget ourselves: you don’t need to be perfect. You don’t need to sound exactly like a British or an American person so that you can be a model for your students. Being intelligible does the trick. By the way, isn’t intelligibility the ultimate goal of pronunciation teaching? Let’s see what Adrian Underhill (2005, p.172) has to say about it: “My aim when working with pronunciation is to enable learners to achieve ‘comfortable intelligibility’. This means that they can be understood comfortably, without undue effort by the listener, and that they can understand comfortably the speech of native and non-native speakers without undue effort on their own part”.

In other words, we – and our students – could simply aim to understand others and be understood. A caveat which comes to mind is that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about mistakes or strive to improve our pronunciation: much to the contrary, intelligibility is a different lens through which we can see mistakes. Which ones impact intelligibility the most? Shouldn’t we focus on them instead of correcting every pronunciation mistake our students make in the classroom?

What I also find interesting about the idea of “comfortable intelligibility” is that it allows us to set different goals according to the skills we have in mind: with regard to listening, students could aim to understand fast colloquial speech, such as an informal conversation between native speakers. As for their speaking skills, learners don’t need to have the same expectations: careful colloquial speech is a much more realistic target and would likely lead to students being understood across the world.

“Well”, you might still ask me, “what about students/teachers who want to sound exactly like native speakers? Is that wrong, then?”. Not at all. It’s perfectly fine to have a more ambitious speaking target as long as teachers/students know it isn’t necessary in order to be an effective user of the language. By the same token, this isn’t a requirement when we teach pronunciation or for teachers to be considered good models of the language for their learners.

In short, I hope you’re feeling more confident about dealing with pronunciation in the classroom and less worried about any phonological features which you may find challenging but that don’t really affect how intelligible you are. Also, if we help our students understand the concept of “comfortable intelligibility”, they’re likely to feel the same way and enjoy activities focused on pronunciation much more. Give it a try!

The Author

Lygia Leite has a degree in Social Sciences (USP) and is a CELTA and ICELT holder. She’s been working as an ELT professional for 10 years and has acted as a teacher in a range of contexts and as a teacher trainer. She is now an academic consultant at Troika. She’s currently taking a preparatory course for DELTA – Module 1.

Reference

UNDERHILL, A. (2005) Sound foundations: Learning and Teaching pronunciation. Oxford: Macmillan Education.

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