Saturday, 18 February 2012

Can pronunciation be taught?

On 1st August 2010, Scott Thornbury posted a provocative article on his blog about the usefulness/uselessness of teaching pronunciation in the EFL classroom. Here’s what he had to say:

“As a teacher, I have to confess that I can’t recall any enduring effects for teaching pronunciation in class – but then, I very seldom addressed it in any kind of segregated, pre-emptive fashion. Most of my ‘teaching’ of pronunciation was reactive – a case of responding to learners’ mispronunciations with either real or feigned incomprehension. There are only two pron-focused lessons that I can remember feeling good about: one was where I used an inductive approach to guide a group of fairly advanced learners to work out the rules (or, better, tendencies) of word stress in polysyllabic words (the students seemed generally impressed that the system was not as arbitrary as it had appeared), and another where I used a banal dialogue that happened to be in the students’ workbook to highlight the different spellings of the /ay/ phoneme – a lesson that was more about spelling than pronunciation, really – but, again, one that helped dispel the myth that there are zero sound-spelling relationships in English”.

He continued:

“As a second language learner, any attempts to improve my pronunciation have fallen (almost literally) on deaf ears. I remember being told by a well-intentioned Spanish teacher: “Your problem is that you use the English ‘t’ sound instead of the Spanish one”. To which I replied, “No, the ‘t’ sound is the very least of my problems! My problem is that I don’t know the endings of the verbs, that I don’t have an extensive vocabulary, that I can’t produce more than two words at a time. ... and so on”. That is to say, in the greater scheme of things, the phonetic rendering of a single consonant sound was not going to help me become a proficient speaker of Spanish. Nor was it something I would be able to focus my attention on, when my attention was so totally absorbed with simply getting the right words out in the right order. And nor, at the end of the day, would I ever be able to rid myself of my wretched English accent, however hard I tried (assuming, of course, I wanted to)”.   

He then concluded:

“Hence, I’m fairly sceptical about the value of teaching pronunciation, and I suspect that most of the exercises and activities that belong to the canonical pron-teaching repertoire probably have only incidental learning benefits. A minimal pairs exercise (of the ship vs sheep type) might teach some useful vocabulary; a jazz chant might reinforce a frequently used chunk. But neither is likely to improve a learner’s pronunciation. Certain learners (a small minority, I suspect) with good ears and a real motivation to “sound like a native speaker” might just squeeze some benefit out of a pron lesson, but for the majority it will probably just wash right over them”.  

This is an interesting conclusion. Pronunciation teaching in EFL is a total waste of time, according to Mr Thornbury.

In a follow-up comment he also added:

“[R]andom, segregated activities that focus on the three pronunciations of the past simple inflection (-ed) – well, I’m not so sure. Teachers may teach these “pronunciation macnuggets”, but what evidence do we have that learners learn them?”. 

When the article was published I didn’t feel like providing a proper answer to these to me exaggerated claims, so I simply posted a comment saying

“I think teaching phonetics and phonology is absolutely essential in EFL. I believe it’s a matter of making your students aware of certain features which they may not find in their L1 and which may help them understand native speakers better”. 

I was obviously referring to exercises which can draw the students’ attention to problems they might encounter of both perception and comprehension, such as when the standard citation forms of words found in dictionaries are modified when they occur in natural English speech. 

I find that EFL teachers are often reluctant to mention processes such as reductions, assimilations, elisions, resyllabification, or cliticization, preferring, instead, to invest all their efforts in activities like teaching the correct articulation of individual sounds or doing boring minimal pair games, which – I agree – may produce few beneficial results.

I feel that what classroom teachers should be doing more of is promoting their students’ perception, telling them how to ‘listen better’ and what to listen out for. And that’s where pronunciation teaching comes in. 

Some students may find it 'easy'; others may find it more difficult, but for everybody it's a chance to find out more about how English really works and what it really sounds like.

Pronunciation CAN and MUST be taught!


  1. When I decided to learn Russian, I spent a whole year trying to get dressed in its flesh -their peculiar sounds, how these combine with each other and (a bit of) how those combinations can be sung. I didn't make any attempt to understand a single word of it. My objective was to reshape my articulatory habits so that, when I began to study vocabulary and grammar, I would not be hindered by the commonest mistake in language learning: putting the cart before the horse.
    Pronunciation is the basics. Ignoring it is like ignoring your lover's body.

    1. I'm very curious... How did that work out for you? How native-like does your russian sound?

      I've been thinking of doing the same for russian precisely but have been too busy with traveling and other languages so far. I *am* learning Dutch with 100% audio means to that purpose however, at the moment, and will be learning russian in Russia starting in August.

  2. So I take it that Scott Thornbury won't be knocking out a 'teaching pronunciation' book for the EFL market anytime soon.

  3. I don't know, Paul. I don't know if he's changed his mind since August 2010.