Thinking about essential English pronunciation

essential EN pronunciation

We native English speakers can think pretty highly of ourselves.

As I wrote in my last post Thoughts on the arrogance of the unilingual anglophone, we can talk too much, use local slang. We pepper our language with what-we-assume-to-be-universally-understood “common” idioms. And when we (at least “we” living in North America) teach pronunciation, we use the North American Standard accent as if it’s the “gold” standard.

Oh dear.

It’s we, the native speakers of English, who seem to have the greatest difficulty with comprehension. I hosted international students for several years before I began teaching ESL and had always marvelled at how South Koreans, Mexicans, Japanese and Brazilians all  managed to make themselves understood to each other.

These days there are more fluent non-native English speakers around the world than there are native English speakers. We’re a declining population. It’s incumbent upon us to learn to listen with greater attention and to adjust our expectations.

It’s time to think about the essentials of International English pronunciation.

It’s not easy for those of us teaching in a classroom setting with different nationalities who appear to have very different pronunciation challenges. It’s even more challenging when teachers themselves have so little confidence in their ability to teach pronunciation. There’s a lot of reference material out there, true. But much of it is still mired in an old-world mentality of IPA symbols and impractical subtleties. With little time allotted to teaching pronunciation in a general course or even an occupation specific course, how can we expedite and prioritize? How can we find some “common ground?”

Do we need to focus on every consonant … every vowel sound?

Do non-native speakers need to learn the two sounds for [th]? I’ve never yet heard anyone misunderstand the native French speaker who replaces the English [th] combination with a /d/or /z/ sound.

Do we always miss the meaning if someone replaces the long [e] sound with the short [e] sound – if they seem to be saying “bitch” rather than “beach?” It might make us smile, but we get it.

Do they need to learn how to produce the “schwa” perfectly even if it is the most common vowel sound in the English language?

They need to be able to understand what we’re saying and how the “schwa” changes the quality of the words, creating reductions, changing rhythms. Getting used to listening to reduced sounds leads to intelligibility. But whose intelligibility? Our own. If non-native speakers of English articulate syllables more fully, we still understand.

And speaking of reductions, do non-native English speakers need to be able to reproduce our “short-form” language, expressions like “Dontcha,” “Whaddya,” “gotta,” “hafta?”

They need to be able to understand what they’re hearing. But they can use the long forms and be understood perfectly well: “Don’t you,” “What do you,” “got to,” “have to.” Even the concept of “linking,” though important for listening comprehension, is less important for intelligibility.

So we need to make a clear distinction between teaching essentials for listening comprehension and essentials for speaking with intelligibility.

Do they always need to stress the correct syllable in every word? I’ve written about this before in Thoughts on Syllable Stress.

While it’s important to teach syllable stress, mistakes don’t often affect intelligibility. It may drive us anglophones a little crazy, but I hear incorrect syllable stress frequently – even from native speakers. And anyway, syllable stress can change depending on the country. There are lots of differences between British and North American English pronunciation: the British controversy, garage, strawberry, for example. One is no more “right” than the other.

Now, in many ways, this question of essential pronunciation for International English is radical for a pronunciation coach. I, as much as any of you, was trained in the “classical” tradition with the weight of the International Phonetic Alphabet, focus on reductions and syllable stress, on every consonant and vowel sound, not to mention the fundamental belief that “our” accent was the “right” accent lying heavy on my shoulders. But times have changed … and so must me.

So what is essential? What truly makes the difference between intelligibility and misunderstandings?

Thoughts are swirling. Time to stop. But I’ll continue on this subject in the next blog …

Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts on the subject, I’d be really interested in hearing what you have to say!

 

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