Pronunciation and Privilege

Pronunciation and Privilege

A post entitled ‘Pronunciation and Privilege’ could easily be about RP or some other prestige form of speech, and the kinds of benefits you get by having such an accent. But here, I want instead to reflect on a bizarre kind of privilege which exists only within the specific, limited sphere of ELT. It’s about the kind of privileges you get in our profession by virtue of being a native speaker of English.

If you’re an English native speaker in the domain of ELT, you have the privilege of being sought after. In matters of the English language, you are seen by many people to be the best kind of expert there is, and there’s a market for that. Such people will defer to your judgement on what’s wrong or right. They will prefer you as a candidate for teaching jobs. They will display an unusual level of interest in the minutiae of your home culture. They will marvel at effortless vowels. They will pay you for being able to speak!

In today’s world, English teaching is not comparable with the teaching of other languages. English is an international Lingua Franca, your passport to a global speech community. The demand is huge; but demand for what exactly? What difference does it make that English is an international language?

You could say that traditionally, languages are taught as national languages. If you’re learning Greek, you are likely to want to do so in order to communicate with Greek people, and you are likely to want to match their pronunciation as far as you are able. And it’s true that many learners of English approach it in this traditional way, perhaps imagining themselves communicating, say, in Britain, with British people.

However, does this traditional, national approach make sense for the vast majority of people around the world who are learning English? Surely most people are more likely to use their English as a Lingua Franca, with interlocutors from anywhere, not just an English-speaking country such as Britain. And if this is the case, aspects of the language which are specifically British – including the pronunciation – will have little relevance.

This calls into question the preferential treatment which is given to native speakers in ELT. I feel that native speaker privilege is a hangover from a time when English was taught as a national language, rather than an international one. It’s time to move on and embrace the new reality. In this new reality, the very notion of ‘native speaker’ loses its sense: there are no native speakers of English as a Lingua Franca – everybody has to learn it, including people for whom English is their first language. Or to look at it another way, we could say that everybody who communicates effectively through English in an international context is a native speaker, regardless of their accent or mother tongue.

In terms of pronunciation, I don’t think any specific accent of English does anything to earn for itself a privileged position. There is no evidence that ‘native’ English accents are more intelligible, globally, than ‘non-native’ ones. In fact, ‘native speakers’ are often less intelligible in international settings. So why should ‘native speakers’ still get preferential treatment in ELT? I suppose the point about privilege is that it is undeserved. Perhaps this reflection goes against my own best interests – being a ‘native’ myself. I could just enjoy being on a pedestal like the character in my cartoon. On the other hand, the future no longer looks so glorious for things on pedestals, and that’s alright by me!

PronPack: review in Journal of Applied Languages and Linguistics!

” I have been using at my school the series PronPack with excellent results as the activities do not just shift the focus from the traditional teaching of grammar and vocabulary to phonology, but also the worksheets are fun, engaging and meaningful. And above all, students love them! “

See the full review here

Maria Davou (MA TESOL, PhD Applied Linguistics, ABD)  is a teacher, teacher trainer, researcher and school owner, promoting alternative and innovative approaches to teaching and implementing them in her own school.

PronPack Book Review was first published in the Journal of Applied Languages and Linguistics, Volume 3 – Isssue 2 – December 2019.

Mark Hancock interviewed by Stella Palavecino

Interview first published in AEXALEVI Forum Issue XXXI

Stella: How did you get into teaching phonetics and pronunciation?

Mark: I was teaching at the Cultura Inglesa in Rio de Janeiro, and had a few administrative hours on my timetable. They asked me to produce some fun pronunciation materials for the school. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to make sense of the hidden patterns of phonology, and creating tasks and activities which would really engage the learners. I discovered that pronunciation is fascinating, perhaps because it is hybrid. It crosses the frontier between language systems (like grammar and lexis) and skills (like speaking and listening). It also has aspects which are cerebral on the one hand and physical on the other. In this respect, it is like no other aspect of language teaching. To me, language without pronunciation is somewhat two-dimensional. The spoken form lifts it off the page into a fully three-dimensional form. It brings the target language to life.

PronPack on the Road

Mark Hancock with PronPack at English UK South West 201

PronPack has been out and about this October. The month began with a visit to Stirling in Scotland for the 40th Anniversary event of SATEFL. I gave a talk on how pronunciation teaching needs to assimilate the fact that English is a global Lingua Franca. The following week, I spoke at the International House conference in Milan, Italy about how different pronunciation activity types match up with different objectives. Finally, at the end of the month PronPack had a display table at the English UK South West conference in Somerset, England. At this event, I spoke about how to boost the attention given to pronunciation when teaching with coursebooks. It’s been an exhilarating month!

Don’t Sweat the Schwa

Mark Hancock presenting online pronunciation teaching course with T Veigga ELT

Coursebooks are big on schwa. Is it because schwa is said to be the most frequent sound in the English language? Is it because it’s an “issue” for all students, no matter what their L1? Whatever the reason, students get a lot of exposure to it, and sooner or later, someone is bound to ask something to the effect, “How exactly is it pronounced?”

Cue the teacher making little grunting noises and talking about how relaxed the mouth must be to make this sound. At this point, we are on thin ice. When a student asks how schwa differs from the the vowel in duck, the thin ice cracks. Because no matter how clearly the teacher demonstrates his/her version of the two phonemes, the difference seems to be barely perceivable to the student.

Student thinking, “Surely such a small difference can’t be so important!”

Teacher thinking, “Aargh, get me out of here!”

Books sometimes present schwa as if it were just another phoneme, equivalent to any other. Phonemic charts may encourage this perception, with the occupants of each little cell seemingly equivalent to one another, like chocolates in a chocolate box*. The chocolates are all the same kind of thing, but just with slightly contrasting flavours. The schwa however is not the same kind of thing – instead of contrasting with other vowel phonemes, it may substitute for them in unstressed syllables. It’s precise sound quality is not its essential feature. When teaching it, we should focus on it’s role in differentiating stressed and unstressed syllables rather than its exact sound quality.

Attempting to demonstrate and drill the schwa sound is what takes us on to the thin ice mentioned above, because it is not sufficiently different from some other vowel sounds – the duck vowel in particular. Ironically, the distinction becomes even less clear the more we focus on it: all that attention causes us to place stress on the sound, which is precisely what it shouldn’t have. So to sum up: Don’t sweat the schwa!

* This is the reason why, in the PronPack Sound Chart, the schwa is given an exceptional position, to discourage the impression of equivalence with the other phonemes.

Letting our Standards Drop

This article first appeared in the EL Gazette Magazine May-June 2019:

Everybody has an accent. Nobody is exempt, although many of us perhaps feel we are. That’s because we tend to perceive other people’s accents relative to our own, which we perceive as neutral and accentless.

An accent may come to be considered as ‘standard’, and again this may be perceived as neutral and accentless by the people who speak it. Hence the nonsense phrase, ‘getting rid of your accent’. On the face of it, this is impossible – but clearly, what it means is developing an accent which is more like the one which is considered ‘standard’.

Speaking with a ‘standard’ accent confers advantages – opportunities may be denied to people ‘with an accent’. This is what lies behind the one time popularity of elocution lessons – people seeking to improve their life prospects by modifying their speech. However, we should remember that ‘standard’ does not mean better: as Linguist John Wells puts it, ‘… a standard accent is regarded as a standard … not because of any intrinsic qualities it may possess, but because of an arbitrary attitude adopted towards it by society…’ (Wells 1982 p34).

In Britain, the accent long seen as standard is ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP), where the word ‘received’ is used in the sense of ‘accepted’. In elocution lessons, RP is typically the target model, and ELT has followed the lead: pronunciation teachers have been expected to present the RP model to their students. But can RP be plausibly described as ‘standard’ in the sense of ‘widespread’ today? Geoff Lindsey of University College, London, argues that it can’t.

Review in English Australia Journal

PronPack reviewed by Arizio Sweeting in English Australia Journal

“Truly innovative and packed with fun activities”

“Follows the approach that pronunciation should be taught for intelligibility rather than ‘correctness in terms of a particular accent’”

“Written in a language that is accessible to teachers with any level of classroom experience”

“Your eyes will be caught by the professional and appealing infographics and illustrations”

“The ready-to-use worksheets have been laid out to be easily projected, printed or photocopied for classroom use”

“A perfect example of quality self-published supplementary material”

Pronunciation: Muscle, Mind, Meaning, Memory

This article first appeared in English Teaching Professional Issue 22 May 2019

Pronunciation straddles two domains: it is part language – like grammar or vocabulary – and part skill – like speaking or listening. This unique position makes pronunciation teaching interestingly varied, and potentially very enjoyable too. It is so much more than the ‘listen-and-repeat’ stereotype that is sometimes attached to it, and can’t be reduced to one single thing in this way. In this article, I will suggest that we can, in fact, divide it into four general areas, and I will label these with a mnemonic of four words, each beginning with m: muscle, mind, meaning and memory.