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!
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.
This article first appeared in the EL Gazette Magazine May-June 2019: https://www.elgazette.com/elg_archive/ELG1906/mobile/index.html
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.
“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”
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.
Review of Geoff Lindsey (2019) English after RP: Standard British Pronunciation Today Palgrave Macmillan
If you teach English pronunciation, you will know that most text books present a model which claims to be either standard American or standard British. The latter is often referred to as RP (Received Pronunciation), and is usually represented by a set of phonetic symbols chosen over half a century ago by A. C. Gimson. Geoff Lindsey makes the point that if a person speaks in exactly the way that these symbols indicate, they will sound comically old-fashioned. His new book English after RP sets out to describe they ways in which standard British has evolved away from RP. He suggests alternative phonetic symbols which would be more appropriate for modern Standard Southern British English, but he also recognises that the traditional set will not be changed overnight, given the number of text books still using them. If we are to stick with the symbols currently in use, we will need to avoid taking them at phonetic face value – the symbols no longer accurately describe the facts.
We sometimes dehumanize pronunciation in the way we talk about it. If a learner mispronounces a word, we might say, ‘It isn’t pronounced like that; it’s pronounced …’ (and then we model the ‘correct’ way). In the dictionary, there are transcriptions to tell us how words are pronounced. Talking about weak forms, we might say, ‘In these words, the vowel sound is reduced to a schwa’. On the topic of word stress, we might say, ‘Most two-syllable nouns are stressed on the first syllable’. I’ve highlighted the verb forms above to demonstrate how easy it is to slip into the passive when talking about pronunciation, which is fine, but what it does is conceal the identity of who is doing the action. It doesn’t tell us who pronounces things this way – it removes the human from the equation.
This article was first published in Speak Out issue 60. Speak Out is the journal of the IATEFL Pronunciation special interest group. In this article, I will suggest that following the recognition of English’s role as a global Lingua Franca, there has been an impasse created by two conflicting reactions: dogma and denial. I will discuss the possible implications of ELF for pronunciation teaching goals, and suggest how we can distinguish features which are important for global intelligibility from those which are not. I will highlight the importance of distinguishing productive and receptive goals, and consider the issue of what part models play in a context where accent variability is a central concern. I will consider contexts where simple intelligibility is not enough. Finally, I will suggest that a shift in how we express goals, from product (model accent) to process (accommodation) may provide a means of getting past the impasse of dogma and denial. Continue reading “ELF: Beyond Dogma and Denial”