Pronunciation teaching: doing your homework on the L1

Why the myth about ‘native speakers’ being better language teachers? If you want to learn a language, you’d be well advised to look for a qualified teacher who shares the same first language as yourself, or at least knows it well. I can testify from my own experience that teaching pronunciation to someone whose language I know nothing about is like wading across a river when you can’t see the bottom: you just don’t know where the slippery boulders are! I will call this situation, ‘teaching blind’.

When you are teaching blind, you may know where you want your learner to go, but you don’t understand where they’re coming from. You are quick to notice ‘faults’ but slow to understand their causes. Unable to assist the learners in walking on their own legs, you end up dragging them along behind you.

On the other hand, there is also an important danger for teachers who share the same L1 as their class, or know it well. Your very familiarity with it can also cause another kind of blindness, where something just seems so normal that you fail to see it. Between you and your class, you may end up developing a version of the target language that few people would understand in the outside world. You can become anaesthetised to error. You need to somehow remain alive to the strangeness of your own language.

There are then two kinds of ‘teaching blind’: 1. Teaching in ignorance of the learner’s L1 (typical of multilingual classes); 2. Having an over-familiarity with the learner’s L1 (typical of monolingual classes).

1 Multilingual classes

In ELT, the first kind of ‘blindness’ is typical in schools in English-speaking countries. Learners arrive from various different parts of the world, and have a range of different language backgrounds. It’s a multilingual class. The teacher may know one or two of the languages concerned, but they are very unlikely to know them all.

One thing you can do if you are in this scenario is some background reading on the L1s of your learners. A useful reference here is the book Learner English by Swan and Smith (see below). You may also find helpful notes through internet searches. The other thing you can do is try to find out as much as possible from the learners themselves. Ask them questions about their language, such as

Is the pronunciation of your language reflected in the written form?

How many vowel sounds are there?

Does your language have long and short vowel sounds?

Do most words end with a vowel?

Do any words have two or more consonant sounds together?

2 Monolingual classes

The second kind of ‘blindness’ is typical in schools in the learner’s home country, often with a teacher who is also from there. It’s a monolingual class. If you are in this situation, you have the great advantage of knowing your learner’s L1, but it may seem so familiar that you overlook its idiosyncrasies. Ironically, when it comes to explicit knowledge, many teachers are better informed about English than about their own language. This is a situation that you may want to remedy by reading as much as you can about the phonology of your L1.

One benefit of having such detailed knowledge is that you may find that it has unsuspected similarities with the target language. For example, there may be a phoneme in English which is not a phoneme in the L1, but does occur in certain specific contexts. Robin Walker provides the following example from Spanish: While /z/ is not a phoneme in Spanish, the sound does occur in certain contexts, for example between the ‘e’ and the ‘d’ in desde (since). If learners are having difficulty with /z/, it can help if you point this out.

So it seems that whatever kind of language teacher you are, in whatever context, there is always some pronunciation homework that needs doing!

Swan, M & Smith, B (2001) Learner English Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Walker, R (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca Oxford: Oxford University Press

2 Replies to “Pronunciation teaching: doing your homework on the L1”

  1. How true! I agree wholeheartedly with your description of the dangers of becoming “anaethsetised to error”. We’re not just wading blindly across the river, but might also be muddying the waters as we go.

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