John Levis
John Levis

John Levis is co-editor of several books, including the Handbook of English Pronunciation, Social Dynamics in Second Language Accent, and Critical Concepts in Linguistics: Pronunciation.

Teaching pronunciation: Four truths and a handful of lies


Teaching pronunciation has gone from the heights of importance to the depths of neglect over the past 50 years. But pronunciation is back again, with well-grounded justifications for its importance in language teaching. Pronunciation is the central determiner of whether language learners will be understandable and whether they will be able to build an L2 identity. For voluntary and involuntary migrants worldwide, pronunciation is the face of their new language. It is the first thing people notice about them, and it is often an ongoing barrier in their ability to understand others.

This presentation describes why pronunciation should be a central part of what you teach, especially if you work with adult language learners. It also discusses a few well-received lies about teaching pronunciation, on the assumption that teachers need not only to know the truth, but also to avoid pitfalls in what they expect from pronunciation teaching.

The four truths
The core of the talk is four central truths about teaching pronunciation. First, pronunciation is an unavoidable and essential skill for language learners. The new language is power, and pronunciation is an audible symbol of that power, or lack of power. They cannot help but pronounce whenever they speak the new language. How they pronounce fills their thoughts before, during and sometimes after they communicate. And their concerns reflect much that is important for their ability to function, to both make themselves understood and to understand.

The second truth about teaching pronunciation is that it works. As language teachers, we typically assume that what we teach makes a difference, whether we teach grammar, vocabulary, pragmatics, listening, reading or writing. But pronunciation teaching is too often thought to be unique in its results, with it outcomes uncertain at best. Thus teachers often avoid it, doing it only in response to errors that irritate or that are so egregious that they cannot be ignored. Such a reactionary approach to pronunciation teaching ignores one of the great truths from research findings: Learners almost always improve when they are instructed with some degree of regularity.

The third great truth about pronunciation is that it is socially significant, both in the opportunities it creates for language learners in second language settings, and for the social exclusion it can create when learners find themselves afraid to speak. We are social beings, and whether others include or exclude us has powerful effects on our ability to represent ourselves. Pronunciation is often the key that opens the gate to the social world around us, and not being able to pronounce acceptably creates barriers to self-representation.

The fourth truth about teaching pronunciation is that it fits well, and fits naturally, with the teaching of other language skills. When learners read or read aloud, the ability to verbalize the words, phrases and sentences encourages comprehension. Vocabulary is almost always meant to be spoken, and pronounced, and speaking and listening without pronouncing or listening to others pronounce is not possible. Pronunciation is a servant skill, to be used in the service of other skills, and is most effective when this is its role in the language classroom.

The handful of lies
No language teaching garden is without its weeds, and this talk also discusses a handful of lies that seem to grow unbidden but that teachers must be aware of. The first, and perhaps the most pernicious of these lies, is about accent, and asserts that adult language learners have to sound like native speakers to be successful. Learners also seem to believe this, but it is false. Adult learners rarely sound like native speakers, but this is fine. They can be fully intelligible without having a native accent.

The second lie is that pronunciation will take care of itself, and it doesn’t need to be taught. This assertion has already been tried with grammar, long ago, and it didn't work. It also does not work well with pronunciation, despite its appeal to many teachers, but instead leads to stunted abilities with pronunciation and with communicative skills in general.

The final lie depends on the admirable humility of many teachers, in that they believe that they cannot teach pronunciation because they are not expert enough. So they don't teach it. But like many other skills, teaching pronunciation can be done successfully by a wide variety of qualified language teachers.