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The Role of Pronunciation within Different Approaches to Foreign Language Teaching

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The Role of Pronunciation within Different Approaches to Foreign Language Teaching

Abstract

In this academic paper, pronunciation teaching is examined from a historical point of view. In more detail, the article concentrates on the role of pronunciation within different approaches to foreign language teaching, and it tracks important changes in methods of pronunciation training and the most salient shifts in general principles, overall goals, and foci of pronunciation teaching.
THE ROLE OF PRONUNCIATION WITHIN DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO
FOREIGN LANGUAGE TEACHING
Juraj Datko
___________________________________________________________________________
Abstract: In this academic paper, pronunciation teaching is examined from a historical point
of view. In more detail, the article concentrates on the role of pronunciation within different
approaches to foreign language teaching, and it tracks important changes in methods
of pronunciation training and the most salient shifts in general principles, overall goals,
and foci of pronunciation teaching.
Key words: role of pronunciation, changes in methods of pronunciation training, changes
in goals of pronunciation training, historical perspective
___________________________________________________________________________
1 From Price to Jespersen (1655 early 20th century)
Both segmental and suprasegmental (prosodic) factors of pronunciation,
as well as pronunciation instruction have been study subjects for a very long period
of time. Derwing (2010) finds important pieces of evidence on scholars’ interest
in pronunciation in a seventeenth-century piece of writing, namely in the book
entitled The Vocal Organ, written by Owen Price, a professor of the art of pedagogy,
in 1665. In his volume, he focused primarily on the segmental level of English pronunciation
(Derwing, 2010). On the other hand, Walker (1787) examined suprasegmental features
of English pronunciation, mainly intonation and stress, for the purposes of elocution teaching.
Later, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was no general agreement
upon the role of pronunciation in language teaching. According to Gilakjani (2011),
pronunciation was treated as irrelevant in such methods as the reading-based approaches
and Grammar Translation but it was considered to be important in the Direct Method, despite
a lack of more sophisticated methodology.
Nevertheless, Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) mention that the first linguistic and analytic
information contributing to pronunciation teaching emerged at the end of the nineteenth
century with the Reform Movement in language teaching which was influenced largely
by linguists such as Paul Passy, the founder of the International Phonetic Association
and the developer of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), or Henry Sweet,
Otto Jespersen, and Wilhelm Viëtor, early members of the organisation and defenders
of phonetic transcription.
In his teaching manual, Jespersen (1904) notes that many teachers feel worried
in terms of self-preparedness to teach pronunciation and their abilities to implement
pronunciation activities into their own language classes, and hence he argues
that the utilisation of phonetics and its transcription system in language teaching must be
regarded as a significant improvement in language pedagogy, as it assures reasonable
exactness and facilitation. He goes on to say that these instruments must be in use
from the early start of language learning. Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) add the following notions
of the phoneticians connected with the International Phonetic Association: (1) It is the spoken
form of a language that should be taught first; (2) Results of phonetic research should be
applied in language teaching; (3) A solid training in phonetics must be essential for language
teachers; (4) To acquire good speech habits, learners should be provided with phonetic
training.
Derwing (2010) and Howatt (1984) believe and agree that these opinions influenced
language teaching and played a part in evolution of Audiolingualism and the Oral Approach.
We discuss these approaches in a while, but first, we need to somehow conclude what has
been said so far. We might say that in the past, the interest in pronunciation varied to a large
degree since it was neglected in some methods but played a crucial role for the followers
of the Reform Movement. Moreover, new changes in pronunciation teaching are established
with the Reform Movement takeover. They include: (a) primary emphasis on the spoken
language from the very first stages of language learning, (b) essential training in phonetics for
both teachers and students, and (c) explicit instruction of pronunciation with the aid
of the phonetic alphabet.
2 Audiolingualism and the Oral Approach (1940’s – 1950’s)
Approximately fifty years after Jespersen’s influential title How to Teach
a Foreign Language’, two approaches towards language teaching which paid special attention
to pronunciation, namely the method of Audiolingualism and the Oral Approach, were widely
used in the United States and in Great Britain. As Brown (2007) remarks, the component
of pronunciation was one of the pillars of these methods, and furthermore, the dominant goal
of the discussed approaches was the “nativeness principle”, i.e. focus on achieving native-like
pronunciation.
Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) state that pronunciation is taught from the very beginning
and is of great importance in those classes where the audio-lingual method is used.
According to these authors, learners’ typical pronunciation training is delivered through
imitation or repetition of modelled sounds, words, or utterances, and the teacher often uses
explicit linguistic information, e.g. symbolic transcription system, charts demonstrating
articulation of speech sounds, etc. Moreover, the minimal pair drill, a drilling technique that
uses “[...] words that differ by a single sound in the same position” (Celce-Murcia et al., 1996,
p. 3), is often used by teachers for both oral production and listening practice.
The same basic principles are mirrored in the Oral Approach as well (Derwing, 2010).
In regard to pronunciation, Morley (1991) says that primary attention was given to phonemes
and contrasts between individual phonemes and allophones. Stevick (1957) summarizes
the key points of this method in a similar statement and also emphasises an early start
of pronunciation teaching, accuracy of production, and teaching in terms of meaningful
contrasts.
Despite a high priority of pronunciation, however, these methods also shared
an important drawback, namely the overestimation of segmentals on one side
and the underestimation of such suprasegmentals as intonation or utterance stress
on the other one (Morley, 1991). Gilakjani (2011) agrees by saying that language learners
spent hours drilling and repeating sounds and their combinations instead of practicing their
pronunciation in more realistic conversations, focusing on prosodic features.
To sum up, pronunciation was obviously one of the “protagonists” in these methods
of foreign language teaching; i.e., “it was at the forefront of instruction”, as Celce-Murcia
et al. (1996, p. 5) put it. With respect to pronunciation, the basic idea of these approaches was
the achievement of “native-likeness” through repetition and imitation of heard speech sounds,
words, or utterances along with the help of the phonetic alphabet or other linguistic
information. The main disadvantage might be then seen in teachers’ prevailing avoidance
of intonation, stress, and rhythm.
3 The Cognitive Approach and the Silent Way (1960’s – 1970’s)
In the period of the Cognitive Approach, during the 1960s and 1970s, the methods
of pronunciation training used until then were usually viewed as meaningless non-
communicatory drills (Morley, 1991). In accordance with Otlowski (1998), questions were
asked about the effectiveness of pronunciation instruction methods, so as about the scope
of pronunciation teaching and its role in the EFL curriculum, because the results of many
studies deemphasised the value of pronunciation. These tendencies began with the Critical
Period research in the 1960s, since its results suggested that native-like pronunciation is
a highly unrealistic or even unachievable goal for adult foreign language learners (Levis
and LeVelle, 2010). In a different study, Suter (1976) concludes that there is only little
relation between student’s achieved level of proficiency in pronunciation and classroom
activities aimed at pronunciation practice.
Such findings then pushed the interest in pronunciation teaching aside, and it has been
relegated to positions of minor interest or even ignored completely (Junqueira and Liu, 2010).
Perhaps the best summarizing viewpoint is offered by Kelly (1969), as this author terms
pronunciation the “Cinderella” area of foreign language teaching. We are pretty sure that
readers are able to connect this label with the right connotative meanings and consequently
make a sketchy portrait of the role of pronunciation training in the Cognitive Approach to
foreign language teaching.
Yet not all academics agreed with the generally held beliefs and began to develop new
approaches that emphasised the importance of pronunciation. Probably the most significant
method, though not widely used in its original form, was the one known as the Silent Way,
developed by Caleb Gattegno in the mid-seventies. Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) describe it as
being similar to Audiolingualism in terms of focus on accurate production of individual
speech sounds and their meaningful combinations from the initial phase of foreign language
learning, but at the same time as being different from it due to its focus on suprasegmentals
and the ways of instruction, as any use of transcription systems or explicit information from
the area of phonetics is avoided in this approach. According to the same authors, the teacher,
as the method’s name suggests, remains silent most of the time and uses gestures; e.g., he taps
out rhythm, uses fingers to count the number of syllables in words or to signal the placement
of stress, etc. Besides that, he uses wall charts in which individual letters or their
combinations are colour-coded in order to visualise each sound’s possible spelling patterns
(Derwing, 2010). This author also adds that the use of this approach was limited to a small
number of locations, because it required a special training on the teacher’s side.
In summary, this period was marked by a decreasing interest in pronunciation
instruction, since many studies concluded that pronunciation is something that cannot be
taught effectively. Among the prevailing skepticism, still, there was one method
that stressed the value of pronunciation in foreign language teaching, namely Gattegno’s
Silent Way.
4 The Communicative Approach (1980’s and later)
The position of pronunciation within foreign language teaching was also widely debated
in the eighties and nineties, during the era marked by the spread of the Communicative
Approach, but the scientific results were not so pessimistic in defining the role
of pronunciation training in one’s foreign language development as they have been earlier,
during the previously described period. For example, Pennington (1989) expresses doubts
about the validity of the results proposed by Suter (1976) and states that there is no valid base
for saying explicitly that pronunciation is not a teachable element of a foreign language and is
a waste of time. Pennington’s findings also suggest that teachers trained in phonetics who
integrate pedagogical instruction of suprasegmentals into a communicative language course
may bring better results. In a later study, Morley (1991) supports these claims by asserting
that positive results in learners’ pronunciation are expected if pronunciation training is not
isolated but is integrated into communicative activities. To conclude, these new perspectives
that see language primarily as communication bring a renewal in urgency of pronunciation
teaching, especially towards more integrated approaches and suprasegmentals.
The Communicative Approach, though pronunciation is not explicitly taught in this
instruction mode (Carey, 2002), recognises the vital role of pronunciation in spoken language
production and is aimed at achieving success in oral communication. The proponents of this
method therefore rejected most of the techniques discussed in the previous paragraphs as
being not compatible with the philosophy of teaching foreign languages as communication,
because those activities were isolated and centred mostly on segments, i.e. phonemes
or allophones (Celce-Murcia et al., 1996). According to Junqueira and Liu (2010),
the previous focus on individual sound units of a spoken language was replaced by the central
interest in suprasegmental level of pronunciation. These authors also add that teaching such
prosodic features as rhythm or intonation in contextualised situations is the optimal approach
to pronunciation training in non-native language classrooms.
Along with the shift in the main topics of pronunciation instruction, also the main goal
of pronunciation teaching was different from the past objective of a native-like accent.
In the 1980s and later, there was a general consensus among language teachers
that the superior goal of pronunciation training should not be the eradication
of a learner’s foreign accent in order of attaining perfectly accurate pronunciation,
but rather the ultimate goal should be pronunciation that does not act as a detractor
of ones communicative ability (Busà, 2007; Celce-Murcia et al., 1996). Brown (2007)
claims, that pronunciation instruction ought to be aimed at comprehensible pronunciation.
Hismanoglu (2006) describes the overall focus of communicative language teaching more
generally as spoken English that is easily understandable and allows a positive picture
of the learner as a speaker of English as a foreign language. Even though these new
perspectives slightly differ from each other, all of the presented points of view are
based on the principle of intelligibility, which holds “[...] that learners simply need to be
understood” (Levis, 2005, p. 370); i.e., communicability must be assured (Hismanoglu, 2006).
As consequence, we may specify the main objective of classroom pronunciation training in
the Communicative Approach as “intelligible pronunciation”, where the epithet “intelligible”
could be explained as “understandable and not detractive for comprehensibility”.
Despite the fact that the importance of pronunciation training was recognised
by the Communicative Approach followers, as Silveira (2002) and Celce-Murcia et al. (1996)
agree, language teachers still tended to neglect it in their English lessons, because of a lacking
agreed-upon communicative strategy for addressing pronunciation in EFL classrooms.
Derwing (2010) mentions, that teachers at that time had restricted access to good resources,
and that a considerable number of them had no background in TEFL or linguistics. Gilakjani
(2011) writes further that only little attention was paid to methods of pronunciation instruction
in teacher trainee programs of that era, and consequently, EFL instructors then struggled
with pronunciation training in their own teaching practices. If we look at an earlier study from
the United States, we find that teachers of phonology courses at that time were interested
primarily in the segmental features of pronunciation, secondarily in mastering a transcription
system, and thirdly in the suprasegmental level of pronunciation, but only in terms
of enhancing teacher trainees’ own pronunciation (Murphy, 1997). It is surely observable
from the above listed resources that integration of pronunciation training into communicative
approaches to language teaching was not completely ideal.
Conclusion
As might be seen from our brief overview, the role of pronunciation training
in foreign language teaching changed many times in the past two centuries; from being
of peak importance in the Reform Movement, Audiolingual/Oral Method, Silent Way,
and Communicative Approach, to being ignored completely in the methods of Grammar
Translation and Cognitivism.
It is also apparent that there was a shift in the overall foci of pronunciation teaching;
from the main focus on segmentals and accuracy of oral production in the case of the Reform
Movement and in the Audiolingual/Oral Method, through special attention paid to prosody
and accurate pronunciation in the Silent Way, to the central aim on suprasegmentals
and intelligibility (i.e. understandability) of one’s accent in the Communicative Approach.
The last significant change in opinions is connected with the methods of instruction,
since pronunciation training is isolated, explicit, aided with linguistic information,
and delivered through de-contextualised repetition and imitation in the Reform Movement
and Audiolingual/Oral Method, but it should be integrated, implicit, and contextualised
in the Communicative Approach.
Nevertheless, with so many varying (even opposing) research and teaching practice
results of the past and with the continuing lack of a sufficient methodological basis for would-
be teachers and of a generally agreed set of methods for pronunciation instruction in EFL
classrooms, it is not surprising that teachers' uncertainty in pronunciation instruction is
still preserved, even a century after Jespersen’s statements about teachers’ fear
of pronunciation teaching.
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Contact address
Mgr. Juraj Datko
Department of Language Pedagogy and Intercultural Studies
Faculty of Education
Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra
Dražovská 4
949 74 Nitra
Slovakia
E-mail: juraj.datko@ukf.sk
Tel.: (+421) 915 873 233
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