This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in The
Language Learning Journal on 14-Oct-2014, available online:
Please cite from the published version.
First things first: Exploring Spanish Students’ Attitudes towards
Learning Pronunciation in Australia
William Steed1 and Manuel Delicado Cantero2
1College of Healthcare Sciences, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia
2 School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, Australian National University,
Manuel Delicado Cantero
School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics
Baldessin Precinct Building, Room W3.08
Australian National University
Canberra ACT 0200 Australia
Phone: +61 2 6125 5134
First things first: Exploring Spanish Students’ Attitudes towards
Learning Pronunciation in Australia
The number of Spanish students in Australia is increasing. This growth coincides
with a period of revival in the teaching and learning of pronunciation in the
foreign language classroom. However, unlike their peers in the UK and
especially in the USA, no specific materials are available for Australian students.
In order to assist them, the first essential step must be examining their attitudes
and beliefs, which is necessary to recognise the ways in which they conceive of
learning pronunciation and thus shape further work, as the literature has long
established. Therefore, we analyse here the results of an anonymous survey
distributed among Australian university students of Spanish. The results show
positive attitudes and loci of control towards the subject but also reveal the need
for strengthening awareness and a number of tensions where action is still needed
in order to ensure adequate pedagogical procedure for pronunciation success.
Keywords: pronunciation; attitudes; Spanish; Australia; students
Recent approaches in L2/FL (foreign language) teaching and learning have reclaimed
the substantial role of proper pronunciation teaching and learning in the classroom. This
revival has developed after a period of neglect caused by the (well-intentioned) move
away from emphasis on native-like accuracy goals of older frameworks towards an
emphasis on communicative efficiency in the target language, especially in the early
Communicative Method (Arteaga 2000; Barrera 2004; Celce-Murcia et al. 2010;
Derwing and Munro 2005; Elliott 2003; Gil 2007; Llisterri 2003; Mellado 2012; Poch
1999; Santamaría 2007a).
The change develops at a moment when the number of students studying
Spanish in Australia is growing (Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte de España
[MECD] 2012: 58-61). In 2011 there were approximately 16000 students of Spanish in
primary and secondary levels of education (MECD 2012: 58). At university level, about
half of the Australian universities have a Spanish program of some description (MECD
2012: 60). More importantly, the number of university students of Spanish in 2011 had
increased by around 2000 students since 2009 (MECD 2012: 60). It is necessary to meet
the needs of these students, who have traditionally not received as much attention as
their peers in the USA or the UK, as evidenced by the lack of materials designed
specifically for them (Steed and Delicado 2014).
As a first step towards closing this pedagogical gap, it is important to gauge the
beliefs students have surrounding pronunciation teaching. These beliefs and their
resulting attitudes (Pajares 1992) allow best practice in developing new resources to
support the teaching of Spanish pronunciation in Australia.
Previous literature on students’ attitudes towards L2/FL pronunciation
teaching and learning
Wenden (1998: 530) asserts that ‘teachers should try to gain an understanding of their
learners’ beliefs and acquired knowledge about language learning’, because in the end
these views will shape and therefore affect their learning (Cenoz and García 1999: 5;
Verdía 2010: 226-227). As Horwitz (1988: 292) points out, ‘we must disabuse students
of deleterious misconceptions about language learning before they can become effective
self-directed students’. She emphasizes the need for teachers to redirect their students’
views of learning a foreign language. Given the limited presence of pronunciation in the
classroom, this task is of the utmost importance in our area (see Nowacka 2012: 46).
Following the conceptual discussion in Pajares (1992) regarding the disparate
uses of concepts such as belief, knowledge and attitude in FL/L2 research, we aim to
study the sum of beliefs which form our students’ attitudes towards learning
pronunciation when studying a foreign language. In this sense, we follow Dalton-Puffer
et al. (1997) in regarding them as ‘composites of a number of cognitive, emotive and/or
conative factors … They are mental constructs acquired through experience,
predisposing a person to certain feelings and reactions in response to certain situations,
persons or objects’ (Dalton-Puffer et al. 1997: 116). We understand our students’
attitudes as equivalent to metacognitive knowledge (Wenden 1998) or learner beliefs
(Horwitz 1988), among other similar concepts available in the literature (see Wenden
1998: 516). It is the student counterpart of Borg’s (2003) teacher cognition.
Much of the research on students’ attitudes specifically towards teaching and
learning pronunciation focuses on English as a foreign language (EFL). Derwing (2003)
finds that students believe that pronunciation is a critical part of communication. While
her informants signal particular segments as problematic, they provide very little
feedback on prosody, which she argues may be due to ‘a lack of awareness of prosodic
issues, perhaps because they are rarely taught’ (Derwing 2003: 559). The results in
Nowacka (2012) are likewise clear in reporting students’ positive view towards good
(English) pronunciation (see also Barrera 2004: 12-14).
Calvo (2013: 46-47), also on EFL, reports that the students believed that their
main problems were spelling discrepancies, lack of fluency and segments, had a
negative view of the role of pronunciation in their textbooks, and desired to have other
types of pronunciation activities. She remarks the lack of adequate practice and time
devoted to pronunciation, as has been widely noted in the literature (Arteaga 2000;
Celce-Murcia et al. 2010; Gil 2007; Mellado 2012: 20; Poch 1999).
Compared to the number of studies on students’ attitudes towards teaching and
learning English pronunciation, much less attention has been devoted to Spanish (see,
for instance, the brief comments in Elliott 1995: 366), including, to our knowledge,
Australia. In this article we aim to contribute to filling this gap by analysing the views
of Australian university students regarding general issues about Spanish pronunciation
and the degree of difficulty that some sounds pose on them.
In order to obtain information about students’ attitudes, we distributed an anonymous
online survey to all enrolled students in the Spanish program at a major Australian
university using the university’s polling platform, which ensured anonymity and
privacy. Students were clearly informed that participation was optional and that taking
part had no impact on whichever Spanish class they were enrolled in. The survey was
designed to take 5-10 minutes to complete. It was available for two months. The results
were processed using the polling platform’s tools and downloaded into an Excel form
for analysis using descriptive statistics.
Sixty three students at different proficiency levels of Spanish responded. To
preserve anonymity, the survey only asked basic information regarding their linguistic
background, that is, their native speaker status in Spanish and English and the number
of semesters they had been taking Spanish. These questions were included on the
assumption that the degree of exposure to the language can affect their attitude towards
The survey included 33 questions in English (to avoid any misunderstandings).
The main topics addressed were:
concrete beliefs about pronunciation in Spanish language teaching;
the relative difficulty of specific Spanish segmental phonemes or groups of
phonemes – in non-technical language to avoid misunderstanding; and
a final open-ended question where they were invited to comment freely on the
difficulties of learning Spanish pronunciation (in English or Spanish).
In each case, students responded on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree
to strongly disagree (for beliefs), or very easy to very difficult (for relative difficulty of
phonemes). The 5-point scale allowed for an intermediate or undefined point in between
(ambivalent/don’t know or neutral), rather than forcing them to choose.
We organized the questions around three core areas (and an open-ended question), the
three main areas that we aimed to explore at this stage:
(1) Perception of self: the self-perception of their pronunciation skills.
(2) Perception of importance: the degree of importance good pronunciation entails
(3) Perception of ease: the degree of difficulty Spanish pronunciation poses on
(4) Other information (open-ended question).
With these selected areas we tackle and observe students’ issues dealing with internal
and external loci of control (Verdía 2010). Moreover, some questions revolve around
similar topics with different words to ensure that students have understood the questions
and have not provided random answers.
Table 1 summarizes the answers to the first set of questions:
Table 1. Perception of self, ease and importance (percentages rounded to whole
The first question inquired about the students’ self-evaluation of their command
in Spanish pronunciation. More than two thirds (68%) have a positive self-perception
regarding their confidence pronouncing Spanish, which is in line with the fact that a
high percentage (78%) also consider that Spanish is easy to pronounce.
Likewise, 63% feel that they are aware of how to improve their pronunciation,
with 78% of the participants affirming that they could do so by listening to native
The aforementioned results contrast sharply with the fact that half of the
students (54%) nevertheless indicate that they do not know how to pronounce certain
words. A slightly higher percentage of them (56%) report to find some Spanish words to
be very difficult to pronounce.
Seventy-one per cent of the students think that they can make themselves
understood. The percentage decreases sharply when the question is formulated from the
point of view of the listener, as only 41% of them disagree with the assertion that
Spanish speakers sometimes do not understand them. Thirty-two per cent of them
actually agree that that is indeed the case. A relatively high number (27%) report
ambivalence or not knowing. This matches the large amount of students (57%) who
claim to be ambivalent or not know when asked whether Spanish speakers often
compliment their Spanish. The low number of Spanish speakers in Australia, compared
to North America, for example, may lower students’ opportunities to interact with
A majority of the students report having sufficient opportunity for practice in
I am confident in my pronunciation
Spanish is easy to pronounce
The class textbook has a lot of information
Good pronunciation isn’t an essential part of
I know how to improve pronunciation
I have sufficient opportunity to learn good
pronunciation in class
Some Spanish words are very difficult to
My pronunciation isn’t good enough to make
Spanish speakers often compliment my
I don’t know how to pronounce some Spanish
Sometimes people don’t understand me when I
It is important to have good pronunciation in
I can improve my pronunciation by listening to
lots of different types of Spanish
class (67%). Furthermore, this contrasts with their view on the input available in their
textbooks since 52% of the students are aware of the lack of proper materials.
Importantly, 25% of the students report themselves as ambivalent or not knowing.
Finally, the answers relating to perception of importance are very clear: they
overwhelmingly (98%) agree that good pronunciation is important.
Table 2 summarizes the answers about specific groups of segments. This section
adds specific information on perception of ease or difficulty of some well-known cases
consistently reported in the literature on Spanish as a foreign language (see Gil 2007,
2012; Hualde 2005; Schwegler et al. 2010):
Table 2. Perception of ease/difficulty of specific sounds (percentages rounded to whole
The highest scores for difficult/very difficult sounds are the vibrants (/r/ and /rr/)
(52%), the separation between the letters <b> and <v> (43% find it difficult to use the
same sound for both), the velar fricative /x/ (33%) and <y> and <ll> (22%). The highest
scores for easy/very easy sounds are /b d g/ (84% in initial position; 72% in non-initial
positons), initial /p t k/ (79%), nasals (87%), /r/ vs /d/ (70%) and vowels (80%).
Discussion and teaching implications
Foundations already in place
Positive attitude and motivation
Students overwhelmingly hold a positive attitude towards the need for pronunciation
learning improvement. This result is in line this with previous research (Calvo 2013: 47;
Derwing 2003: 555; both for EFL). Students tend to see pronunciation training as
beneficial (Barrera 2004: 12; Lord 2005: 565). This result is important since motivation
and other positive affective reactions are essential for successful learning (Arnold and
This positive outcome sharply contrasts with usual practices in the classroom, where
pronunciation is not properly attended to (Arteaga 2000; Aurrecoechea 2002; Elliott
2003; Morin 2007; Usó 2009; and Derwing and Munro 2005 and MacDonald 2002 for
EFL). The students’ positive attitude needs to encounter appropriate classroom practices
(all quotes are reproduced as entered):
R vs. rr (i.e. pero vs
Initial b, d, g (e.g.
bote, dos, gato)
Final r (e.g. comer,
G, j, q and c (i.e.
gato vs. gente;
queso vs. casa)
Initial p, t and k
/s/ (i.e. <c> and
Non-initial /b d g/
Not pronouncing b
and v differently
(e.g. bote and
Ll and l
R vs d (e.g. todo
Y and ll
I think that teachers heavily expose us to listening to spanish, however we do not
necessarily practice reading or speaking spanish out loud and being corrected.
The majority of the students hold a positive internal locus of control and a positive
evaluation of themselves; they claim to be happy with the results and to be in control of
their learning of pronunciation. This positivity is an opportunity for teachers to tap into
existing motivation to assist students in their learning.
Several students indicate that their previous experience with multiple languages, either
as a native speaker or as a student learning at school, helps them construct their
pronunciation in Spanish. This may stem either from similarities between one non-
English language and Spanish, or from recognizing the difference between English and
another language and therefore expecting them in Spanish:
It is easier for me because I speak [deleted] and [deleted], both of which use the
same pronounciations as Spanish (eg with regards to 't', 'p', 'c' etc). I can see why it
would be difficult for native English speakers though.
This quote shows the student’s indirect awareness of the phonological differences, and
even allophonic differences between languages. Having already noticed that other
languages are pronounced differently from English, a student may be more likely to
accept other differences in Spanish.
At the same time, some interference may be unproductive, as these students
I find the pronunciation the hardest because I also do [deleted], so when i read a
spanish word I often say it with a [deleted] accent which doesn't work!!!
Having previous learnt [deleted], it is difficult to steer away from the [deleted] way
of pronouncing things as it has been so ingrained into my brain. However, it hasn't
These students recognise transference between multiple L2s, and demonstrate that they
reflect on the difficulty of maintaining more than one L2 phonology.
Strengthening the foundations
Perception of ease of Spanish pronunciation
The high percentage of students who find Spanish easy to pronounce in this study seem
to agree with many teachers, as the perception that Spanish is easy to pronounce has
long been pinpointed as a recurring factor working against teaching and learning of
pronunciation. As Dalbor (1980: 1-2), Poch (2004: 1-2) and Mellado (2012: 21-22)
have repeatedly remarked, this perception is distorted, particularly because it is
normally tied to spelling and to lack of awareness about the nature of pronunciation.
Despite the enthusiasm, current research has shown that the results for
pronunciation tend to be lower than ideal (for example, Serradilla 2000 with regard to
Anglo-American students visiting Spain), to a great extent due to lack of proper
teaching opportunities (as many of the surveyed students notice). Australian students
are no different (Delicado, Steed, and Herrero 2014; Steed, Herrero and Delicado 2014).
In this sense, it is important to work with feasible but concrete goals for pronunciation.
As current research supports, achieving a socially acceptable, comfortable intelligibility
is the goal (Mellado 2012: 18-19), with intelligibility as part of a scale students will
move up through as they advance (Mellado 2012: 18-19; see also the Common
European Framework of Reference for Languages [CEFR] (Council of Europe 2001:
117) for an evaluation proposal).
Pronunciation and spelling
Students (and teachers) tend to think of Spanish pronunciation as easy due to the
common and inexact idea that Spanish letters correspond clearly with sounds, unlike
English (Delicado and Steed under review; Mellado 2012: 21-22; Orta 2009). This is
what we find in our survey. The students comment on their problems with accent marks,
<b> vs. <v>, word pronunciation, etc. There is very little input beyond segmentals and
spelling issues. Two students comment:
The biggest difficulty would have to be pronouncing g because the pronunciation
of the letter varies in terms of where it is placed in the word. Another thing is the
use of accents in some words, I do not understand how it affects the pronunciation
of the word.
The most difficult part of Spanish pronunciation is when letters have accents.
While training in spelling and reading is most necessary, they are different skills from
pronunciation, and students and teachers need to be made aware of this (Mellado 2012:
The nature of learning pronunciation
As mentioned above, students’ perceptions of ease and self are important in moulding
their attitudes towards the language, their method to study and their conceptualization of
what it is to pronounce correctly. For instance, for a student who equates reading and
pronouncing, being able to associate letters with sounds will be sufficient, in spite of
being completely unaware of allophones, prosody, etc.
Another relevant example has to do with the students’ positive view towards
their own ability to learn – a positive internal locus of control. As shown above, they
highly agree that listening to native speakers helps, in line with the results in Nowacka
(2012) for EFL (Nowacka 2012: 50). However, students on their own will not
necessarily benefit as much as they could from exposure to Spanish unless they are
properly guided in their listening. In some cases students will not perceive sounds
correctly and thus may not be able to produce them, that is, they may be phonologically
deaf to certain sounds (Llisterri 2003). As Llisterri (2003: 94) points out, learning must
be accompanied by adequate analysis of students’ needs, including informed attention
to contrastive linguistics (Herrero and Andión 2011, 2012a, 2012b; Iruela 2004: 53-66;
Mellado 2012: 32;), in combination with an adequate and integrative syllabus which
moves from perception to production (Gil 2007: 164-169; Mellado 2012: 33-35).
In sum, the students’ attitudes are formed on the basis of their understanding of
what pronunciation entails. In this respect, research has shown that the very nature of
pronunciation goes beyond oral expression to include other aspects, most importantly
the development of perception (Iruela 2007; Usó 2009). As Mellado (2012: 13) puts it,
pronunciation cannot be subsumed as a secondary tool for oral expression but rather it
must include attention to the interpretation of discourse and the negotiation between the
interlocutors related to the discourse. If students consider correct production of words
and sounds (i.e. oro-motor skills) as the sole goal of ‘pronunciation’, they may disregard
or be unaware of the other components.
Time in class and textbooks
As shown in table 1 above, 67% of the students report to have sufficient practice during
class time. However, we suspect that they may be equating oral practice with
It has been reported that even some teachers consider that specific attention to
pronunciation is unnecessary, as they argue that students will learn this skill by
speaking in class or when they visit a Spanish-speaking country (Delicado and Steed
under review; Orta 2009: 65; Usó 2008: 121). We have already commented that
speaking, understood as oral production, is but one of the components in pronunciation.
The literature on the positive effects of studying abroad also remarks that such periods
overseas must come hand in hand with proper previous knowledge (see, for instance,
Gil 2007: 108-109).
Many students report that their textbook does not contain sufficient
pronunciation material. The focus on communicative strategies, with pronunciation
improvement and accuracy commonly disregarded, is reflected on the kind of exercises
available in the most widely used Spanish textbooks (Ahumada 2010: 74-93;
Aurrecoechea 2002: 52-53; Carbó et al. 2003: 174-175). The lack of proper materials in
the classroom may also alter students’ attitudes towards learning pronunciation: not
seen, ergo not necessary.
The reality of the language
Pluricentric languages such as Spanish do not have one native model (not including L2
models). While certain well-known aspects of lexicon and grammar variation in the
Spanish-speaking world are covered in textbooks (e.g., voseo), appropriate
pronunciation training helps students make sense of the oral variation of the language,
even in the classroom. Dialectal awareness is essential to improving students’ cultural
knowledge. Consider the following comment from one of our surveyed students:
It can be difficult to choose between the different types of pronunciation
encountered in the variety of accents of our teachers. It's fun though :).
Focus on vibrants
As table 2 shows, the students surveyed in this study perceive these sounds, especially
the trill [r], as the most difficult sound (52% of them):
I have found the most difficult sound to acquire is the 'rr' trill as in 'perro'. I am
improving, but I still find it hard to produce a consistent sound. When I learned
Spanish in high school for two years, I could not make the trill sound at all.
While the results would invite the conclusion that teachers should focus heavily on
these sounds, it is less problematic than students fear. Context will help maintain the
intended meaning in most situations when it comes to trills and taps (Lord 2005: 559).
Moreover, while students tend to fear [r] in particular, our own studies with
Australian students (Delicado, Steed and Herrero 2014; Steed and Delicado 2013;
Steed, Herrero and Delicado 2014) – and other similar studies involving students from
other English-speaking countries (see, for instance, Face and Menke 2009; Herrero and
Andión 2011, 2012a, 2012b; Poch 2004; Serradilla 2000; Zampini 1997) – reveal that
there are other segmental issues that need more work, including the realization of
approximants, VOT differences (i.e., lack of aspiration), vowel differences (e.g., lack of
schwa, lack of final diphthongization, etc.), or the inappropriateness of the flap as an
allophone of intervocalic /d/. Our surveyed students, however, do not deem these as
Initial p, t and k (e.g. patata, tomate, kilo): 89% very easy/easy
Non-initial b, d and g (e.g. cantaba, todo, hago): 72% very easy/easy
R vs d (e.g. todo vs. toro): 70% very easy/easy
Vowels: 80% very easy/easy
While not all segmental errors are equal (Luque 2012; Mellado 2012: 33), awareness is
indeed most necessary.
Despite the common focus on trills, other factors have a stronger effect on creating an
inadequate L2 Spanish pronunciation; among them, suprasegmentals are consistently
underlined in the literature (Cortés 2002: 59-60; Gil 2007: 156-159; Lahoz 2012a;
Llisterri 2003; Santamaría 2007a, 2007b; see also Chun 2002). The lack of coverage of
these elements – in both Spanish and English classes – means that students are unaware
of these matters (Cortés 2002: 60-61; Lahoz 2012b: 141). The same applies to voice
quality (Celce-Murcia et al. 2010: 32) and, in general, to the reality of connected speech
(Celce-Murcia et al. 2010: 175; Santamaría 2007a, 2007b).
In our survey, only a few students comment on problems beyond isolated
segments; moreover, one of them is not sure whether such a problem counts as
Though perhaps not a specifically pronounciation issue, I find that I have had
difficulty is simply separating the words in spoken Spanish, in that a lot of words
and sounds seem to blend together and that the subtle differences in sound, whilst I
can recognise and reproduce them when they are isolated, make understanding
naturally spoken Spanish incredibly difficult.
Some vowel combinations are difficult in certain words, especially in long/unusual
Other students become frustrated over authentic – thus, connected – speech in the
classroom and initially react negatively to it (see Santamaría 2007a: 1239-1240 and
Teachers sometimes speak to fast to be able to understand new words and how they
are meant to be pronounced.
As we have discussed in the previous sections, one of the important outcomes of
teaching and learning is an awareness of where difficulties may arise, which can help
students build confidence, locate and isolate issues for further improvement, and
evaluate the actual degree of unintelligibility that an error can lead to. Without this
knowledge – including formal knowledge (see Venkatagiri and Levis 2007 for evidence
in favour of metaphonological awareness) – their pathway to improvement is
diminished. Awareness is also necessary for perception (Kennedy and Trofimovich
2010). Furthermore, awareness is likewise crucial in setting feasible goals (see Jacinto
I personally find pronunciation easy, but there are several people in my (3rd
year/5th semester) Spanish class who sound very Australian when they speak
While students may choose to maintain their Australian accent for affective reasons
(Mellado 2012: 21, 39), this is only fair if it is indeed an informed choice and comes
hand in hand with proper education, a clear understanding of reachable goals (a socially
acceptable intelligibility; see Chun 2002: 83; Mellado 2012: 20-21), and adequate
In addition, students need to be aware of the consequences of an inadequate
pronunciation, including the distorting social perceptions of the non-socially-intelligible
L2 speaker, who may be judged unfavourably on the basis of poor oral accuracy
(Derwing 2003: 557-558; Gil 2007: 97-99; Morley 1994: 69-70).
We want to thank our colleagues Alfredo Herrero de Haro and Alicia Mellado for their
comments and support. We are likewise grateful to the anonymous students surveyed in
this article for their participation. All usual disclaimers apply.
In sum, we find that our students’ attitude towards learning and teaching Spanish
pronunciation rests on two main pillars: confidence in themselves and in their ability to
learn, which offers a solid affective base (positive locus of control) on which to cement
successful learning, and a positive attitude towards the importance of pronunciation. At
the same time, we have also detected a number of tensions arising out of lack of proper
awareness, in agreement with the results from previous works, as mentioned above.
The literature consistently highlights the benefits of pronunciation instruction
(Celce-Murcia et al. 2010; Gil 2007; González-Bueno and Quintana-Lara 2011; Lord
2005; Mellado 2012). It is even more important once we factor in the fact that students
are routinely tested through activities such as oral exams or in-class presentations,
where comprehensibility and/or fluency contribute to the grade.
Teachers of Spanish in Australia can benefit from the existing positive base by
incorporating pronunciation in the same way as other language components (especially
grammar and lexicon) and working with them to move past the aforementioned tensions
in order to help them improve their target language skills and their awareness.
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