Proper English pronunciation is crucial to an ESL student's success, yet it is often neglected in the classroom. Learn about some of the challenges to effectively teaching students pronunciation.
Teaching pronunciation is frequently classified as the most neglected aspect of language in ESL classrooms. Focusing on pronunciation requires dedicating a significant amount of time to practicing, frequently with each student individually. ESL teachers frequently believe this time is better used if dedicated to working on grammar and vocabulary.
Different teaching approaches assign different levels of importance to pronunciation as an aspect of language learning. While most language courses are focused at providing students with communicational knowledge, others mostly deal with grammar. Regardless of the teaching method that is predominantly used, pronunciation is often considered unimportant. Some studies reveal that up to 40% of ESL teachers do not teach pronunciation at all.
Insufficient focus on pronunciation can negatively affect students’ overall speaking skills. First of all, not all students are able to perceive the phonological differences between their native language and English, especially if they are not in contact with English outside their classrooms. They find it difficult not only to engage in speaking activities, but to comprehend the lessons as well. Therefore, they may significantly lag behind their classmates.
Secondly, having a strong accent can make students feel uncomfortable when speaking English. Even if they are well-acquainted with the grammatical rules of English and have an expanded vocabulary, their inability to utter sentences that sound natural can cause misunderstandings. Finally, students who are aware of their poor pronunciation skills are in most cases less motivated to improve their language skills.
Individual learners have different expectations and requirements from their English classes. Many ESL learners are young people who learn English as a mandatory course in their primary or secondary school. Others decide to start learning at a later age when it gets increasingly difficult for them to learn or mimic correct English pronunciation. The latter group of people usually takes this step for the sake of their job, which is very likely to move beyond national borders in today’s global market.
The cases of accent or language discrimination on the basis of a strong native accent are not rare. An employee might be assigned a worse position in a company because of his or her accent. Additionally, ESL teacher associations frequently point to this problem, as Indian teachers are rarely given a job in a foreign country because of their accent. This remains a major issue related to inappropriate pronunciation teaching.
It is challenging for many teachers to focus on pronunciation for a number of reasons. There are few appropriate tools and defined standards of what pronunciation practice should include. Many educational institutions still struggle to incorporate different varieties of English into textbooks, together with their lexical, grammatical and cultural backgrounds.
Deciding on the predominant accent that should be taught in ESL schools is still a matter of dispute. There are two standard accents that are predominantly used in English workbooks. However, both British RP (Received Pronunciation) and GA (General American) are spoken by only a small number of native English speakers, making it very difficult to implement them into the educational system and the ESL course per se. The lack of native instructors additionally makes it hard for learners to be in touch with correct pronunciation.
Based on the information given above, it is very unlikely that an agreement on the standards of teaching pronunciation will be made any time soon. Moreover, it would be more reasonable to expect that such a discussion would only create a bigger gap between the different teaching approaches. It is widely accepted that American English is the accent of the current global market, so the people who are learning to speak English for the sake of their job most frequently decide to practice General American. Therefore, it may be expected that GA will gradually be introduced in ESL schools and that pronunciation practice may significantly improve in the future.
About the Author: Jennifer Collins is an ESL tutor and a linguist currently developing curriculum for new English Pronunciation software (http://saundz.com/). She is interested in technology and new educational tools in particular.