Which Pronunciation Should We Teach Our Students? [Part Two]

Let me address the teacher’s own speech in greater detail. This is an important factor to consider in answering our main question about which pronunciation we should teach our students. It is not so simple to say, for example, that standard American English should be taught in ESL programs in the U.S. It is also not so simple to say, for example, that British English (RP) should be the norm in EFL programs in Russia. Why? In the case of ESL, not all teachers speak the standard form of English in that country. In the U.S., for instance, a person from Texas and a person from New Jersey can have very different accents. In the case of EFL, there is often increased diversity among teachers. At one school alone, there may be native and non-native speakers, and the native speakers may all be from different countries: Ireland, Wales, Canada, the U.S., and more.

In the face of such variation among teachers, how can consistency be achieved? I stated that consistent models are needed for learners to establish a solid pronunciation base. Let me take this idea further now that we are considering the realities of ESL and EFL programs. There does not have to be only one form of English taught at one school, but within a single classroom pronunciation instruction should be limited to one form of English. Consistency is created by the teacher. The teacher’s own speech needs to be natural and consistent.

Let me first address native speakers teaching in the classroom. I can comment more boldly on this group, since it is the one I belong to. I believe there is a danger if teacher tries to change his or her natural pronunciation to conform to a standard form of English. It is my opinion that the effort to produce speech sounds and patterns that radically go against one’s native speech can lead to an inconsistent model for students. A teacher who speaks a regional or cultural dialect (e.g., Boston English) should speak clearly yet in a way that is natural and authentic. This teacher should also make students aware that his or her speech varies from the standard. For the most part, I believe I speak standard American English. However, I am aware that I fall into the group of speakers who pronounce words like cot and caught the same. When I must cover these vowel sounds in a pronunciation lesson, I am careful to note this pattern of mine. I have used audio samples of other speakers to supplement my instruction so that learners could hear the two distinct sounds.

Both as EFL and ESL teachers, native speakers should strive for consistency. Even when native speakers find themselves in an EFL setting, and their form of English is not the one generally preferred in that country, I would argue that it is best to continue speaking with their native pronunciation and not try to adopt another accent. For example, when I taught English in Russia, I made no attempt to adopt a British accent, though British English was often favored there. My Russian students heard my North American flapped Ts, hard Rs, and everything else considered standard in that form of English. I should note that most students came to me with previous study of English, so a pronunciation base was already in place. If they spoke to me with sounds and patterns more typical of British English, I allowed it. I only corrected their pronunciation when clarity was lacking.

In the case of teachers who are non-native speakers, I can comment with much less authority. My experience is secondhand: I have observed foreigners in the ESL setting who taught pronunciation lessons competently and effectively. My conclusion for this group of teachers would be that solid training, especially when followed by full immersion in a particular form of English, provides a pronunciation base that non-native speakers can rely on while teaching. Whether the setting be EFL or ESL, the need for consistency is just as strong for the non-native speaker. In fact, this need is coupled with a second one: the need for an accurate assessment of one’s own accent. For non-natives who are aware of a lack of accuracy in their own pronunciation (e.g., with a particular vowel sound), recorded materials can supplement and increase the consistency of instruction.

I want to emphasize a final time the need for consistency – consistency in production. I make this point to teachers and students alike. Be consistent in production, but learn to comprehend varieties of English. From around the world English learners often write to me, asking which accent they should try to master. I have noted that other online teachers give the same advice that I do: We tell students that the ultimate goal is to be understood and not to sound exactly like a native American speaker, a native British speaker, or anyone else. Unless you are training to be an actor or voice artist, accent elimination should not be the goal. Reducing the influence of L1 to achieve clarity in L2 is the goal. Having a foreign accent does not necessarily interfere with communication. Which pronunciation should we teach our students? Clear pronunciation.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Maria says:

    Great conclusion in the article, Jennifer!

    Jennifer, I would also like to say how it is important to stick to one pronunciation in the classroom, while teaching English. It is important in order not to be confused, but at the same time one should be know other pronunciations in order to understand the speech of English speakers.

    But I would like to say about the problem which I faced up in my University. As it is in Russia students here thought British English. But at the same time I can see that we do not have a teacher here who can represent us British English pronunciation. What we can hear is a mixture of British English with sometimes American flapped Ts, hard Rs, and so on. At the same time teachers say that we should use British English as it is a standard, but they themselves do not speak British English. I even have a teacher who forbids to use American words in the classroom. I think it is really weird.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      I think you address two important points, Maria. First, stick to one pronunciation but be aware of others. This, as you know, I fully agree with. Second, as teachers, be conscious of what it is you want to teach. What are you asking students to produce? If it’s to be British English (RP), then be consistent about the models you provide. It would be confusing to have a series of lessons on vowel sounds or even intonation using both models from the U.S. and the U.K.

      In the end, I have to say once again that what’s most important is clarity. You say some teachers at your university have an accent that’s midway between American and British. I’d argue that’s perfectly fine as long as their speech is clear speech. A clear model is what learners need most, not someone who sounds exactly like the Queen in Buckingham Palace. Teachers can recommend one accent over another and set one kind of English as the standard, but they need to be aware that their own accent may vary from that standard; this acknowledgement should then translate into tolerance of variation in students’ speech. The bottom line for everyone (native and non-native) is clarity.

  2. it is important to know more about how we teach pronunciation for instance in the domain of methodology .so we do research about all this information ……. this is my opinion and my point of view.thank you

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Yes, I agree. Now the focus must be on how to teach pronunciation.

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