Pronunciation and English as an International Language

With 75% of the world’s English speakers using English as a secondary language, it only makes sense to rethink the old ideas about pronunciation, or, more accurately, “correct” pronunciation. So much teaching in the antiquated past was focused on eradication of non-native accents, but that just doesn’t make sense anymore. In today’s world, the vast majority of English language learners will be speaking to other English language learners, learners who come from a different linguistic background than they do.

Today it makes sense to ask, “Which features of pronunciation are most likely to help (or hurt) speakers’ ability to understand each other?”

Jennifer Jenkins did some really cool research, based on communication among the “other” 3/4 of the world’s speakers, where she identified key elements of the language that are needed for these speakers to understand each other. She defined these features as the Lingua Franca Core. According to Jenkins

English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is “English as it is used as a contact language among speakers from different first languages… It should be evident from this that in my (and almost all ELF researchers’) view, ELF doesn’t exclude native English speakers of English (NESs). The point is simply that when NESs take part in ELF communication, they shouldn’t expect to set the linguistic agenda and for the non-native English speakers (NNESs) to defer to them. Instead, the kind of English used in ELF interactions is (or should be) co-constructed with no expectation that forms preferred by NNESs and not by NESs are, by definition, ‘incorrect’.”

You can read one of her scholarly articles describing the state of the field a few years ago, “Current Perspectives on Teaching World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca”, courtesy of TESOL Quarterly, but in this fast-moving field, we need a modern view.

Jenkins knows this and I’m happy to see that she’s now updated her previous textbook in international English with a third edition now titled Global Englishes: A Resource Book for Students, (U.S., India).

The Kindle version is reasonably priced and provides a good overview.

Remember that, if you need to, you can access U.S. based content with a virtual private network.

While the book, Global English, is written for students, I recommend teachers get a copy and use it for reference in creating their own lectures on English as an international language.

If you use Jenkins’ book, Global Englishes, (U.S., India) in your research, be sure to cite her work:

Jenkins, J. (2014). Global Englishes: A resource book for students. (3rd ed.) London: Routledge.

As far as teaching pronunciation, Jenkins’ work centers on the standard of “comfortable intelligibility” and, to that end, identifies the features that should be priorities for teaching pronunciation.

  • Most consonant sounds + one vowel
  • Preservation of most consonant clusters
  • Vowel length (especially before voiced/unvoiced consonants)
  • Placement of nuclear stress
  • Appropriate word grouping

The last item is one of the most interesting and the most fun and effective to teach. It refers to the way English speakers pause between of grammatical phrases.

I’ve found that students can understand and begin to use “thought groups” in just one lesson and their comprehensibility is improved immediately.

One textbook I’ve found really useful for its exercises in both “thought groups” and in sentence level stress is the Clear Speech series, available in U.S. and in India. I’ve used the third edition exercises in many classes even though the company has a fourth edition now. Some of the older editions may also be available on Scribd.

Most older methods of teaching pronunciation center on drilling particular phonemes, but Jenkins’ work should draw teachers away from that slow, only partially successful method, as well as from time and money spent on “accent eradication”.

Now anyone who knows my teaching will know that I am a huge proponent of giving learners, all learners, access to all the knowledge available in a field. I will never promote any method or product that limits the learner. So, don’t imagine for a second that I think we shouldn’t be teaching pronunciation. We should. I promote teaching pronunciation in a way that allows speakers to be easily understood quickly, because this increases their access to the benefits of using English. I’m promoting a way of teaching that will not bog learners down in trying to be “perfect” or “native-like” because trying to be perfect in this way is simply not useful. In my opinion, any book or program that talks about annihilating accents should be avoided.

The academic world as a whole is becoming less inclined to make judgements about people’s abilities based on their accents and, overall, that can only be a good thing.

See more from Jennifer Jenkins in an interview after her plenary at the 2012 TESOL convention.

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