BY Dr Laila Abdel Aal Alghalban
one of the current seismic changes in English language teaching (ELT) to non-native learners is the shift from focusing on teaching a traditionally imaginative ideal native speaker’s pronunciation, where teachers and learners usually put much effort and spend much time chasing the mirage of copying a native accent and wrestling with complications, to teaching more realistic pronunciation models, resonating with the rise of an anti-elitist desire for shattering linguistic stigmas and embracing “sub-standard” accents, and accommodating the changing needs of English learners as well. What causes such a shift in focus? And what priorities and goals should be there on the agenda of teachers and learners?
Pressurising learners to copy a native model of pronunciation proves to be an unattainable goal; it no longer resonates with present-day life for many reasons. One is that English language pronunciation is changing rapidly, turning the established canons and standards upside down. In the UK, for instance, the standard Received Pronunciation (RP), the allegedly most prestigious accent with a long history of fervour and appreciation in academic courses and educational programmes, is gradually losing its special halo, radiation and magic; it no longer sparkles special infatuation among many Britons, reportedly spoken by about three per cent of the population there. Teenagers and millennials, in search of covert prestige or reverse snobbery, tend to defy the standard and anger the stiff upper-lipped gatekeepers. The changes millennials make have impacted the spoken and written varieties alike in a daring, unprecedented fashion. Following a sociolinguistic change from below, young British royals are also cautiously aspiring to a covert prestige. Prince Harry’s accent, for instance, manifests various
forms of millennial English such as glottalisation. More importantly, pop culture and substandard dialects or accents have increasingly become associated with affluent figures, social media influencers, and young, bright icons. This makes those celebrities a magnet to an increasing number of speakers, and grants them a wide social acceptance and prestige.
Another related reason is accent bullying and discrimination. The way we speak is the first and instant indicator of our identity: our background, affiliations and aspirations. These perceptions also have social and financial implications. Copying a prestigious dialect or accent enables people to get highly paid prestigious jobs and social prestige or snobbery by being members of a given social group. And in so doing they simultaneously fall victims to discrimination by other groups. Many posh speakers in Britain and even those who copy them globally have also reported that they are also bullied by other people simply because it happens that they sound posh.
English as a
A third one is that in today’s
international community where more than one billion non-native English speakers use English
as a lingua franca, teaching agenda is, in turn, changing to focus on English as an International Language. Most of English conversations take place between non-natives who do not care so much about pronunciation as long as they are able to understand one another. This pushes back copying a native accent and puts mutual intelligibility first.
Putting intelligibility first
Teaching English pronunciation has been traditionally plagued with a big myth; it is focusing on accent reduction, a matter of little importance currently. Accent will always be there; it cannot be removed and should not be removed; it is not a stain and those speaking with different accents should not be stigmatised. The long-held view that speaking with a foreign accent impairs intelligibility proves inaccurate and biased.
According to linguist Jennifer Jenkins’ research on the English language, there are certain factors in English pronunciation that can influence the degree of intelligibility in English conversations. Word stress is one of these factors. However, Jenkins has found that when two non-native speakers interact, word stress has little influence on intelligibility.
Thus, observing the intelligibility principle keeps us focused on being understood rather than battling unnecessary pains trying to sound native-like. English pronunciation learners may fall into two groups. Group one aspire to copy a prestigious native accent: British or American. They want to sound like a native for many reasons that have to do with securing a prestigious job, building a favourable self-image, being a member of the English speaking elite nationally and globally, etc. The learners of this group have to master every single feature of English pronunciation to the letter. They live the English language in the full sense of the word, spending the day practicing the language: listening, reading, speaking, and writing, as well as interacting with native speakers and equally-aspiring fellows
through chatting, skyping, meetups, etc.
The second group of learners, usually entrepreneurs, or working in multinational companies and franchises, aspire to be internationally intelligible. In other words, they want to communicate confidently with speakers all over the world, be they native or non-native English speakers. Learners in this group have to make sure that they master some essential features such as the correct pronunciation of vowels and consonants as well as the flow and music of English speech, including how to chunk speech, mark prominent words, and mark pitch trajectories over utterances. This group of learners miss learning many painstakingly detailed and unnecessary features concerning the various forms or variants of every single sound (allophones) and some complicated melodies of speech or intonation. The differences in scope and objectives between the two groups are pretty significant, with the second group setting more practical and obtainable goals.
However, we have to admit that such a shift in focus is gingerly taking over. Many teachers are clinging to old views, methods and curricula, usually drawing on a small and undiversified, fossilised pool of specific course books and references, with slight changes over the years. This is their teaching comfort zone. Eventually, they break up with present-day world and the changing learning needs and priorities of today’s students.
Let’s get real
Let’s go with the tide and get real. English pronunciation norms are changing beyond words and native speakers are no longer the gatekeepers. They represent a small piece of a big pie.