17 FALL SPEAKER SERIES Why pronunciation is so important for language teaching - John M. Levis
Why pronunciation is so important for language teaching
John M. Levis, Iowa State University
Teaching pronunciation has gone from the heights of importance to the depths of neglect over the past 50 years. But pronunciation is back again, with well-grounded justifications for its importance in language teaching. Pronunciation is the central determiner of whether language learners will be understandable and whether they will be able to build an L2 identity. For voluntary and involuntary migrants worldwide, pronunciation is the face of how they present themselves through their new language. It is the first thing people notice about them, and as such, it can be an ongoing barrier or an open door in their ability to be understood and to understand others.
This presentation tells why pronunciation should be a central part of language teaching, especially when working with adult language learners. It also discusses a few widely believed misunderstandings about teaching pronunciation, on the assumption that teachers need not only to know the truth about what they are doing, but also to avoid pitfalls in what they expect from pronunciation teaching.
The core of the talk is four central truths about teaching pronunciation. First, pronunciation is an unavoidable and essential skill for language learners. The new language is power, and pronunciation is an audible symbol of that power, or lack of power. The second truth about teaching pronunciation is that it works. Learners almost always improve when they are instructed with some degree of regularity.
The third truth about pronunciation is that it is socially significant, both in the opportunities it creates for language learners in second language settings, and for the social exclusion it can create when learners find themselves afraid to speak. The fourth truth about teaching pronunciation is that it fits well, and fits naturally, with the teaching of other language skills. Pronunciation is a servant skill, to be used in the service of other skills, and is most effective when it plays this role in the language classroom.
Pronunciation is, unfortunately, often not taught because of widely-believed misunderstandings regarding its importance. The first, and perhaps the most pernicious of these misunderstandings, asserts that adult language learners have to sound like native speakers. The second misunderstanding is that pronunciation will take care of itself, and it doesn’t need to be taught. The final misunderstanding depends on the admirable humility of many teachers, who do not teach pronunciation because they believe they are not expert enough. But like many other skills, teaching pronunciation can be done successfully by a wide variety of qualified language teachers.
John Levis is Professor of Applied Linguistics and TESL at Iowa State University. His articles on pronunciation and intonation have been published in a variety of professional journals, including TESOL Quarterly, Applied Linguistics, System, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, TESOL Journal, ELT Journal and World Englishes. He was co-editor for the Phonetics and Phonology section of the Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics (Blackwell), Social Dynamics in Second Language Accent (De Gruyter Mouton), the Handbook of English Pronunciation (Wiley), and Critical Concepts in Linguistics: Pronunciation (Routledge). He initiated the annual Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference and is founding editor of the Journal of Second Language Pronunciation (John Benjamins). His newest project is Pronunciationforteachers.com, a website providing reliable information about teaching pronunciation.