This week I was watching a lecture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkQ7lwEWeGA) by a professor at the University of South Carolina’s Center for Teaching Excellence (not Evolution as I had tried to guess by the abbreviation CTE) and for more than 90 minutes she talked about one thing that grabbed my attention:
Accent Reduction, which is bound to ruffle some feathers – there are those in favor and those against, while claiming that the accent reduction approach humiliates language learners or makes them feel less than second class citizens, while companies just want to make money out of their easy prey.
But … Language learners quite often want to reduce their foreignness by trying to speak more like American or British or whatever local language is predominant in their area. Reasons can range from feeling more like one of us, instead of an outsider; being better understood in the workplace, etc.
A language learner can feel that a clearer accent might help people to better understand him. You don’t need to be ashamed of speaking with an accent as long as it doesn’t get in the way of being understood. Sergey may be a very proud Russian man and speak with a “wery” shtrong accent. Question: will it prevent people from understanding him? Or will people just see that suspicious-looking Russian man and not hear what he has to say?
Silvia is a proud Brazilian who loves finishing every word with a “y” sound – I thinky we shouldy talky more abouty culturey” – but when that charming accent gets in the way of being understood or getting things done she would be wise to try to reduce her Brazilian voice and raise her American voice.
So students must be coached by their teachers to improve their pronunciation, intonation, rhythm in order to achieve better understanding and intelligibility.
But why do students have poor pronunciation?
- It’s usually never taught – as the student gets used to understanding what the teacher says, the teacher can also get used to the students’ linguistic somersaults and not even realize pronunciation / accent problems.
- students need to learn to listen to different sounds – th/s/t b- v Z-S etc before producing them. Sounds which might not even exist in their L1.
- pronunciation requires not only knowledge but skill – which means loads of practice.
- English spelling causes confusion – being literate can interfere with your hearing. I’ve corrected many students so many times for their mispronunciation of words because the words they read tend to sound “different” from the way they’re spelled. – example:
So what factors will influence their success?
- Motivation and concern for good pronunciation
- Exposure – amount of time spent in practice. Tons of listening and speaking – in that order. Quality, not just quantity, is important.
- Learner’s natural ability – some students tend to get a better pronunciation than others – however, hard work will get them far.
- Sense of identity. The fact they are speaking more American, British, or whatever other accent will not destroy their own self.
So keep your ears pricked and your mouths moving.