Q1: How did you learn L2 pronunciation?
Q2: Do you have some negative pronunciation learning experiences?
Let me start this article with my own answers to these two questions. To Q1, I would answer that I learned about minimal pairs and practiced them in language labs in high school and university. I would describe the lessons as mechanical drills of discrete items, and that was everything I did in class as far as pronunciation is concerned. Well, it was in the seventies, when teaching based on behaviorism was still the norm in language classrooms in Japan. To Q2, I should say, “Yes.” One of my university conversation teachers had me stand up in class, just me. He demonstrated pronouncing /s/ as in “Sue” and /ʃ/ as in “shoe.” Then, he made me practice them many times, with all the other students listening to the awkward interaction between us. I couldn’t aurally distinguish between the two sounds. Obviously, I was not able to produce them as he wished. Besides, I was too nervous to concentrate, and so it was difficult to focus on the sounds and their differences. I knew my teacher was irritated and unhappy. I still remember seeing the teacher’s disappointment and hearing his irritation. (Indeed, I was not able to tell the difference between the two sounds, but I heard the irritation in his voice very clearly!) I knew my classmates were also getting frustrated or bored. I was wasting their learning time, and so I felt guilty. All the social concerns occupied my mind and depleted my working memory capacity. I hated myself, my teacher, and my classmates. It was one of the worst moments of my life, one I will never, ever forget.
Pronunciation Teaching Can Go … Wrong
As we have seen in the previous articles in this issue, depression is a serious problem in schools. As teachers, we need to consider whether we are aleviating it or contributing to it. I am no expert on depression, but as a researcher of second language anxiety, I have come to believe that our own seemingly harmless actions in the classroom might not be so harmless after all. We too, might unknowingly be a danger to the emotional wellbeing of our learners, as that teacher was to mine despite his good intentions. So, let us look more closely at one area of L2 instruction, pronunciation, and consider ways to make a pronunciation class a place of safety and joy, instead of being a place of danger and misery, as mine was.
When I interviewed Japanese learners of English to investigate L2 pronunciation anxiety (Kimura, under review), I was surprised and even shocked to know that some learners had devastating experiences concerning fine phonemic differences they failed to produce, similar to my /s/ and /ʃ/ troubles.
Some of the participants were English majors and they had a stand-alone pronunciation class in addition to regular speaking/communication classes. The stand-alone pronunciation class was a combination of theory and practice. According to what the participants shared with me in their essays and interviews (I also checked the class syllabus), it looks like these students learned the English sound system with a strong focus on discrete segmental sounds (vowels and consonants) and they were evaluated on public performance: reading aloud, in front of all their classmates and the teacher, followed by teacher evaluation, again in public. It is no wonder some participants described their experiences as highly anxiety-inducing and some students found them extremely stressful. Some felt depressed. Some even felt devastated after this bad experience. Furthermore, many described their pronunciation as hopeless. Let me quote some remarks from their interviews. A wave of depressive feelings emerged. You may notice how the feelings they describe fit the feelings of depression that we characterized earlier in this ThinkTank.
“I didn’t think I could improve my pronunciation however hard I tried.” (Y.H.)
“I felt myself very small.” (N.T.)
“Comparing my pronunciation with my classmates’ flawless pronunciation, I was depressed. They sounded natural. I sound … Japanese.” (Y.S.)
“When my teacher made me repeat the same words again and again, I even thought of my English pronunciation as hopeless, no possibility of correction.” (E.O.)
(direct translations from the original Japanese interview text; italics added to show speakers’ emphasis)
I recognize here hopelessness, helplessness, diminished sense of self, feelings of inferiority: all precursors of depression. Don’t you also?
I am sure that the teacher has a good knowledge of the English sound system and teaches with a clear teaching goal, aiming for correctness. However, I cannot help but think that the teacher could have taken a more balanced approach and covered both segmentals (vowels and consonants, i.e., local features) and suprasegmentals (prosody, i.e., global features). The teacher also could have shared with students a more realistic perspective on the acquisition of L2 phonological skills. What learners need to develop is “listener-friendly” pronunciation (Grant, 2014), not native-like pronunciation. In the world of English as a global language, L2 speakers with different L2 backgrounds use a variety of pronunciation patterns; thus, sounding native is not required to be a competent user of the language. L2 speech with some accent can be fully comprehensible. Comprehensibility, the ability to be easily understood, is a reasonable and attainable goal of L2 learning. The priority is to share this goal with students, raise awareness, and help them develop some basic degree of phonological fluency (Derwing & Munro, 2015; Walker, 2010).
To recap this section, pronunciation teaching can create more harm than good when it comes to a learner’s wellbeing and a productive, healthy mindset. My experiences as an L2 English learner, teacher, and researcher have led me to believe that we as teachers need to prioritize these areas when teaching L2 pronunciation.
Tips for Learner-Friendly Pronunciation Instruction
Besides raising awareness about the reality of comprehensible L2 speech, teachers need to think of ways to make their pronunciation instruction less intimidating and more meaningful for their students. Here are ten tips to help you teach pronunciation in a more learner-friendly way. Remember that the following suggestions are not from an L2 pronunciation expert, but from a learner and psychology researcher who teaches a foreign language as a non-native speaker.
1. Worrying about public image eats up working memory capacity. Take measures to make learners less self-conscious and have them concentrate on meaningful interaction.
2. Students may not be happy with receiving public feedback on pronunciation. Give them individual private feedback when possible. Some students do not want to be evaluated in public either negatively or positively. You may ask why even positively. Some may be happy with public praise and become more motivated to practice more, but others may not want to stand out from the crowd (Kimura, under review).
3. We tend to mishear unfamiliar sounds (Brown, 2011) and cannot articulate sounds which we cannot aurally identify (Celce-Murcia et al., 2010). Don’t jump into production practices; use ample time first for identifying sounds and recognizing (sequences of) words for meaning.
4. Practicing is important, but mechanical drills do not make perfect (Grant, 2013). Use fun activities for students to practice producing target sounds and rhythm for mutual understanding, not for accent reduction. I occasionally use dramas (Almond, 2005) and discourse intonation practices (Pickering, 2018). There are quite a few practical ideas from experts for classroom teachers to choose from and adapt (e.g., Celce-Murcia et al., 2010). In fact, the special editor of this issue, Marc Helgesen, has a webpage for multi-sensory pronunciation activities. Check it out! It is resourceful. We can do more and better than “repeat after me.”
5. Using tongue twisters is another option. Although the benefits of such a decontextualized activity might be limited, you can point out that native speakers have trouble with these, too. You might want to consider using alliteration (repetition of the same consonant as in sink or swim) and assonance (repetition of a similar or same vowel as in sheer dumb luck). They are meaningful formulaic sequences and can be taught in context.
6. Encourage students to stay motivated to improve speech fluency. Although pronunciation may be the most difficult area for adult L2 learners to learn, it is never too late to improve pronunciation, with the right focus based on research evidence (Grant, 2014).
7. Research has demonstrated that self-study is effective in improving pronunciation (MacDonald et al., 1994; Martin, 2020). Give instructions in class and encourage students to practice on their own outside of class. Shy students may prefer working on pronunciation alone in private.
8. Research has also demonstrated that building overall proficiency contributes to perception of listener-friendly pronunciation. Understandable speech is linked not just with sound features such as individual phonemes, word stress, and speech rate, but also with such features as correct word choice and appropriate grammatical construction, which we do not usually consider as contributing to our perception of good pronunciation (Saito et al., 2016). This evidence-based information will help students reduce stress in pronunciation learning, substantiate their learning goals, and sustain motivation (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova, 2014).
9. Every L2 learner has, I believe, bad experiences about their pronunciation. Share some episodes with students. They will understand that everybody makes mistakes and that making mistakes is part and parcel of L2 learning.
10. We all have our own histories as L2 learners. Share yours. What obstacles have you faced? How did you overcome those obstacles? How confident are you about your L2 pronunciation? Are you happy with your accented L2 speech? Help your students develop their own L2 identities.
The fact that after all these years, that horrible feeling I had in that one pronunciation class is still clear in my memory shows how powerful such experiences could be. I felt bad about myself for a long time after, not much different from the way the students I studied felt. Now, consider this: I was a student who liked learning English and I still enjoy learning foreign languages. More often than not, I feel fascinated by the new, unfamiliar sound system of another language. If I felt so bad in that class, then what would that experience be like for someone already in danger of having a poor self-image or being ridiculed by other members of the class? Negative experiences in English pronunciation classes could easily be a tipping point for a student like that, a tipping point from danger into depressive thoughts, and even into deep depression in the worst-case scenario.
This issue is mainly devoted to identifying and understanding depression in students, but let us not forget that we have the potential to unwittingly contribute to it, too. Make your students’ wellbeing your priority. It is far more valuable than a high test score, or a flawless speech.
Almond, M. (2005). Teaching English with drama. Hove, UK: Pavilion.
Brown, S. (2011). Listening myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., Goodwin, J. M., & Griner, B. (2010). Teaching pronunciation: A course book and reference guide. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Derwing, T. M., & Munro, M. J. (2015). Pronunciation fundamentals: Evidence-based perspectives for L2 teaching and learning. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
Dörnyei, Z., & Kubanyiova, M. (2014). Motivating learners, motivating teachers: Building vision in the language classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Grant, L. (Ed.) (2014). Pronunciation myths. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Kimura, H. (under review). Investigating second language pronunciation anxiety in contexts.
MacDonald, D., Yule, G., & Powers, M. (1994). Attempts to improve English L2 pronunciation: The variable effects of different types of instruction. Language Learning, 44(1), 75–100.
Martin, I. A. (2020). Pronunciation can be acquired outside the classroom: Design and assessment of homework-based training. The Modern Language Journal, 104(2), 457–479.
Pickering, L. (2018). Discourse intonation: A discourse-pragmatic approach to teaching the pronunciation of English. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Saito, K., Trofimovich, P., & Issacs, T. (2016). Second language speech production: Investigating linguistic correlates of comprehensibility and accentedness for learners at different ability levels. Applied Psycholinguistics, 37(2), 217–240.
Walker, R. (2010). Teaching pronunciation of English as a lingua franca. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Harumi Kimura teaches at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, Sendai, Japan. She earned her doctorate from Temple University. She researched second language listening anxiety in her doctoral study and her academic interests include learner psychology and cooperative learning. She coauthored a book with G. M. Jacobs, Cooperative Learning and Teaching (2013)