How many of us have had students say that they are embarrassed about their English abilities? They complain about their coursebooks being too easy but when asked to follow the listening tasks, they struggle. Or when the native-speaker teacher explains a point in class, the students do not understand what has just been said. At such times, it is necessary to address these comprehension gaps and this is not simply about vocabulary or grammar. Courses need to include tasks that effectively teach pronunciation, as this helps to address confusion over native-speaker accents in listening and speaking activities. However, teaching pronunciation to Japanese learners of English at university might seem the last area of second language acquisition to concentrate on in the classroom.
And for good reason too. Students may already feel impeded in their communication skills by their experience at high school, in which classes generally revolved around the yakudoku method (Kikuchi & Browne, 2009) in which each word is individually translated from L1 to L2, vocabulary and grammar are memorised, and there is a constant use of Japanese explanations to prepare students for their university entrance examinations. Without the experience needed to explore and experiment with the language itself, L2 students are often left unaware of how to express themselves effectively.
So how does this affect us? Well, we have to re-direct our students to focus on cultivating linguistic resources to build fluency, confidence, and motivation. The additional task of encouraging students to sound more natural when conversing with their peers would appear to be an unrealistic aim. This is why teaching pronunciation has fallen out of favour in the classroom. The effort required by both student and teacher to improve pronunciation during communication tasks may in fact become overwhelming and tends to be avoided. Recently, however, coursebooks seem to reflect a change in attitude, with more attention drawn to pronunciation practice. Perhaps, the importance of being better understood in English in a global environment has finally become apparent. After all, poor pronunciation has been found to be the main cause of communication breakdowns or misunderstandings in ELF interactions (Thir, 2016). This article begins to address the realities behind this. After all, there is far too little research out there on pronunciation training, and for good reason—it is complicated to learn, teach, and research!
Before considering how to successfully integrate pronunciation into communicative classes, it is necessary to understand a little more about the challenges faced by university students in Japan. Due to their high-school experience, these learners are stressed at the thought of engaging in conversation, due to inefficient approaches to attaining a sufficient level of English proficiency in their regular classes. Generally, without enough time to absorb new information, such as grammar and vocabulary, through conversation classes, these L2 learners understandably struggle to become fluent and their production includes frequent pauses. This results in a constant effort in serial processing of their syntactic, lexical, and phonological knowledge when speaking to their peers, i.e. considering each component of speech production individually. Such processing adds strain to their working memory as well as reducing their motivation and confidence when conversing with their peers.
In order to begin to develop subconsciously the notion of parallel processing in their second language production, students need to engage in activities such as recursive conversations, which give them opportunities to practice through repetitive performance of tasks. One such activity is timed-pair practice, in which students converse with different partners to improve their performance (Pipe & Tsushima, 2021). This is where students begin to combine aspects such as syntactical, lexical, and phonological L2 resources more naturally (Tavakoli & Wright, 2019). Over time, as students begin to develop more appropriate strategies and become more natural and automatic in their conversations with their partners, the teacher can begin to focus more time and energy on pronunciation training.
However, understandably, EFL teachers often avoid the inclusion of pronunciation training (Gilakjani, 2016). This is not just because of concerns about priorities in improving the fluency of the students’ language production but also because, as explained by Haghighi and Rahimy (2017), there appears to be a lack of clarity about what aspects of pronunciation to teach and no clear methodology to follow. It is, therefore, unsurprising that it is one of the most difficult skills in the learning and teaching of the English language.
Though there may not be a linear approach to teaching this area of linguistics, there is a need for balance in deciding which part of prosody to concentrate on, so that students can make progress in their pronunciation without affecting their fluency. In other words, students may feel inhibited in their conversations if they are asked to concentrate on prosody while completing a communicative task. It is, therefore, advisable to have students complete the task before introducing a particular aspect of prosody. Students can later be asked to do the task again with the emphasis placed on the prosodic target. As a result, students who have completed the task first will hopefully be less stressed in their speech production when they come to concentrate on their pronunciation.
When focusing on pronunciation, it is advisable not to concentrate on the teaching of accurate pronunciation of certain syllables. For Japanese learners, mispronunciation generally does not impede communication. However, the differences between Japanese and English syllable structure impose many difficulties for them to overcome (Nakashima, 2006). Instead, it would be advisable to concentrate on prosody, pronunciation issues that occur above the level of individual sounds, such as intonation, stress, and rhythm.
Teaching prosody requires reproduction of appropriate word and sentence stresses by controlling the pitch, loudness, and duration of vowel sounds. By focusing on prosody, rather than individual sounds, we are actually providing a safety net for intelligible communication. Native speakers will be more likely to follow the intended message if the prosody is correct.
Initially though, students will still struggle to emulate the rhythm patterns of English, which are so unlike those of their native tongue. Japanese speakers are heavily influenced by the mora-timing of their first language. Mora-timing involves a fairly constant spread of duration and loudness of syllables, whether they are stressed or unstressed. This applies to both content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) and function words (articles, prepositions, etc.). This is due to the fact that Japanese syllables often end in a vowel. So, for example, if a student with poor English pronunciation wanted to say: “I am going to study tonight,” it may sound like: “a-i a-mu go-ingu to-u stu-dy to-u nai-to.”
Recent theory would seem to suggest that, when teaching, we should focus on contrasting particular syllabic sounds in terms of their pitch, loudness, or duration (Levis & Silpachai, 2018). This can be achieved in the following ways (Gilbert, 2012):
- First, look at short and long vowel sounds, as the quality of these sounds affects all words spoken. Think about the five short vowel sounds first (“a” as in bat, “e” as in bet, “i” as in bit, “o” as in bot, and “u” as in but). These vowels are generally quite easy to reproduce. Now concentrate on the long vowel sounds (“ey” as in bait, “iy” as in beat, “aiy” as in bite, “ow” as in boat, “uw” as in beaut). Students tend to shorten the length of these long vowels to maintain a constant rhythm. However, by contrasting short and long vowels in student production, you are already beginning to address the non-uniformity of duration of English syllables.
- Students can next be introduced to tasks that contrast stressed and unstressed syllables in words (b’CAUSE, FOOTb’l, COMFt’ble) and later in phrases (he LI’ sit, I d’ KNOW).
- After this, the teacher can begin to raise awareness of the stressed and unstressed sounds in content and functions words (my TEAcher GIVES me TOO much WORK).
- This can be followed by activities that enable students to notice particular stressed words in sentence stress (I have to wake up EARLY tomorrow).
Once students have understood these aspects, it becomes possible to introduce exercises to provide greater contrasts of pitch, loudness, or duration—especially in the reduction of sounds such as the schwa—the most common vowel sound in the English language. After developing and experimenting with such activities, the teacher may feel more confident in providing pronunciation exercises such as poems, songs, tongue twisters, limericks, scripts, etc. in order to engage students further in experimenting with their L2 voice. In this way, they will learn alter their pitch, loudness, and duration.
The teacher may opt to work further on analysis by asking students to discover aspects of connected speech or contrasting sounds, such as the building up of pressure in implosives, allocation of effective pausing when chunking, or determining the type of intonation patterns being used. As the teacher observes and experiments in class, it will become more apparent how to meet the needs of the students. It is really important when deciding on an aspect of prosody to target to always tailor it to student needs and their actual conversations. This is my main issue with coursebooks that claim to teach pronunciation, as they do not seem to meet the phonological needs of the students. If the exercises in these books do not relate to what the student wants to say, but simply give practice in a random prosodic feature, then it is difficult for the student to successfully apply it to their actual conversations.
When focusing on an aspect of prosody, it is necessary to resist the temptation to move too quickly. Teachers often teach one aspect of pronunciation and move on once students have provided an indication that they have understood. Absorbing a new aspect of prosody takes time, especially when there are conflicting pronunciation patterns in the students’ native tongue. When students become aware of the targeted sounds, such as short and long vowels, they need to produce and analyse their own examples in their conversations or written homework to learn where they were correct and where they made mistakes. For example, ask students to write a paragraph on a topic and capitalize any long vowel sounds. If the topic was vacations, a student might begin to write the following sentence: I went on a BOAT to SEE a BEAUtiful Island but MY friend was LATE. Producing a communal list of examples provided by the students from their work or conversations is another way to focus attention. Finally, materials for the whole class to discuss can be developed from a single example in a student’s work. However, it must be stated that this would serve only to raise awareness. Students still need to produce these specific acoustic targets in their tasks.
To ensure that students gain experience in production of pitch, loudness, or duration, it is important not only to teach the prosodic feature so that students can understand and analyse it, but also to consider how the particular aspect can be modelled, practiced, evaluated, improved, and reviewed. Providing relevant opportunities for students to both increase their awareness of the phonological feature and to reproduce it in their communication tasks, encourages students to apply their new knowledge and increase their phonological resources.
Review and return to these features, once taught, is essential in allowing students to absorb them into their phonological resources. Having them record themselves on their smartphones is a good way for them to practice particular aspects of prosody but there needs to be a model to contrast what they have said with how a native speaker would say it.
As a consequence, it is advisable for the teacher to provide a model, so that students can observe the difference better between themselves and a native speaker. To provide these resources in a timely manner, it is advisable to set homework on the topic as a flipped-learning exercise, so that students can prepare beforehand and the teacher can look for aspects of prosody that may need attention. If this homework is turned in before the class begins, there will be enough time for the teacher to choose one piece of homework as a basis to record a model of the prosodic feature for the rest of the class to practice on. Once the prosody training begins, you already have tailormade audio materials for students to use in class. The website: iamsoundingenglish.com is an example of how to tailor pronunciation exercises to particular issues faced by students, but these materials may not match the needs of your students.
However, it will be challenging for students to emulate the sounds modeled. Initially, the teacher can try “listen and repeat” and then encourage students to apply the sounds to their own dialogues. But progress will be limited. The actions required in the mouth to produce the more native-like sounds are hidden from the learner. The teacher needs to sensitise students to pronounce the L2 sounds, just as they were sensitive to sounds when learning their L1 (Messum & Young, 2021). This means providing opportunities for them to develop particular sensory-motor skills in using articulators (tongue, lips, mouth) and manners of articulation (how to breathe and produce the sounds). Students will need to develop these motor skills if they want to sound more natural.
However, once students have a clearer understanding of what aspects of their speech production are missing, applying this motor-skill approach will resonate much more profoundly in their learning, as they can understand how to emulate the rhythmic sounds of a native English speaker.
Finally, if prosodic training seems overwhelming for your students, it may be advisable to concentrate on a familiar aspect of a communication activity, namely, questions. This would seem to be the most expedient place to practice and experiment with prosody. When working on tasks with their peers, students naturally ask questions in which the structure and range of the vocabulary is quite limited. Asking questions is also the most common activity in EFL classes generally, and so provides less cognitive overload for students when using them to work on a particular feature of prosody. For example, students could contrast syllables in questions (e.g., WHERE do you GO in the MORning?).
By analyzing questions written by themselves, students can work on one aspect of a contrasting syllable, such as pitch, loudness, or duration. However, students could also focus on chunking / pausing / rhythm, or stress on the most important words. They could later be challenged to investigate the intonation patterns or search for examples of connected speech (e.g. WHERE dju GO win the MORnin’?). As they become more familiar with asking questions in conversation with their peers, pronunciation becomes easier to learn and practice. Furthermore, the lessons learnt here on prosody can be later applied to other parts of their spoken English.
Class materials should focus students on the production of these aspects by introducing and raising awareness of word stress, sentence stress, sentence rhythm, and intonation. However, the effectiveness of such pronunciation focus will depend on the pedagogical needs of the students and how pronunciation is actually taught in the class. Although there are a wide range of factors which prevent students from progressing in their pronunciation, it is never too late to address the issue. With perseverance, students can begin to recognise what they need to do to become more successful in their conversations with their peers and more intelligible to native speakers. And, as they learn to deal with these challenges, students will not only improve their comprehension of the speech of native speakers but begin to feel less embarrassed about their abilities in English.
Gilakjani, A. P. (2016). English pronunciation instruction: A literature review. International Journal of Research in English Education, 1(1), 1-6.
Gilbert, J. B. (2012). Clear speech student’s book: Basic pronunciation and listening comprehension in North American English, 4th Edition. Cambridge University Press.
Haghighi, M., & Rahimy, R. (217). The effect of L2 minimal pairs practice on Iranian Intermediate EFL learners’ pronunciation accuracy. International Journal of Research in English Education, 2(1): 42-48.
Kikuchi, K., & Browne, C. (2009). English educational policy for high schools in Japan: Ideals vs. reality. RELC Journal, 40(2), 172-191.
Levis, J. M., & Silpachai, A. O. (2018). Prominence and information structure in pronunciation teaching materials. In J. Levis (Ed.), Proceedings of the 9th Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching conference, University of Utah, September, 2017 (pp. 216-229). Iowa State University.
Messum, P., & Young, R. (2021). Teaching students to pronounce English: A motor skill approach in the classroom. RELC Journal, 52(1), 169–178.
Nakashima, T. (2006). Intelligibility, suprasegmentals, and L2 pronunciation instruction for EFL Japanese learners. Fukuoka University of Education Journal, 55(1), 27-42
Pipe J., & Tsushima, T. (2021). The application of suprasegmental features of pronunciation into the classroom through the timed-pair practice framework. Journal of Humanities & Natural Sciences, 148, 31-70.
Tavakoli, P., & Wright, C. (2019). Second language speech fluency: From research to practice. Cambridge University Press.
Thir, V. (2016). Rethinking pronunciation teaching in teacher education from an ELF perspective. Vienna English Working Papers, 25, 1-29.
Jason Pipe (Ph.D. candidate) is a professor at Tokyo Keizai University and founder of iamsoundingenglish.com. His research focuses on the development of teaching pronunciation and speech fluency in language learning through timed-pair practice.