Love-Hate Relationships with Pronunciation

Love-Hate Relationships with Pronunciation

By: Curtis Kelly

The Reductionist Audiolingual approach was in its heyday when I came to Japan. Mim-Mem and Pat-Prac were part of the true road English. This was long before Braj Kachru and Larry Smith widened our ideas with the concept of World Englishes, and long before any but a handful of privileged Japanese went abroad. And so, at that time, it was an important social marker for Japanese to be able to speak English with an American or British accent. (Australia, Canada, etc., had not yet been discovered.) Those who could were accorded high status, and obviously, this gave undue, immense privilege to teachers from either of those two countries. Right Donna? (See her article in this issue.)

So, back in the day, our Japanese clientele told us their main goal was to learn English pronunciation, unlike today, when the pleas are centered on learning vocabulary or getting a high TOEIC score. And so, pronunciation is what we taught. And that is what no one learned. “Listen.” “Repeat.” “No! Listen again. “Listen more carefully this time!” “I’ll go slow.” “Watch my tongue.” “No. I did not say ‘lice,’ dammit!”

It was pretty miserable work on both sides of the air waves. And I still remember the supreme joy of “Aha” when a professor told me that pronunciation was a hearing problem not a speaking problem. And so, when the Larry above said that there are many Englishes and that we should respect the wonder of each variety—Indian, Singaporean, Russian, Nigerian, etc.—it was followed with a tidal wave of native speaker teacher relief, and maybe even more of a sigh from the ceaselessly disparaged non-native teachers of English. Interestingly, one of the first people to put World Englishes into a book was Michael Rost, a contributor to this very Think Tank. His EL textbook Listening in the Real World had non-native speakers from all over the world speaking in each chapter, based on the sound idea that once students were out in the work world, it was more likely that they would encounter these varieties than American or British (Sydney and Toronto still undiscovered). Poor Mike. The market tended to dig in on its own narrow idea of what kind of English should be listened to.

Still, relieved of the notion that we had to teach American and British accents, relief that came at the same time that the Audiolingual approach fell out of favor, we could shelve all our tongue and mouth charts and stop teaching pronunciation. The interventions we made after that narrowed down to telling the truly incomprehensible that they should work on their pronunciation (elsewhere).

And so ended my love-hate-hate-hate relationship with pronunciation. Until now, that is. Working with our editors to put this lovely issue together makes me want to dust those mouth charts off and try again. There be dragons here, folks, big ideas that will change your thinking. Ideas that, had I only known then, would have saved a lot of pain. The students more than mine. Or maybe it is better I didn’t. The hurtful things I did in the classroom, with less than zero results, led me to a life mission that I cherish: “To relieve the suffering of the classroom.”

Still, there is no reason you and your learners should go through what I and mine did. So, rather than sweeping the teaching of pronunciation under the carpet as I did, bring it out into the sunshine, and let this issue open the curtains for you. There is good stuff here, all the way from the front to the back (or top to bottom if you scroll), explaining why we should teach pronunciation, who can do it, how baby brains fossilize, the way learners experience it, what really needs to be taught, and how, ending up with a heart-rending story by our favorite muse, Tim Murphey, who tells why not being appreciated doesn’t matter. Read on. And let our contributors make you the ones with immense privilege.

Quiz: The people scattered throughout the article are all related to something written in it (not in order). How many can you identify? Answers in “Something Different” on the main page.

Curtis Hart Kelly has smiled sympathetically 16436 times, once a day since he arrived, for each time one of his beloved Japanese compatriots tried to work through the ‘r’s and ‘l’s in his name.

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