Teaching Pronunciation: It Doesn’t Take a Native Speaker

Teaching Pronunciation: It Doesn’t Take a Native Speaker

By: Donna M. Brinton

Some years ago, I was asked by my long-term pronunciation co-presenter and collaborator Linda Grant if I would write the epilogue to her volume in the popular University of Michigan Press “myths” series (Grant, 2014). I was glad to comply given the abundance of pronunciation myths; plus the task of writing the epilogue allowed me to summarize what other contributors had written while at the same time comment on best practices in the field. Curiously enough, one myth (and to my mind perhaps the most pervasive one) was not included in the table of contents—namely that it takes a native speaker to successfully teach pronunciation. So, it was with pleasure that I welcomed the invitation to contribute to this special pronunciation-themed issue of JALT Brain SIG’s Mind Brain Ed Think Tank+.[1] I hope with this brief article to continue the tradition of “myth busting” that Linda set into motion with her volume.

[1] This paper is an expanded version of the author’s webinar of the same name presented for CATESOL’s Teachers of Pronunciation special interest group.

A Brief Disclaimer

Terms that seek to characterize the “native” or “non-native” identity of individuals abound, with the very terms being strongly contested (Golombek & Jordan, 2005): “We recognize that the terms native speaker and nonnative speaker are highly inaccurate and contested terms… However, we choose to use them… to highlight the unequal power relations that exist in usage” (p. 513). Since the myth that I am addressing is grounded in this same highly polarized distinction, I have deliberately chosen to use the terms native English-speaking teacher (NEST) and nonnative English-speaking teacher (NNEST) here.

Deconstructing the Myths

To begin deconstructing the myth surrounding native speakerism and pronunciation teaching, let us first look at the three main premises upon which this myth is based:

    1. The goal of second language (L2) pronunciation instruction is native-like pronunciation.
    2. Students need a native speaker model to emulate.
    3. Native speakers are the best pronunciation teachers.

In fact, each of the above premises is seriously flawed. First, the literature shows that the vast majority of adult learners will not attain an unaccented L2 pronunciation (Brinton, 2014). Instead, the goal of L2 pronunciation instruction today is that of “comfortable intelligibility” (Brinton, 2018; Levis, 2005)—i.e., accented yet easily understood speech.[2] Additionally, today’s practice no longer dictates the need for a native speaker teacher to emulate, but rather for the teacher to be one that is highly intelligible, encouraging, and empathetic (Brinton et al., 2022). Finally, most pronunciation experts today concur that the best pronunciation teachers (regardless of native or non-native speaker status) are those who have appropriate training, dedication, and are inspirational models for their students.

[2] Note that the goal of “comfortable intelligibility” does not preclude the attainment of a native or near-native accent in the L2. It simply reflects the realities of L2 phonological acquisition and serves to adjust course goals to a more realistic and attainable level.

Research Findings – A Summary

Results from a study of NNESTs conducted by Bai & Yuan in Hong Kong (2019) indicate that NNESTs in general rate the importance of pronunciation teaching highly but exhibit a lack of confidence in addressing the skill. The researchers conclude that many NNESTs are influenced by the pervasive ideology of native speakerism, buying into the myth that the goal of pronunciation instruction is a native-speaker accent. As a result, they do not see themselves as “legitimate” teachers of pronunciation. This belief reinforces NNESTs’ feelings of inadequacy—whether these feelings are warranted or not—and causes them to shy away from addressing this skill with their learners.

A mixed picture

Current research on the NEST/NNEST issue (see Brinton et al., 2022; Levis et al., 2016) documents the following “mixed picture” of L2 pronunciation teaching practice:

    1. There is a clear learner preference for NESTs, due to the perception that they provide a better pronunciation model.
    2. Teachers whose first language (L1) is not English may lack confidence in their own pronunciation and be hesitant to model pronunciation targets (controlled practice), let alone venture into what Celce-Murcia et al. (2010) designate as guided or free practice.
    3. The same is also true of teachers with limited pedagogical content knowledge (regardless of whether they are NESTs or NNESTs). Results (Levis et al., 2016) indicate that effective pronunciation instruction is more dependent on knowledgeable teaching practices than on the native speaking status of the teacher.

The need for teacher education

Regardless of status (native or nonnative), teachers need specific training to address the skill of pronunciation. This fact belies the reality that a minority of TESOL teacher education programs offer comprehensive training in pronunciation pedagogy, and that those courses that do exist often focus on the phonological system itself rather than on pedagogical aspects—despite evidence that a “how to teach” approach would be both more accessible and have a greater impact on teachers’ classroom practices (Murphy, 2014).[3] Backing this up is the additional finding that practicing teachers express the need for more thorough pronunciation training and more in-service training opportunities (Murphy, 2014). Overall, empirical evidence suggests that NNESTs (like their NEST colleagues) are in a strong position to teach pronunciation in the classroom, as long as they are trained adequately.

[3] In this study Murphy surveyed 68 teacher preparation programs and more than 67 English language programs in 10 different countries.

The NNEST Advantage

A critical counterargument helping to dispel the myth that it takes a native speaker to teach pronunciation is the point of view (Brinton, 2008; Murphy, 2014) that NNESTs have certain advantages over NESTs vis-à-vis pronunciation instruction. This argument includes the following corollaries. To begin with, NNESTs have first-hand experience mastering English pronunciation and therefore understand the process of acquiring a new sound system from the learner’s perspective. This allows them to empathize with their students’ frustrations and even share stories from their personal experiences. They also have insights into the L1 of their students that NESTs often do not have. Having overcome many of the hurdles that their students encounter, they can effectively “coach” students, using the techniques that were successful for them. Additionally, given their NNEST status, they offer a more attainable model for their students to aspire to. And finally, NNEST teachers of pronunciation possess an in-depth understanding of the local culture and are thus often able to navigate context-specific challenges (e.g., large classes, lack of resources, parental expectations/pressure) more effectively than teachers from the “outside” (Burri, 2021). In short, the above factors show how NNESTs are able to take on the multiple roles of teacher, coach, and mentor—thus allowing for more effective pronunciation teaching.

What’s Required to Be an Effective L2 Pronunciation Teacher?

Preparing to be an effective teacher of pronunciation begins with a solid grounding in both the sound system of English and the methods deemed most appropriate for teaching it to L2 learners. However, as hinted at above, other characteristics of an effective teacher (such as the ability to serve as an inspirational coach and mentor) figure largely in the overall picture as well. Below, we take a closer look at some of these characteristics.

The teacher’s knowledge base

As noted, the first requirement of effective L2 pronunciation teachers is having a strong foundation in both the sound system of English and pronunciation pedagogy. Celce-Murcia et al. (2010) describe this required knowledge base as consisting of three main areas:

    1. Knowledge of pronunciation features: This area involves the teacher having a thorough knowledge of the English phonological system, including its segmental (vowels and consonants) and suprasegmental features (stress, rhythm, and intonation). It also includes knowledge of how discourse factors may affect these features and how best to teach them in the classroom setting.
    2. Awareness of students’ potential problems: Here, teachers need to be able to apply their knowledge of the interaction between the student’s L1 phonological system and that of English and predict which of the L2 features may be particularly challenging for their learners.
    3. Ability to prioritize: Given that classroom time will always be limited and not all aspects of L2 pronunciation can be equally emphasized, this final area involves the teacher’s ability to make decisions on what to prioritize in the L2 pronunciation curriculum. Clearly, this area involves the interplay of both the teacher’s knowledge of the sound system itself and the challenges faced by their particular group of learners.

The human dimension

Brinton et al. (2022) stress the emotional aspects of L2 pronunciation, noting that pronunciation has strong emotional ties to an L2 learner’s sense of identity and of belonging to a particular community, thus calling for a more holistic and learner-sensitive model of effective pronunciation teaching. Accordingly, they advocate for pronunciation teachers to provide empathy and support, noting that “teachers who are enthusiastic about pronunciation teaching and developing their students’ ability to communicate effectively in oral communication are more likely to explore a wider variety of pronunciation techniques and implement them” (p. 158).

Pasternak & Bailey’s continuum

Finally, additional insight into the well-prepared teacher is provided by Pasternak & Bailey (2004), who delineate two factors that characterize effective teachersproficiency in the L2 and professional preparedness. According to the authors, teachers can fall into one of the four quadrants pictured below:

Clearly, the majority of NESTs would fall into either quadrants (1) or (2) while NNESTS could potentially fall into any of the four quadrants. However, for NNESTS to qualify as effective teachers of L2 pronunciation (i.e., to fall into quadrant 1, as designated by the X in the diagram), they would need to possess the requisite pedagogical background (Celce-Murcia et al., 2010) plus the ability to serve as inspirational L2 models to their students.

Resources

In the English as a Foreign Language context, the strong influence of societal views regarding “proper” English pronunciation coupled with the perceived lack of appropriate resources to improve one’s own pronunciation further impedes NNESTs’ self-perceived efficacy. Fortunately, today’s market offers a plethora of resources aimed specifically at providing novice teachers (both NESTs and NNESTs) with an enhanced knowledge of the English sound system and with an education in newer, effective methods of teaching L2 pronunciation. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the market is exploding with teacher preparation texts, ranging from the more theoretically-oriented to the more practically-oriented (see below for a selection). When making a purchasing decision, teachers obviously need to determine which ones best suit their needs.

However, the possibilities are by no means limited to the above option. In today’s digital world, there are numerous other opportunities to learn more about effective means of teaching L2 pronunciation. These include special interest groups (SIGs) in professional organizations such as Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL), journals and newsletters devoted to L2 pronunciation issues, and other digital resources such as blogs and webinars.

Pronunciation SIGS

As noted above, several of our professional teacher organizations have SIGs focusing on L2 pronunciation teaching. These SIGS offer resources that are both member-specific and available to the general public. They include the following:

    1. TESOL’s Speech, Pronunciation, and Listening Interest Section (SPLIS)
      SPLIS hosts numerous webinars on pronunciation research and teaching issues. These are available to SPLIS members. As well, SPLIS maintains an active discussion board and publishes As We Speak, its newsletter. Available articles may be browsed from the archives while current events of interest to pronunciation practitioners can be found on its Facebook page.
    2. IATEFL’s PronSIG
      IATEFL’s PronSIG is responsible for the biannual publication of its journal Speak Out!, which provides the latest ideas in pronunciation research and practice to PronSIG members. Also available to members and the general public is PronSIG’s blog and YouTube channel, which houses informational webinars on a wide range of pronunciation-specific topics, along with its Facebook page, which keeps members up to date with its current events.
    3. CATESOL’s Teachers of Pronunciation (TOP)
      The California Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, a TESOL affiliate organization, hosts the Teachers of Pronunciation (TOP) Interest Group, which sponsors frequent webinars featuring pronunciation experts. TOP also maintains an active Facebook

Other publications devoted to pronunciation teaching and learning

The field of L2 pronunciation teaching recently welcomed its first scholarly journal dedicated to all aspects of pronunciation learning and teaching, the Journal of Second Language Pronunciation. The journal is available by subscription only, although a sample issue is available for download on its website. As noted above, in addition to this new journal, IATEFL’s PronSIG publishes its practitioner-oriented pronunciation journal Speak Out! on a biannual basis. The journal is available free to members; nonmembers can download a range of articles from back issues on the website. Finally, there are occasional journal special issues, such as The CATESOL Journal’s special issue on teaching pronunciation and this issue of the Mind Brain Ed Think Tank+ magazine—both of which are open-source publications.

Additional resources

One final source of invaluable information on L2 pronunciation teaching can be found in the form of websites created by prominent pronunciation practitioners. Of particular note here are the following sites, which contain a wealth of practical tips grounded in sound theory:

    1. English Global CommunicationTalk to the World: This site, by pronunciation practitioner (and former editor of Speak Out!) Robin Walker, takes an English as a lingua franca (ELF) view of pronunciation teaching, advocating for a more global perspective on English language (EL) teaching and learning.
    2. Hancock McDonald English Language Teaching: Veteran EL teachers and materials writers, Mark Hancock and Annie McDonald, have created this resource-rich website, including blog posts, links to webinars of interest, downloadable pronunciation activities, and much much more.
    3. The Pronunciation Doctor: “Pronunciation doctor” Marsha Chan maintains a YouTube channel allowing access to relevant webinars as well as numerous short video tutorials on specific EL sound features.

For those teachers just beginning to inform themselves about teaching pronunciation, the above list of resources may feel a bit overwhelming. My suggestion would be to start by adding one or two pronunciation resource books to your personal library. I’d also suggest joining the pronunciation SIG associated with your professional organization and participating in its sponsored conference presentations, webinars, and other events. Finally, I also highly recommend the pronunciation websites that I’ve listed above, as these are created by practitioners for practitioners and contain rich sources of information and activities.

English in Today’s Global World

It behooves us to take a hard look at the reality of the EL teaching world. Floris and Renandya (2020) estimate that the number of NNESTs globally is somewhere in the vicinity of 12 million—i.e., comprising 80% of all EL teachers worldwide. This fact leads us to several related questions, the foremost of which is: If NNESTs continue in their reluctance to teach pronunciation, who will shoulder the responsibility? Clearly, teacher education programs (both pre- and in-service) need to equip NNESTs with the necessary pedagogical background to teach pronunciation. Such programs also need to instill in future teachers the confidence necessary to address this skill in the classroom and the belief that they as NNESTs can share this responsibility with their NEST peers.

Which accent?

One question that persistently raises its head is which accent to introduce as the classroom pronunciation standard. Traditionally, this battle was fought over American vs. British English, with the latter usually winning out—especially in those areas of the world where British colonialism historically predominated. As Sifakis (2014) notes:

The communicative use of English today is markedly different from 20 years ago. English is still used very widely between native and non-native users, but today it is even more widely used among non-native users. This means that the norms and standards of communication that have permeated the teaching curricula of the past 2-3 decades should be supplemented with… a tangible awareness of this changing scene. (p. 137)

As a concrete alternative, Walker suggests the following solution (April 12, 2020):

Accent has given way to intelligibility as the main focus of pronunciation teaching… and since intelligibility isn’t directly related to any particular accent… we can now get to the answer to the question… about which accent to use in class when teaching pronunciation.

The answer, thankfully, is quite simple. Use whichever accent you wish, provided that:

    • the accent you opt for is known to be widely intelligible to other users of English (native speaker and non-native speaker);
    • the accent you choose is acceptable to your students;
    • you have easy access to that accent for teaching purposes.

It’s an ELF world…

To end on an optimistic note regarding the role of NNESTs in pronunciation teaching, I leave you with the following thought (Walker, September 21, 2020), which beautifully summarizes the ELF view on pronunciation teaching: “In a world where English is a global language, a native-speaker accent is no guarantee of being easily understood, and may even be an obstacle to successful communication.”

Conclusion

My aim in writing this article has been to provide an updated view of how NNESTs are viewed within the field of L2 pronunciation and how they can develop their true potential as professionals in the field. I truly hope that the article has successfully dispelled the myth that it takes a native speaker to teach pronunciation and has provided readers with a more balanced view and insights into their own strengths as current or future teachers of L2 pronunciation.

References

  • Bai, B., & Yuan, R. (2019). EFL teachers’ beliefs and practices about pronunciation teaching. ELT Journal, 73(2), 134-143.

  • Brinton, D. M. (2008, September). Teaching pronunciation communicatively—Some EFL considerations [Webinar]. The Royal Thai Distance Learning Foundation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9EDwsjrugs&list=PLsKFrsjpTw_nkwaUAtaoJcg0bvEZxY1yP&index=1

  • Brinton, D. M. (2014). Epilogue to the myths: Best practices for teachers. In L. Grant (Ed.), Pronunciation myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching (pp. 225-242). University of Michigan Press.

  • Brinton, D. M. (2018). Reconciling theory and practice. The CATESOL Journal, 30(1), 283-300.

  • Brinton, D. M., Burri, M., & Baker, A. A. (2022). Determining the effectiveness of teaching activities. In J. Levis, T. Derwing, & S. Sonsaat-Hegelheimer (Eds.), Second language pronunciation: Bridging the gap between research and teaching (pp. 151-173). Wiley Blackwell.

  • Burri, M. (2021). “Teaching pronunciation is always on my mind”: A 5-year longitudinal study on a Japanese English teacher’s developing practices and cognition about pronunciation. JALT Journal, 43(2), 143-166.

  • Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., & Goodwin, J. (with Griner, B.). (2010). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

  • Floris, F. D., & Renandya, W. A. (2020). Promoting the value of non-native English-speaking teachers. PASAA: A Journal of Language Teaching and Learning, 59, 1-19.

  • Golombek, P., & Jordan, S. R. (2005). Becoming “black lambs” not “parrots”: A poststructuralist orientation to intelligibility and identity. TESOL Quarterly, 39(3), 513-533.

  • Grant, L. (Ed.). (2014). Pronunciation myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. University of Michigan Press.

  • Levis, J. (2005). Changing contexts and shifting paradigms in pronunciation teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 367–377.

  • Levis, J. M., Sonsaat, S., Link, S., & Barriuso, T. A. (2016). Native and nonnative teachers of L2 pronunciation: Effects on learner performance. TESOL Quarterly, 50(4), 894-931.

  • Murphy, J. (2014). Myth 7: Teacher training programs provide adequate preparation in how to teach pronunciation. In L. Grant (Ed.), Pronunciation myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching (pp. 188-224). University of Michigan Press.

  • Pasternak, M., & Bailey, K. M. (2004). Preparing nonnative and native English-speaking teachers: Issues of professionalism and proficiency. In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and teaching from experience: Perspectives on nonnative English-speaking professionals (pp. 155-175). University of Michigan Press.

  • Sifakis, N. C. (2014). Teaching pronunciation in the post EFL era: Lessons from ELF and implications for teacher education. In J. de Dios Martinez Agudo, (Ed.), English as a foreign language teacher education: Current perspectives and challenges: Vol. 27. Utrecht Studies in Language and Communication, (pp. 127-146). Brill.

  • Walker, R. (2020, April 12). “A is for accent” (2). Blogpost. https://englishglobalcom.wordpress.com/2020/04/12/a-is-for-accent-2/

  • Walker, R. (2020, September 21). The nativeness principle. Blogpost. https://englishglobalcom.wordpress.com/2020/09/21/the-nativeness-principle/

Donna M. Brinton University of California, Los Angeles

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