Communication: More than words and an accent
The sounds of different languages have always fascinated me. When I was young, my dad loved to play LPs by the great French singer, Edith Piaf. She was a favourite singer of my grandmother’s and I have strong memories of hearing the petite-framed Piaf’s voice belting out Non, Je ne Regrette Rien through the speakers, and filling the room with its power! My mum, who loved to sing and play piano, also taught me songs in German that her German-speaking teachers had taught her at a school for children of Lutheran missionaries in Papua New Guinea. I didn’t know what all the words meant, but I remember an interest in the languages, the sounds of their words and their meanings, from my earliest years. I would sit in front of the LP record player, moving the stylus over and over back to the start of Piaf’s song, trying to emulate the shape and sounds of her French words with my un-French lips and ears. Would the words one day suddenly make sense and sound correct, I wondered, if I just tried hard to “make” them often enough? That may seem like an amusing and outdated idea from a current language teaching perspective, but an internet search shows that my “listen and repeat” method of learning to speak French was not far from the 3 million suggestions a student hoping to improve their English language pronunciation could find today.
Unfortunately, despite those hours in front of the LP record player, I didn’t manage to speak French. I learned German at high school instead. I spent time in Germany on a study-abroad program and made friends with a French-speaking girl who was also new to Germany and hadn’t learned much English. Vanessa and I were friends during the time I lived near Wiesbaden, sharing laughter, experiences, common interests, and all the emotional highs and lows that teenage friends usually share. What we didn’t share was a perfect German-sounding accent or nuanced German language vocabulary: although German was the only language we had in common, Vanessa hadn’t learned a lot of English and I hadn’t learned any French. Yet we communicated and stayed friends, sharing photos, souvenirs, and letters written in a mixture of grammatically incorrect German and English for many years afterwards. It was a relief to just talk with Vanessa, both through letters or in person, without the apprehension I usually felt about my grammar and pronunciation mishaps when I was speaking with a native speaker of German. She expressed the same sense of relief in her conversations with me, and perhaps it was this shared bond of communicating in not-so-perfect, mixed-up languages that helped to make our friendship special.
Maybe you have had similar experiences of communication when you were living in a country without all the linguistic resources of the native language at your disposal. In this globalised world, where English is used by far more speakers (around 600 million) as an additional (L2) than as a first language (L1), there are many different varieties of English in use (Seargeant, 2016). English varieties can include elements of the other languages spoken in the context (for example, Singlish in the Singaporean context includes elements of Chinese and Malay). Oral communication in global varieties of English “focus[es] on the hearer’s responsibility as well as the speaker’s” (Low, 2021, p. 14). Speakers and listeners accommodate and adapt the language used to best achieve mutual understanding. Global varieties of English are also evident in written forms, prompting TESOL educators to reconsider their evaluation of acceptable variations to English. What traditional English teaching pedagogical literature may have framed as written errors, more recent linguistic and theoretical perspectives are instead understanding as innovations in English language usage (Hamid et al., 2014).
If we can communicate effectively in English with a variety of accents and grammars, I wonder why so many teachers seem interested in learning about how to teach the pronunciation of English as an additional language (EAL) in their classes? And I wonder why many EAL students express feelings of inadequacy in relation to their accent when talking in English (just like Vanessa and I did when we were trying to sound more “German” as non-native speakers of the language). Who set the invisible bar for what was an acceptable or unacceptable accent? If I had managed to imitate my beloved Edith Piaf’s French, I would likely have been marked down in a high school French lesson by a teacher for my incorrect grammar and accent, because Piaf’s songs were sung using a Parisian slang!
Experiences shape our views (and our brains)
Pronunciation has been described as the “initial layer of talk” (Pennington & Rogerson-Revell, 2019, p. 7), and so it makes sense that teachers would want to help their students to navigate this initial layer of a spoken interaction in a new language by providing some form of instruction about English language pronunciation. In the context in which I teach in Australia, students are working hard to succeed in spoken English interactions in new environments. But why does this initial layer of talk, pronunciation, have such an effect on perceived success or failure in a language?
Part of the answer to this question lies in the value that is given to a particular accent in a social context, and this is where the connection to brain science principles in education can be made. We know that one of the principles of educational neuroscience is that brains are shaped by experience (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011). So, for teachers: we carry into our classrooms our experiences as learners, as individuals in the social contexts we live or have lived in, and as trainee teachers who received instruction about how to teach according to certain methodological priorities. All these experiences have shaped our views on teaching practices generally and, when it comes to views on how or what to teach about the pronunciation of EAL, this can be problematic. The conversation about teaching pronunciation needs to begin with us asking ourselves questions about the assumptions and values that we hold in relation to language learning and teaching. Some of these assumptions are grounded in views of teaching English that prioritise a monolingual, “one-accent-and-one-correct-grammar-only” perspective.
For our students: as their brains, too, are shaped by experience, then we have a role as teachers to shape students’ experiences and provide opportunities for them to learn effectively in our classrooms. We play a role in providing positive classroom experiences that will encourage and perhaps bring change to our students’ views of themselves when speaking in another language. We can do this by using resources in our lessons (for example, listening excerpts) that model different accents and varieties of English. Teacher educators could consider prompting discussions among preservice teachers around their views of “acceptable” English, what is considered an adaptation rather than an error in English, or why a particular accent is deemed more valuable in certain contexts than others. Whilst this may not bring immediate change to the societal views and bias that a student could yet experience, language teachers have a part to play in a gradual shift towards attitudinal change both in and outside the classroom. A shift in a teacher’s attitude to teach students that “their way of speaking is as beautiful as our way of speaking” (Freire, 1996) is one change that is needed to positively re-shape views and values on teaching pronunciation.
Another change that I have found helpful has been to consider different perspectives on priorities when deciding how and what to teach as part of “pronunciation.” Rather than as a decontextualised field of language teaching that relies on “listen and repeat” pronunciation teaching activities, I began to view pronunciation teaching as part of a holistic approach that included literacy development and culturally relevant connections for students in my classes. My students were learning to link sounds to spelling in English (and for most of them, in any language, as they had limited access to schooling prior to arriving in Australia). Research by Freeman et al. (2021) shows that a language student may be interpreting a new language through the “filter” of their L1, and this can change the way a listener hears a newly learned word in the L2. Most of my students, whose exposure to L1 print literacy was in Arabic, found it challenging to consistently connect vowels to sounds in the words they were learning to read in English. For these students, an L1 filtering process may have affected how they process English vowel sounds and connect them to newly learned alphabetic representations of those sounds. Arabic is a language that uses fewer vowel sounds than English and sometimes these can be omitted in written Arabic, where readers rely on contextual rather than “vowel information” (Saigh & Schmitt, 2012, p. 26) to understand the meaning of the text. Understanding this changed my views about teaching literacy and pronunciation and so I changed my teaching approach to better suit the L1 backgrounds and needs of my students. In light of the understanding
of an L1 filtering process, and the fact that my students’ cultural backgrounds were ones that valued song, dance, and orality as ways of teaching and learning text, I began to try out innovative approaches to teaching pronunciation that integrated emotions, gesture, touch, and movement into learning spoken and written English vowel sounds (see, for example, Playsted et al., 2020; Playsted & Burri, 2021).
Talking about the teaching of pronunciation is complex. It prompts emotional responses from teachers, academics, and students, because of differing views on what pronunciation teaching should or should not entail. As with any teaching area, there is rarely a simple, “one size fits all” approach to complex issues of language learning. It is important for language teachers to listen, learn, and, where necessary, make shifts in assumptions that have underpinned our approaches to teaching pronunciation. When we do this, we start on a journey of communication and learning that embraces the diverse accents, varieties of English and cultural understandings we are privileged to experience in our classrooms.
 There are several open access research overviews of different teaching approaches. See, for example, Walker et al., 2021 and some of the websites I have included as additional resources at the end of this piece.
Freeman, M. R., Blumenfeld, H. K., Carlson, M. T., & Marian, V. (2021). First-language influence on second language speech perception depends on task demands. Language and Speech, 65(1), 28-51.
Freire, P. (1996). A conversation with Paolo Freire: Interview from 1996 World Conference on Literacy, organized by the International Literacy Institute, Philadelphia, USA. https://youtu.be/aFWjnkFypFA
Hamid, M. O., Zhu, L., & Baldauf, R. (2014). Norms and varieties of English and TESOL teacher agency. The Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(10), 77-95.
Low, E. L. (2021). EIL pronunciation research and practice: Issues, challenges, and future directions. RELC Journal, 52(1), 22-34.
Pennington, M. C., & Rogerson-Revell, P. (2019). English pronunciation teaching and research: Contemporary perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan.
Piaf, E. (1956). Edith Piaf – Non, Je ne regrette rien. https://youtu.be/Q3Kvu6Kgp88
Playsted, S., Burri, M., & Acton, W. (2020). Warming up and activating mind, body and emotions in pronunciation instruction. TESOLANZ Journal, 28, 49-55. https://www.tesolanz.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/TESOLANZ_Journal_Vol28_2020.pdf
Playsted, S. & Burri, M. (2021). The vowel matrix: Enhancing literacy development through an innovative approach to teaching pronunciation. English Australia Journal, 37(2), 32-44. https://www.englishaustralia.com.au/documents/item/1361
Saigh, K., & Schmitt, N. (2012). Difficulties with vocabulary word form: The case of Arabic ESL learners. System, 40(1), 24-36.
Seargeant, P. (2016). World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca. In G. Hall (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of English language teaching (pp. 13-25). Routledge.
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2011). Mind, brain, and education science. Norton.
Walker, R., Low, E.-I., & Setter, J. (2021) English pronunciation for a global world. Oxford University Press.
Skye Playsted teaches at the University of Queensland, Australia. She is researching professional learning for teachers of adult, beginner-level EALstudents. Skye is interested in practice theories, classroom-based research, and critically reflective approaches in teacher education.