Did you know that when recordings of some published materials are analyzed, it turns out that the vast majority of voices belong to first-language English users? In fact, when Si (2019) analyzed five major business English course books published globally, he found that only 16% of the voices on the recordings were from second-language English users. And did you notice that most of those ‘non-native speakers’ “speak and write with the same educated, English, middle-class, native-speaker voices” (Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2013, p. 244)?
Indeed, in Si’s (2019) study only 0.5% of all the voices had a second language accent.
Meanwhile, in the real world outside the classroom, the situation would be the exact opposite. While figures differ, it is very likely that more than 80% of all English users are not ‘native speakers’ of the language (Crystal, 2019).
This clearly means that since our students might mostly hear standard first language accents in the classroom, they are unlikely to be adequately prepared to deal with the myriad of accents that they will hear when they step out of our classrooms.
That’s why one important principle I would suggest we need to adopt as English teachers is to provide our students with a variety of different accents and help them decode them through focused work on bottom-up listening skills. This will help them be better prepared for real-world pronunciation.
Apart from helping our learners understand different accents, it is important to consider how we can help them develop clear pronunciation that is easily intelligible to a wide variety of first, second, third, etc. language English users.
How do we know what such globally clear pronunciation might look like?
A lot of research has been conducted which can give us some important hints (Deterding, 2010; Deterding & Lewis, 2019; Jenkins, 2000). These studies show that certain pronunciation features are not that important for intelligibility. In other words, they can be pronounced quite differently without much impact on understanding. These are vowel quality, features of connected speech (e.g. weak forms), intonation, and sentence stress.
Interestingly, when we analyze some published materials, it turns out that the vast majority of pronunciation slots in them are devoted to the pronunciation features mentioned above (Kiczkowiak, 2021). In fact, in one particular case of elementary-level materials, 48% of all pronunciation slots were devoted to connected speech.
On the other hand, that same research suggests that other pronunciation features are very important for clear pronunciation. These are consonants (apart from the voiced and voiceless dental fricatives <th>), consonant clusters, vowel length, aspiration, and nuclear stress. Unfortunately, little attention is paid to these features (Kiczkowiak, 2021; Levis & Sonsaat, 2016).
While of course more research should be conducted, the data that we have indicates that not all pronunciation features are made equal with regard to intelligibility in international contexts.
If you’re interested in practical ideas for how to teach pronunciation for global communication and help your students understand and be understood by a wide variety of English users, check out the recording of my webinar.
Crystal, D. (2019). The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Deterding, D. (2010). Norms for pronunciation in Southeast Asia. World Englishes, 29, 364–377. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-971X.2010.01660.x
Deterding, D., & Lewis, C. (2019). Pronunciation in English as Lingua Franca. In X. Gao (Ed.), Second Handbook of English Language Teaching (pp. 1–15). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-58542-0_41-1
Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language: New models, new norms, new goals. Oxford University Press.
Kiczkowiak, M. (2021). Pronunciation in course books: English as a Lingua Franca perspective. ELT Journal, 75(1), 55–66. https://doi.org/doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccaa068
Levis, J., & Sonsaat, S. (2016). Pronunciation Materials. In M. Azarnoosh, M. Zeraatpishe, A. Faravani, & H. R. Kargozari (Eds.), Issues in Materials Development (pp. 109–119). SensePublishers. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6300-432-9_10
Si, J. (2019). An analysis of business English coursebooks from an ELF perspective. ELT Journal, Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccz049
Tomlinson, B., & Masuhara, H. (2013). Adult coursebooks. ELT Journal, 67(2), 233–249. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/cct007