My latest post received a number of varied responses, ranging from suggestions that I write my own linguistic stand up comedy show, to a former student jokingly (I hope!) reminding me I did not give her a passing grade in her pronunciation test, to colleagues asking whether it was an advocation for ELF, to people sharing their own anecdotes, and other kinds of remarks.
Some of these serious and funny bits of feedback got me thinking about how my views were interpreted, so I thought I would expand on the last point of the post in question, a conclusion which may have got "lost in translation", so to speak. The issue I want to discuss has been developed at length by a number of well-known authors and bloggers, and I will not be able to do justice to them here (see Part 2 of this post coming soon!), and it has got to do with a key choice teachers need to make in ELT: pronunciation aims and goals.
Now, in many respects we may feel trapped when it comes to deciding how far we would like our students to get when it comes to any linguistic skill or content, and the issue of pronunciation is a very sensitive matter. When it comes to pronunciation goals, I generally think about lots of WH questions, and this is what my post will focus on first.
I humbly believe that we teachers should be ready to acknowledge that the pronunciation goals issue is very, very complex, and we should be aware of the number of different scenarios we may encounter in each class we teach, in order to try to cater for the whole range of needs there may exist -or at least know where to go and search for info!-. This is why teachers need to have a really thorough, yet practical, training in pronunciation matters, and as a teacher trainer, I feel a have a huge responsibility in this sense.
Find below my (non-comprehensive) list of WH questions for pronunciation goals, which in my humble opinion can change EVERYTHING when it comes to deciding what to do. The answers to these questions should enlighten us in the planning process, and particularly, help us decide on what accents to teach, and how far we should go in terms of expectations and learner achievement.
Who are my students?
-How old are they? Where are they from? What is their first language? What is their language level? How long have they been learning English for? Have they picked up the language, or learned it? Have they had any pronunciation instruction before? Have they taken this course before?
-What about their existing skills and awareness in terms of their diction, propriocerception, phonetic coding ability, plasticity, learning styles?
-Who is their " model" speaker of English (native or non-native)? Where and how often do they regularly hear English: TV, videogames, music, social networks?
Who will my students be using English with?
-Native speakers of English?
-Non-native speakers of English using English to communicate? To work? To learn? To travel?
-Robots and machines?
Where are my students learning pronunciation now?
At school? At a language institute? In company? At a call-centre? At university? At Teacher Training College? In a Translators' Training Programme? Over the Internet? In non formal ways, or contexts? By imitation? With the support of a thorough training in phonetics?
What are the expectations of the school/company/etc regarding these students, at the end of the course? What do they expect them and me as a teacher to have achieved? How likely and realistic is this, and what are the odds of redefining/negotiating these goals after a diagnostic task, for instance?
What is the role and influence of peers in the class? What are the students' views and feelings regarding the teacher and his/her English?
Where will my students be using English?
At a foreign country where English is the first language? Second language? Foreign language? Lingua Franca?
In their own country, but at their workplace, to their bosses, or co-workers or customers?
At the airport? On a plane? On the streets? Over a counter? In a classroom? On TV/radio?
Face to face? Via webconferencing? Through phone calls?
What are my learners taking classes for?
To travel? To make presentations? To answer phone calls? To teach? To sing? To become public or radio/TV speakers? To become tourist guides, or pilots, or cabin crew members? To be able to follow films, or lectures? Out of sheer pleasure and curiosity?
What are the specific skills, speech genres, procedures, vocabulary, my students need to polish their pronunciation for? What aspects of their interlanguage pronunciation or intonation will be most "damaging" or "face-threatening" for their performance? How can these be overcome? What kind of feedback/retribution/rewards will students get in their context of future or present use of English? What possibilities of repair, self-correction, monitoring will my students have in their context of use?
What English? Which Englishes?
What English, accent or dialect do they want or need to learn? British (which!?), American (which!?), Australian, South African, Singaporean, Indian, Hong Kong, among hundreds of other Englishes? What varieties and styles within a certain accent group will my students need to handle? What is the standing of a certain variety in my learners' context of use: is it considered "prestigious", " working class", etc?
What do my students expect of their accent? What accents do they personally favour?
What accent do their employers/exam requirements/coworkers/syllabus/ institutional requirements or traditions expect them to attain?
What features should I prioritise in my teaching, given their background, context of use, target audience and the results of the diagnostic tasks?
What features can "seamlessly" be integrated to the teaching of other set areas/skills/content in the course? How much recycling and remedial work will I need and have time for?
What features are to be presented for perception, and which, for production purposes (or both)?
What features do I consider to be "teachable", given the conditions of the course I am teaching?
How much are my students willing to work / can work towards this goal? How many hours of their week can/will they put in? How much "ownership" can they take of the goals set?
How can I expand on my students' awareness of the importance of pronunciation and intonation in communication, and particularly, in their context of use?
How can I train their propioception, articulation and self-monitoring skills so that they are significant and long-lasting?
How can I help my students reach the goals set? What materials, resources, time, background knowledge, student motivation and cooperation, infrastructure, student proprioception abilities do I have at my disposal? What methods would work better with this group?
How far would I like this student to get? How successful do I think this student will be, and why? What can I do to help this particular student improve?
How much room do we all participants of the educational experience have to agree on the goals? (In as ideal world, probably the students will have a greater say, but....)
All these questions appear to make up a sort of maze, reminiscent of those "Choose your own Adventure" books in which selecting one option from a set of possibilities may completely change the outcome. This is a pronunciation list, but I am sure we could ask the same or similar questions for other linguistic areas or skills. These questions address issues that will inevitably affect our planning, our students' success, and as a by-product, our own feeling of achievement, or frustration (Tell me about it!).
As with everything, we need to negotiate at times. Institutional and time restrictions are always there, students' motivations, effort and abilities are decisive if we want good processes and results, and as teachers we always need to decide where to draw the line. I wish I could be more definite or resolute when writing about these topics at times, but then, the great thing about teaching is that reality hits you in the face pretty often and each and every classroom, each student, even, drives you into making unique choices. There is no single answer or formula, and if I gave you one, I feel I would be oversimplifying a very, very complex matter that in my experience, can only be sorted out individually with each school, group or person I teach.
PS to this PS: I have corrected the serious mispelling of the word "proprioception" (which I wrongly for a long time called "prioperception").
End of part 1: Questions
Part 2: What the experts say. (Coming soon!)
Part 2: What the experts say. (Coming soon!)