Thursday, April 5, 2012

Should EFL teachers worry about accents?

I read this article (Perfect Accents Not Realistic for Older Language Learners, Linguists Say) today on the Education Week website about whether language teachers (and learners) should focus on pronunciation. The article has some interesting thoughts, but what caught my eye was the final question:
The piece [mentioned in the article] made me wonder how much older English-learners in public schools—especially those immigrant students who come to the U.S. in middle school and beyond—are focused on perfecting their pronunciations and trying to shed their accents. How much are their teachers focused on that part of learning the language, and what does that mean for how well these students learn to communicate effectively?  
I thought I would share my thoughts on the topic (basically, an expanded version of my comment at the bottom).

In my opinion, forcing native-speaker-like pronunciation on students is an exercise in discouragement. There are so many standard, acceptable variations on word pronunciations, even between people in the same region (route, creek, and caramel, for example) that I leave word-specific accent training out. I tell my students that everybody has an accent--even me (I do try to "sell" my generally neutral, Southern-California-Hollywood status accent as "cool" or "likable," though).

What I do teach is pronunciation of certain trouble sounds (and occasionally words, but only if they hinder comprehension). For Germans learning English, for example, this is the "th" sound (it is always /z/ or /s/). "Thought" becomes "Sought" and "Thinking" becomes "Sinking". For Chinese students learning English, one problem is often the /l/ and /r/ switcheroo. These sounds are so different to English speakers, that there is often confusion when they are switched (unlike the very similar /b/ and /v/ sounds for Spanish-speaking English learners).

It's definitely possible to train and develop an accent that is close (enough) to a standard one, even as an adult. In fact, with the right tools and the proper education in phonology, it isn't even really that hard to teach.

However, pronunciation shouldn't be the focus unless the student (AFTER understanding that his or her accent is not "bad" or "wrong") wants to work on it beyond comprehensibility issues. As an English speaker who learned Spanish, I found training the short vowel sounds (especially at the end of words) and the word-initial consonants to be the most helpful for getting rid of my "gringo" accent. Since I'm a total language nerd, this training was a very important part in my language goal achievement. However, non-language-nerds learning English (or other languages) for other, practical purposes, may not have the same goals.

The idea that no one will know you are a non-native speaker of a language because of your flawless pronunciation and impeccable grammar is a very lofty goal. Some students, however, are interested in developing a more natural sound. If they are willing to work, assistance should be provided to them.

So, that's my two cents. But since I'm in Germany, it's two euro cents, which is probably three American cents. What do you think?