Teaching English pronunciation: past and present (PART 1) [Archives:2005/902/Education]

December 12 2005

Dr. Kalyani Samantray
Reader in Phonetics
English Language Teaching Institute
Orissa, India

In the context of the first language of a speech community, the primary attention is paid to the analysis of its grammar and vocabulary by the linguists of that speech community. Since the first language is effectively used for oral communication inside the given speech community, speakers and linguists alike normally do not consciously think and/or analyze the different aspects of pronunciation in the first language. At least, this used to be the scenario at the early stages of language analysis. For this reason, grammar and vocabulary of most languages are much better understood and described than the features of their pronunciation. For English, the choices were the same. Analysis was directed toward a discussion of its grammar and vocabulary with scant attention, if ever, paid to any examination of the aspects of its pronunciation.

Observation turned towards English pronunciation features when people of other speech communities started learning the language either for specific purposes (English as a foreign language: EFL) or for most purposes of everyday communication (English as a second language: ESL).

Approaches to pronunciation teaching

Two general approaches to teaching English pronunciation have since then emerged: i. The older intuitive-imitative approach, and ii. The later analytic-psycho-linguistic approach. By the mid-19th century, the first approach was already the trend. The input for pronunciation practice was derived from teacher's/textbook writer's perception of the sound system of the language. Pronunciation teaching was also heavily dependent on the orthographic system of English. The success of the learners depended on their accuracy in imitation and reproduction of the target system. The approach relied resolutely on listening for which good human models and electronic media (records, tape recorders, language labs, audio-video cassettes, and CDs) prevailed as the requirements. For an intuitive-imitative approach in ESL teaching being used in classrooms even now, the same methodology and apparatus are still in application.

An analytic psycho-linguistic approach on the other hand uses tools such as a phonetic alphabet, articulatory description, contrastive and comparative information regarding the first language of the learner and ESL, and communication skills to supplement the listening, imitation and reproduction method of the first approach. Consequently, the ambit of the second approach has been more comprehensive and broad-based. By being so broad-based, the approach also retains the scope for widening its reach further.

For the two approaches, a number of pedagogic methods have been developed by ELT practitioners.

The earliest of such methods which espoused the principles of the intuitive-imitative approach was the Direct Method (late 1800-early 1900). This method utilizes listening-imitation-practice-production to teach English pronunciation. A good model, either a teacher or recorded material, provides the listening input. Learners use the input for repeated practice, and to finally produce the correct target output. This instructional method draws from the observation and analysis of language learning by very young children in their first language situation.

Major offshoots of this method are Asher's (1977) Total Physical Response (TPR), and Krashen and Terrel's (1983) Natural Approach. These and other such approaches propose a kind of incubation period for the learner when the learner is allowed to listen to the target language without any pressure to perform through speaking. This period allows the learner time to internalize the phonology and the sound system of the target language through unlimited listening as happens in the MT learning context. The internalization of the phonology and the sound system of ESL are expected to happen as the learner uses her schema to comprehend the language input. Only when the learner is ready for speech production, the articulation process gets initiated by her. The Natural Approach accepts errors in pronunciation as part of the learning process and expects the errors to vanish when the learner gains adequate proficiency in the target language.

The earliest linguistic assistance to the teaching of pronunciation came forth in the 1890s as part of the Reform Movement in language teaching. This movement was spearheaded by phoneticians such as Henry Sweet, Wilhelm Vietor and Paul Passy who joined together to form the International Phonetic Association and developed the concept of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for the languages of the world. The scientific study, analysis and description of the sound system of human languages done by Sweet's group formed the basis of phonetics. Through such studies, the IPA system claimed autonomy for itself which enabled the pronunciation system to become free of the orthography. The IPA symbols are accurate, one to one representations of the sounds of any language.

These early phoneticians also established the primacy of the oral form of language. Being language teachers themselves, they incorporated the findings of phonetics into oral language teaching methodology.

A direct offshoot of the Reform Movement was Audiolingualism in the USA and the Oral Approach in Britain during the 1940s and 1950s. These approaches also made use of the findings of structural linguistics of that time, particularly, the inferences from contrastive analysis. Based on these inferences, teaching pronunciation of discrete items in an explicit manner became infinitely important in ESL classrooms. The sponsors of Audiolingualism and Oral Approach proposed that knowledge of phonetics should be a primary requirement for the teachers of pronunciation. The concept of the phoneme, and the use of 'minimal pairs' in listening practice and oral drills played important roles in pronunciation teaching. The focus of pronunciation teaching was habit formation through model input, imitation and repeated practice. At the heart of this approach, the learners were expected to achieve native-like pronunciation.