There are three things involved in knowing a language, and these have been called “the ‘what‘” by Penny Ur in her “A course in Language Teaching“. The three ‘whats’ would be pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Needless to say, there are lots of things involved in each one of these topics. For instance, when we’re talking about grammar we can look at it from many different perspectives (Scott Thornbury has done a presentation on ‘7 ways of looking at grammar’, which you can watch here), and I myself like the idea of the 3 dimensions of looking at grammar (form, meaning and use). If we turn our attention to vocabulary, a lot has been said about it as well, and there’s even an approach that puts lexis on the spotlight. We know that there’s a lot more to learn about a word than just its meaning. Lots and lots of people have discussed/been discussing the importance of lexis in language learning these days, and grammar seems to still be the guiding principle of most curricula. What about pronunciation? (Just to make things clear from the start, I’m not talking about accent reduction, elimination or any other thing related to accents on this post. Accents are OK, but certain pronunciation problems really do hinder communication)
It seems to me there’s just so much teachers need to pay attention to that it’s easy to end up overlooking this leg of the tripod of language learning/teaching. We’ve arguably had more importance given to pronunciation these days – it’s more and more common for coursebooks to incorporate the IPA, for example. However, it seems to me that whenever teachers have to sacrifice something due to time constraints or any other situation that may arise in the classroom, pronunciation gets it. Add to this the fact that language teachers are the worst listeners there are (well, we all try really hard to understand what our learners are saying, don’t we?) and there you go: the perfect scenario for lots of pronunciation problems. But why does this happen?
For one thing, we can look at teachers. Native speakers may sometimes feel it’s enough to model the correct pronunciation and learners will eventually pick it up, or they may simply not have been given proper training to work with those “greek” letters from the IPA. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, may not feel secure enough so as to correct learners as they themselves aren’t sure how that word should be pronounced. Oh, but if it were only the individual sounds. Teachers have to worry about supra-segmental features as well as segmental features when working with pronunciation. What if you’re teaching speakers whose rhythm of their native language is syllable-timed how to speak a stress-timed language? What I’ve noticed is that teachers tend to settle for anything they can understand and that’s it – no corrections are necessary. And right there we’re likely to have students making mistakes (which will be fossilised by the time they become aware of it) for a very long time.
Another problem might be the curriculum itself. If teachers are always pressed for time to do things, they’ll eventually have to choose to omit A or B, and guess what tends to be left out? Anyway, I guess the problem I’ve witnessed (and went through as a learner myself) is that teachers do not give pronunciation the importance it deserves in language teaching. It’s almost as if we took it for granted that learners would magically learn how to speak correctly as they progress. To be honest, I believe consciousness raising may help a lot in this regard. I’ve had many students who complained that native speakers spoke too fast or they couldn’t get any conversation in movies for the same reason, and I won’t even mention songs. But is that really so?
Having gone through this myself, I decided that the best way out would be to study. And this study is what enables me to tell my students to pay attention to how they should position their tongue in the mouth if they are to produce a certain sound correctly, or tell them which words are stressed and which are unstressed, and teach them a thing or two about elision, assimilation and intrusive sounds in connected speech. What I found out is that students from all levels tend to pay closer attention to these lessons than to vocabulary or grammar lessons – regardless of their level. (If you’re looking for a book on this, check Sound Foundations, by Adrian Underhill.)
So, if you agree that teaching a language is indeed teaching the tripod pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary, and if we’ve got a series of constraints that prevent us from doing all three as much as we feel we should at the same time, how does the following sound to you: we should work harder on pronunciation with beginners (A1/A2 students). This means we’d have to worry a lot more about correct stress and intonation. Grammar and vocabulary will also be taught, obviously, but these are rather simple at initial stages, especially these days when the English language is everywhere. Once we get students to pronounce things correctly and understand certain features of connected speech, they’ll have no problems listening to / speaking sentences in the “third conditional” (If I had spoken to my teacher, I would have been able to give you an answer.) when the time comes. After a short while (B1/B2), grammar becomes increasingly more complicated for learners. They need to learn more complex grammar structures to convey complicated messages so we shift our focus to the teaching of grammar. A while later, learners will know pretty much all they need to know in terms of grammar to communicate and we can then focus heavily on vocabulary (B2+).
Well, how does this sound to you?