“Language Learning & Global Citizenship” (11) – Pronunciation issues for L2 speakers of English (by F. Diligu)
Editor’s note: Ms Francesca Diligu is studying the English teaching degree for secondary schools at the University of Education Karlsruhe as an international student and speaks several languages, Italian being her L1, German her L2, and English her L3. She took part in my “Global English(es), Global TEFL & Global Citizenship Education” seminar in the summer of 2019 and researched her interests and experiences in learning English by working on a presentation on the difficulties of English pronunciation for L2/L3 learners. She followed up this work in a research paper, which is published on the Research page of this blog.
The series “Language Learning & Global Citizenship” features 10 summary articles so far by researchers and student-researchers of the University of Education Karlsruhe. Ms Diligu’s summary of her paper is the 11th article, with new contributions by other student-authors to follow. For the last year-and-a-half, Covid-19 made extra tasks like these impossible, but as a long good summer in Germany is drawing to a close, we are ready to tie up somethe loose ends.
Pronunciation issues in English of speakers with different L1s
Some learners’ opinion is that one can “catch (like a cold) good pronunciation from input alone” (Levis 2015, A-52). If this were the case, after a certain period of time and practice, everyone would be able to speak with a pronunciation like that of the native speakers. However, some students seem to have better pronunciation than others; some make faster progress and some learners, even after years of living in the country of the language they want to learn, do not make improvements and speak with strong foreign accents.
According to Honey (1991), pronunciation is made up of two important elements which are accent and intonation (cf. Honey 1991, 5). This means that the Standard varieties of English, such as RP (Received Pronunciation) or AE (General American English), also have accents (cf. ibid.). Their speakers always have an accent that, being peculiar and exemplary of a specific part of a country (cf. Yule 2017, 269), reveals where they come from.
On the other hand, intonation is “the ‘tune’ of a sentence” (Honey 1991, 5), which makes a statement distinguishable from a question or an order (cf. ibid). When teaching English or learning it as an autodidact, the choice of which accent one wants to acquire traditionally falls on either British English or on American pronunciation (cf. Dauer 2005, 544).1 However, this should not be such an easy decision, because pronunciation is not only a matter of accent. It reveals, of course, where the speaker comes from, but it is also influenced by many other factors such as the age of the student, the motivation he or she has to learn the new language, how similar the L1 and the L2 are, how often the second or foreign language is used, and so forth.
Depending on the reasons why the students want to learn a language, there are teaching priorities to be set in order to improve their pronunciation. Nowadays, not only native speakers make use of English. Indeed, this language is studied around the globe by both children and adults with the consequence that, through the decades, it has become a global language (cf. Crystal 2003). Consequently, many learners of English want to be able to use it as a lingua franca. A lingua franca, or “common language”, is any language used to communicate between people who do not share the first language (cf. Britannica). For example, if two girls, one from Italy (me) and the other from Bulgaria (my friend), speak in German to communicate, German is their lingua franca.
However, there are still students who aim to achieve a pronunciation like that of native speakers. In such a case – if the teacher sets the focus on teaching English as a lingua franca while the students wish to speak like a native speaker – they might lose the motivation to learn, and they will think that the teacher does not take into consideration the learners’ needs and wishes.
Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that – even if the pronunciation can be improved, through speaking activities for example – a native speaker level can never be fully achieved even if some learners may come very close (“near-native”). Cook (1999) explains that non-native speakers, by definition, can “never become native speakers without being reborn” (Cook 1999, 187). Besides, if the main purpose of learning a new language is to communicate (cf. Yule 2017, 21), the language spoken must only be intelligible – and to be understood, it is not necessary to have a (near-) British or (near-) American English pronunciation.2
Jenkins (2000) researched and developed the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) for those who do not wish to imitate the native speaker model, and also to counteract pronunciation problems (cf. Dauer 2005, 544). The LFC presents itself as a valid model and variety of English to teach and learn (cf. ibid.). The intention of the LFC is not to replace other varieties of English, but it is proposed as a starting-point, as another option for those who do not want or need to “imitate” a specific native accent (cf. ibid.).
The more your L1 differs from the L2 you want to learn, the more difficult it will be to learn it.3 As an example, the differences between English and Japanese will be examined, so I will point out which difficulties Japanese students may have in pronouncing English sounds.
Comparing the consonant sounds of both English and Japanese, the first differences become evident in Table 1 and Table 2 below. They show that there are more consonant sounds in the English language than in Japanese. Only the twelve distinct consonants /p/, /t/, /k/, /b/, /d/, /g/, /s/, /h/ /z/, /r/, /m/ and /n/ are present in both consonant systems.
These differences invite linguistic interference (“negative transfer”): In Japanese, the fricatives /f/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ do not exist. The affricatives /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ are also present only in the English consonant system. However, even if /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ are not part of the Japanese language, when /s/, /z/, /t/ and /d/ occur before /I/ and /ʊ/, they are articulated /ʃ/, /ʒ/ and /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ (cf. Ohata 1994, 13). For example, words like “sip”, “see” or “tease” become “ship”, “she” and “cheese” (cf. ibid.).
Even if Japanese has the liquid /r/, this does not correspond exactly to the English liquids and it is therefore problematic for Japanese speakers to reproduce /l/ and /r/ in English (cf. ibid., 14). Words like “light” and “arrive” might be perceived respectively as “right” and “alive” (cf. ibid.). Moreover, because of the fact that in Japanese the sound /v/ does not exist, this is replaced with the bilabial stop /b/, so that “very” may sound like “berry” (cf. ibid.).
Figure 1 and Figure 2 below show that – as in the case of the consonant sounds – English has more vowel sounds than Japanese (cf. Ohata 1994, 4). The Japanese language only features the high front /i/, the high back /u/, the mid-front /e/, the mid-back /o/ and the low central /a/.
Furthermore, English distinguishes between tense vowels, which are pronounced energetically, and lax vowels which are articulated with less breath force (cf. Skandera & Burleigh 2005, 37, 38). Japanese, however, does not make a distinction between lax and tense vowels, so that “sleep”, “taste” and “stewed” are pronounced “slip”, “test”, “stood” (cf. Ohata 1994, 5, 12).
Then, the vowel sounds /ʌ/ and /æ/ are also problematic and Japanese leaners may make no difference between, for example, “hut” and “hat” (ibid., 13). In the following, the vowel systems of English and Japanese are represented respectively (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 ):
Another area in which Japanese speakers may have pronunciation difficulties is represented by the English consonant clusters. While English allows both open syllables (CV [ConsonantVowel]) and closed syllables (e.g. CVC, CCVC, CCCVCC), in the Japanese language only open syllables (e.g. CVCVCV) are allowed, so that each consonant must be followed by a vowel (cf. Ohata 1994, 7, 8). The consonant clusters are therefore usually unconsciously avoided by Japanese speakers by placing a vowel between the consonants of the cluster (cf. ibid., 14, 15).
Also, English and Russian, for example, are stress-timed languages, but Japanese and other languages such as French and Spanish are syllable-timed languages (cf. Skandera & Burleigh 2005, 87, 88; Ohata 1994, 15). In stress-timed languages, the time needed to say something depends on the number of syllables that receive the stress. In syllable-timed languages, the time it takes to say something depends on the number of syllables present in the sentence. Moreover, in English, stressed syllables are produced by pronouncing vowel sounds louder and longer (cf. Ohata 1994, 10). In Japanese, syllable stress is pronounced with pitch variation (cf. ibid.).
Finally, Japanese allows less pitch variation than English (cf. ibid., 11). So when a Japanese speaker wants to say something as a statement, this can be interpreted as a question (cf. ibid., 16).
In conclusion it can be said that English is mostly spoken by non-native speakers who use it especially as a lingua franca (cf. Jenkins 1998, 119). Those learners usually have no interest in becoming part of the L2 culture, nor in achieving a pronunciation like that of the native speakers.
Moreover, the more the L1 differs from the L2, the more difficult it will be to improve one’s pronunciation. Every speaker with an L1 that is not English has different difficulties in pronouncing English words and sentences, in particular in reproducing sounds that do not exist in their first language, as I demonstrated by the example of the differences between Japanese and English.
Furthermore, Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core (LFC) (cf. Jenkins 1998) represents a valid option for those who – for whichever reasons – do not want to refer to a specific model. In fact, “if learners are enrolled in a class with the intent to learn English for international communication, traditional [native speaker] norms for pronunciation may be less relevant, as the goal is to quickly reach communicative competence rather than to mimic a [native speaker] accent” (Davis 2012, 9).
It is absolutely legitimate to want to aspire to a native-speaker accent. However, why should non-native speakers want to learn a standard variety like RP (BE) which is not even spoken by the majority of them but only by a maximum of 3-4 percent (cf. Skandera & Burleigh 2005, 6)?
Text by F. Diligu
1 The fact that English became the most widely spoken language in the world over centuries of colonialism and imperialism lies beneath the notion of the (superior) “native speaker model”. This notion has been decolonised by “World Englishes” models over the last decades, notably by Schneider, Strevens, Goerlach, McArthur, Modiano, and Ayto, and we will examine what this means for teachers of English in one of the next posts in this series, “Global English(es)”. For an easy start, you could listen to David Crystal on utube: “Which English?” (2009).
2 When I started working with partners in Lao P.D.R., the teachers who had learnt (some) English said that it was easy to understand me, but that they had trouble understanding the English of the native speakers who travelled or worked in the country (mostly Australians and Americans). My own accent was modelled on British English when I started learning the language at the age of 10, and I did like the sound of this variety. When I got my first teaching post at university, I taught “Pronunciation” and “Corrective Phonetics” classes amongst others, and I started speaking even more clearly, distinctly, and somewhat more slowly: “Teacherese”. After a while, native speakers I met abroad kept saying that they could not “place” me, or tell from my accent “where I was from” – and I was quite happy to remain in that non-space in between, especially so when I noticed in Laos that it helped communication.
3 As Lao and English are maximally different languages, English is most hard to learn for Lao people (cf. Martin, 2018). “English as a distant language”.
Table 1: English table of consonants according to place and manner of articulation (cf. Yule 2017, 33)
Table 2: Japanese table of consonants according to place and manner of articulation (cf. Ohata 1994, 6)
Figure 1: English RP (Received Pronunciation) of public domain from Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3329213
Figure 2: Standard Japanese vowel system vowel system of public domain from Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=180079
Cook, V. (1999). “Going beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching”. TESOL Quarterly (33/2), 185-209.
Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dauer, Rebecca M. (2005). The Lingua Franca Core: A New Model for Pronunciation Instruction?. TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3, 543-550.
Davis, Glenn M. (2012). The Implications of the Lingua Franca Core for Pronunciation in the Japanese ELT Context. OTB Forum, 5(1), 7-10.
Honey, J. (1991). Does accent matter?: the Pygmalion factor. London: Faber and Faber.
Jenkins, Jennifer (1998). Which pronunciation norms and models for English as an International Language?. ELT Journal, 52, 119-126.
Jenkins, Jennifer (2000). The phonology of English as an International Language: New Models, New Norms, New Goals. Oxford University Press.
Levis, J. M. (2015). “Learners´ view of social issues in pronunciation learning”. Journal of Academic Language & Learning (9/1), A42-A55.
Martin, I. (2018). “English as a ‘distant’ language.” Conference paper: Des langues étrangères pour tous: didactique et méthodologie. First international conference of the L’Association en didactique des langues étrangères en Suisse (ADLES). Lausanne, Switzerland, 6-7 September 2018 (article in preparation).
Ohata, K. (1994). “Phonological Differences between Japanese and English: Several Potentially Problematic Areas of Pronunciation for Japanese ESL/EFL Learners”. Asian EFL Journal, 1-19.
Skandera, P. & P. Burleigh (2005). A Manual of English Phonetics and Phonology. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.
Yule, G. (2017). The study of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Britannica. “Lingua franca”. https://www.britannica.com/topic/lingua-franca (last accessed 8 September 2021)
Crystal, D. (24 December 2009). “Which English? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XT04EO5RSU (last accessed 8 September 2021)
2 thoughts on ““Language Learning & Global Citizenship” (11) – Pronunciation issues for L2 speakers of English (by F. Diligu)”
This is useful for all English teachers. Thank you for sharing !
Thank you, Ms Phetsavanh! Feel free to share it with your learners and colleagues.