Supporting English Learners' Development of Intelligible Speech: A Focus on the K-12 ESL Context

Supporting English Learners' Development of Intelligible Speech: A Focus on the K-12 ESL Context

Solange Lopes Murphy (The College of New Jersey, USA), Timothy M. Hall (The College of New Jersey, USA) and Angelica Lina Vanderbilt (The College of New Jersey, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8467-4.ch016

Abstract

In this chapter, the authors discuss how ESL and general education teachers can judiciously infuse intelligibility-based pronunciation teaching into content-based classrooms. First, within a broad understanding of second language development, they identify various sources of English Language Learners' pronunciation problems, and a rationale for why pronunciation teaching should aim for intelligibility rather than for nativeness. They then present the major pronunciation challenges of the five largest language groups in American schools and offer intelligibility-focused teaching practices to stimulate discussion and evolve teacher practice in harmony with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The chapter closes with exercises to further explore implementation of pronunciation teaching practices for ELs' language and academic development.
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Linguistic Perspectives On Pronunciation And Intelligibility

Schools across the United States are tasked with serving growing populations of English language learners (ELLs). One specific area of concern is how to help ELLs be more readily understood and adept at speaking. Historically, there has been a focus on pronunciation, one’s command of second language (L2) phonology, as a means to make learners more intelligible. Relevant methodologies in the service of pronunciation development have, in some cases, been characterized by an interest in how first language pronunciation predicts learner difficulty in a second language, how rote-like drills can be used for remediation, and how expectations of predictable and delineated outcomes can be met. Other methodologies profess that a copious amount of communicative language practice is sufficient to make learners more intelligible. However, the understanding shared by applied linguists and teacher educators working in the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) has evolved markedly in recent decades. The essence of our current understanding is that attention to language forms, in this case the phonological system, is helpful, but it should not be divested from the meanings those forms are meant to communicate (Ellis & Shintani, 2014). The understanding we also derive from the field of SLA is that although susceptible to some pedagogical manipulation, the language learning process in general, and by extension the acquisition of intelligible speech, is not always amenable to the ambitious learning timelines to which K-12 institutions and educators strive. Therefore, educators would do well to temper their expectations accordingly and perhaps to set alternative, realizable goals. We address pedagogically motivated concerns about pronunciation development in this chapter by starting with two basic questions: What constitutes a pronunciation problem? and What causes and perpetuates pronunciation problems? We then settle on the centrality of intelligibility as a guiding principle for teaching practice. Next, we consider pronunciation difficulties that various language groups have when learning English, and we propose intelligibility-oriented solutions for working teachers.

What Constitutes a Pronunciation Problem?

A pronunciation problem might best be understood as some facet of a second language learner’s speech that impedes comprehension on the part of a more proficient listener. It is true that speakers around the world perceive varieties of English other than their own to be accented, which can at times pose difficulties for comprehension. A rural South Carolinian speaking to an urban Glaswegian may be one such example. However, both are native speakers of English and if they fail to comprehend each other, their difficulties hardly constitute a pronunciation problem. In fact, due to the sheer variety of world Englishes (inner circle varieties, outer circle varieties, and expanding circle varieties), we can safely say that there are likely to be more comprehension problems than pronunciation problems. And yet speakers of all types, native and non-native alike, manage to make themselves understood despite variations in pronunciation. Skillful communicators make adjustments to various dimensions of language and speech to compensate for and repair communication breakdowns.

Historically, with regards to second language learners, applied linguists working in SLA have distinguished between linguistic errors and mistakes (Corder, 1967), both of which could precipitate a breakdown in communication, and both were eschewed by educators as barriers to accent-free speech. Errors were systematic deviations from the target-like norms of the second language, whereas mistakes were considered one-off lapses while producing language. As Corder put it, “[m]istakes are of no consequence to the process of language learning” (p.167). Errors, in Corder’s view, are significant because their systematicity indicates the current psycholinguistic rules by which learners operate in comprehending and producing language. And so, by this definition, a pronunciation problem “of interest” should be one that systematically appears in the learner’s language but somehow fails to serve in the best interests of the learner’s communication goals. Examples of errors might include a Japanese learner of English, substituting /l/ for /ɹ/ (e.g., lice vs. rice). Speakers of Vietnamese or Kayah Li might drop final syllables and consonant clusters at the ends of words. In these cases, the error can cause the listener to fail to comprehend. In sum, systematicity and comprehensibility are central to our notion of “problem”.

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