Pronunciation, as I knew from my first moment trying to awkwardly mouth the RP-centric picto-phonemes in New English File Intermediate, is about identity. And politics. Cursing the Queen and her English (which was much easier for an American than actually saying “bull” in RP), I fudged a mocking, piss-taking English accent during the coursebook’s “pron section” for a couple of terms before just ditching it all together.
It was only discovering the wonders of connected speech on my Delta Module 1 course a few years ago that I learned there was more to pron than just individual vowel sounds, and I waded back into the teaching of pronunciation.
But the further I drift from those heady days of theory, the easier I find it is to avoid explicitly focusing on it. So I was happy to discover, in my first trip to IATEFL, a number of talks on pron, including the much-touted “first ever pron plenary” by Jane Setter.
And while Setter’s plenary was informed, inspiring, encouraging (just “focus on focus” ― tonicity ― she urged, and you’ll produce measureable gains in students’ perception and production), and super feel-goody, I’d like to focus on a different pron talk by someone I’ll nominate for the unsung hero of the pron crowd, Gemma Archer.
Her talk dealt as seriously and instructively with pronunciation but situated it, at times implicitly and at times very explicitly, in the very real of context of a global ELT industry, a looming Brexit, and an uncertain Scottish future.
The other 97%
In her talk, “The other 97%: pronunciation strategies for non-RP-speaking teachers” (according to a much-cited number by David Crystal, 97% is the percentage of native non-RP speakers) Archer, a speaker of SSE (Standard Scottish English) took aim at the published materials bias toward RP, particularly in EAP.
She highlighted differences between RP and SSE pronunciation: among other things, the latter has shorter vowels and the rhotic /r/ ― as she stated in perfect deadpan, and to laughter and applause, “In SSE we simply pronounce the R wherever it appears” (well, duh, says this American).
I found her talk particularly interesting as it came a few slots after listening legend John Field stated in his presentation that the use of regional accents in listening materials aimed at lower level learners was “worrying”.
While I don’t doubt his expertise, who, I wondered, is Field’s imagined pool of learner-listeners? And where do they study? Clearly not where Archer, or fellow Scot Steve Brown, hails from and works, or where any number of other teachers, from elsewhere in the UK, Ireland or abroad ― i.e. the 97% ― come from.
That Harry Potter talk
Citing a survey she had done as well as anecdotal evidence from her own experience teaching pre-sessional EAP courses in Scotland, what Archer seemed to demonstrate so clearly was that “regional” or non-RP accents are perceived as “difficult” or “strange” precisely and only to those who’ve had no exposure to them ― which includes an unfortunately large number of the IELTS 6.5 pre-sessional students landing in her neck of the UK every term.
What she has worked at, and advocated for, and what I would back wholeheartedly, is the local development of resources that allow teachers to highlight, analyze, and teach their own local accents. (Not, of course, to the exclusion of all others, which means including RP.)
Rather, she encouraged the teaching of something called, if I got this correctly, “high variance phonemic instruction”, which exposes students to lots of variations of individual phonemes (e.g. the word bull, mentioned above, spoken by people with a number of different accents) early on. It doesn’t mean doing whole volumes of Robert Burns in A1, but it does means getting them used to the idea that all non-RP accents are not simply deviations from some otherwise monolithic norm.
File under: “I’m Scottish!”
I’m sure someone might object: but my coursebook has lots of regional accents! In fact, I too clearly remember that red-bearded cartoon in English File Elemetary File 1 belting out, in response to a question about his origins, “I’m Scottish!” And I’m sure the ELT industry is more sensitive to it (and realistic about it) than it used to be.
But as Archer teaches EAP in her own country and is much more sensitive to the lack of resources in, in this case, her own accent, I’m going to take her word for it. I long ago learned to pick out that one hammy American voice actor every publisher seems to call on for their series. What passes for variety to the outsider might be extremely limited to the one with ears to truly hear.
So if that’s fine for SSE Gemma, teaching in her native country, where does that leave us EFLers, trying to teach pronunciation abroad? First, as Archer said, there should be more training and support of learning about a teacher’s own individual accent.
That should be balanced with an understanding and recognition of what’s best in English as a lingua franca (ELF) contexts. (According to Jennifer Jenkins’s findings, which were referenced by Archer and summarized helpfully here on ELF Pronunciation, my ― and Gemma’s ― rhotic /r/ makes the grade, but my American flapped /t/ ― I say bedder for better ― doesn’t)
Which leaves us with the final question. If local training and materials are needed, who’s going to invest in it? More on that next time.