Why is Pronunciation the
Cinderella of Language Teaching?
By Enrique Rojas R.
Everyone in language education knows that the most neglected ability being imparted in learning institutions, and for many teachers the most difficult to attain, is that of teaching a tongue’s pronunciation. And this is particularly true in the case of teaching English as a foreign language. Not in vain, it is widely called “the Cinderella of English teaching.”
As it is known, English is not a phonetic language. Other linguists, like Professor Gertrude Hildreth will contend that it is so in a general sense but, at the same time, “it is inconsistent to a considerable degree.” (Hildreth) Professor Thurston Womack, in turn, argues that all languages, by definition, are phonetic, since “Phonetics pertains to speech sounds” and “all languages are composed of speech sounds. They cannot be languages otherwise” (Womack). The latter defines: “A language is an arbitrary system of vocal signals by means of which groups of human beings interact.” But he himself admits that this definition excludes writing, gesture, visual and auditory and tactile code systems.
The crux of the matter is that English spelling does not recognizably reflects the sounds of the English language and that makes it difficult to teach children, even native speakers, how to read, let alone speakers of other languages how to pronounce.
The way American children learn to read is based in teaching them to recognize recurring written words which have sounds they already are familiar with, pronounce well and enjoy using. These utterances must be identified within the framework of the total word, then “through a generalizing process the children learn to identify common recurring sounds in unfamiliar words met in reading.” (Hildreth). Thus, they learn to read the short i through common words such as winter, wings or win, whereas they become familiar with the long i via ride, slide and hide and so on.
Nevertheless, in Latin America and Spain alike, children are still trying to learn to read English syllabically, applying the only principles they know, those of their own language in which there is a one to one correspondence between phonemes and graphemes. Of course, Spanish does not present a 100% phonological spelling; such a thing probably does not exist in any language, but it is fairly close to that. Small wonder that these students’ pronunciation is very far from the language they are trying to learn; frequently it turns out unrecognizable to native speakers.
The problem is that the non-native English teachers also learned this way themselves and, therefore, undergo the same confusion. They do not feel confident about their own pronunciation, so they prefer to skip teaching it to their students. And the pernicious flaw perpetuates itself (Scrivener).
It might be claimed then that native speakers of English, whether British or Americans, or else, would be the best teachers, since they know how to pronounce correctly the words in English. But this is far from the truth because the fact of being native speakers of English does not qualify them to comprehend the phonological problems of speakers of other languages and which are the main glitches to be overcome.
It is curious to note that the same thing occurs in the opposite case, that of English speakers trying to learn Spanish. Ana Serradilla Castaño, a professor of Phonetics in Spanish to speakers of other languages in an American university in Madrid, complains of the little importance and dedication given to the studying of pronunciation. “They are unable to reproduce Spanish sounds,” she says referring to American students. She states that they thought they could speak Spanish because they did it in the safe context of the classroom, but in reality “they continue speaking English using Spanish words”. (Serradilla)
So, the only solution will be provided by teachers –whatever their origin-- who are better prepared and knowledgeable to cope with these situations. And the teaching of pronunciation should be intensified and begin with the first stages of foreign language learning.
What do you think? Is the teaching of pronunciation a burden for you too? How do you deal with it in your classes? Let us know, by leaving a post and sharing your valuable experience.
Hildreth, Gertrude. Some Misconceptions Concerning Phonics
National Council of Teachers of EnglishElementary English.Vol. 34, No. 6 (OCTOBER, 1957), pp. 386-388. Published by: Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41384636. Page Count: 3
Scrivener, Jim. 2011. Learning Teaching. The Essential Guide to English Language Teaching. London.
Womack, Thurston. Is English a phonetic language?. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41384636?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Graduated in Journalism at the PUCP, Peru, Enrique Rojas R. holds a MA in Journalism and MA in Inter American History from Southern Illinois University, USA; an MA in Literature from University of the Americas, Puebla, Mexico, all the coursework for a MA in TEFL at Universidad de Piura, Peru and BA in Education from Universidad Federico Villarreal. He has also obtained Certificates of Proficiency in English both from Cambridge University and the University of Michigan and the Diploma for EFL Teachers from Universidad del Pacifico. He is an Oral Examiner for the Cambridge University exams and has been awarded the title Expert in E-Learning from Asociacion Educativa del Mediterraneo and Universidad Marcelino Champagnat. He has worked as a professor in universities in Peru, Mexico and the United States; as a newscaster and a producer in radio and television stations in the United States and Mexico, and as a writer and editor in daily newspapers of the same countries. He has been in the staff of CIDUP for 17 years teaching English and Spanish specializing in International Exams, English for Business, ESP and Teacher Training. He is a member of the Research Area of Centro de Idiomas de la UP.