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Jenkins' ear

November 21, 2006

One day my sheep will come in

Hello again,

Somebody asked me recently what I thought was the most common cause of misunderstanding when non-native speakers use English. My reply was immediate: pronunciation. I think that was partly because I had in mind the possible seriousness ...

...of the consequences of a misunderstanding. Take, for example, the small pronunciation difference between numbers such as eighteen and eighty. In circumstances where numerical accuracy is crucial, an error in pronunciation such as this could literally make the difference between life and death. It was a feature I constantly stressed when teaching aerospace staff. But in reality most teachers groan with exasperation if they think about trying to help their students improve pronunciation.

Step in Jennifer Jenkins to the rescue. I am sure you are familiar with her work and I think it is the most realistic approach to pronunciation that has emerged so far. She recognised many key facts about English as an international language: that it is often a lingua franca among non-native speakers; that many learners are adults who apparently never manage to reproduce native-speaker pronunciation patterns and that the very definition of native speaker pronunciation is fraught with anomalies.

Her framework for teaching pronunciation looks at core features that will help non-native speakers achieve intelligibility and practical advice on the teachability of these features. Crucially, her approach means working in harmony with the student’s own pronunciation rather than against it. References for Jenkins are:

Jenkins, J. 1998. "Which pronunciation norms and models for English as an International Language?". ELT Journal 52.2. 119-26.

Jenkins, J. 1999. "Pronunciation in teacher education for English as an International Language". Speak Out! 24. 45-8.

Jenkins, J. 2000. "Accent across boundaries: the Lingua Franca Core". Paper read at the 33rd Annual Meeting of BAAL, 7-9 September 2000, Cambridge.

Jenkins,J. 2000. The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: OUP.

Jenkins, J. 2002. "A sociolinguistically based, empirically researched pronunciation syllabus for English as an International Language". Applied Linguistics 23.1. 83-103.

As a practical point, I think it is always important to demonstrate to learners just how important pronunciation is. Dictation is an excellent means of doing this. Diatcate to the group yourself, get them to dictate to each other, and use computerised dictations such as those available at: http://www.learnenglish.de/dictationpage.htm.

Remember too that English spelling is very confusing. To ensure learners see the difference between the spoken version of a word and its orthography, teach them the phonetic alphabet and always show them that version before they see the spelling of a new word. Good luck!

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