Two questions from teachers on the current Diploma programme at Oxford TEFL (click for info)

Q1 Is there room for diversity in terms of the idea of the ‘right ‘or ‘correct ‘pronunciation?

Q2 What if teachers, even having decided a pronunciation model to teach ( SSE, American, Australian,…), are not able to accurately produce all the sounds that this model embraces?

Thanks for this question and yes there is room for diversity, lots of it. Here are some thoughts. Please push against them and improve them and develop your own line on this and on how you want to work.

The most important first thing……

is this: I advise my trainee teachers to teach how they speak, ie with their own accent whether it is a native or non native variety. And to point that out to their students. At the same time I suggest they expose their learners to multiple varieties of accent from around the world, which is now an easy thing to do through media, films, youtube etc.

Be playful with pron …

I encourage learners to be playful with pron, through playing with accents. For example:

1.. I ask them to identify two people from their own language group, one who they feel speaks English well, and the other not so. Invite them playfully to imitate each in turn. On doing this they are already showing their own insights, and capacity to make small differences to pronunciation.

2.. I suggest they get their students to listen out for different English accents. In some cases perhaps there are two English teacheit how I say it” “And now say it like the other teacher says it….”

3.. At the very least I ask students in my class to say something more or less as I do (BrE), and then to change it to a form of American pronunciation (AmE) which most people have exposure to. It could equally be any other variety.

All of this helps people to be playful about pron, to see that they can change it, and that they have a choice over which accent they would like to develop. In the past there was a tendency to see RP as the only correct accent. That view is now on the way out, and RP is seen as only one of many varieties. Learners may have an idea what accent they want for themselves, but that does not mean the teacher has to have that variety too. You can still help your learners to have a different accent from your own! “Repeat after me” is not the only game in town

When playfulness walks in the door, everything changes…

The teachers job, as I said above, is 1) to expose sts to multiple accents through the course materials, movies, internet, students own contacts, etc 2) to do this in a way that is playful so that language being practised in class can be practised with at least two different accents, one being like the teacher, the other being an exaggeration of the local pronunciation, so that sts see that they can already to a degree switch between the two. Play a few sentences of the Queen, and invite learners to pick out and be playful with just a couple of words. Seriously, when playfulness walks in the door, everything changes. 3) invite sts to find personal heroes (sport, actors, musicians) who speak English and to listen to them on line and to learn just one phrase of theirs in that ‘hero’s’ accent…. And to offer it in class…. If your L1 is different from one or all of your sts, get them to teach you one word in their L1, maybe even how to say their name. And let them see you playing with the pron. Enjoy it. Suddenly pron becomes, doable, alive, fun!

Comfortable Intelligibility is the New Correct

You say “What if teachers, even having decided a pronunciation model to teach ( SSE, American, Australian,…), are not able to accurately produce all the sounds that this model embraces…”  Well, that’s fine. Point that out and say this is your accent, and that one is another accent. Get them to play with both. But personally I think the days of deciding on a pron model for your sts are over. The days of RP are also over, There is no Correct Pron model. Comfortable Intelligibility is the New Correct. And this can easily mean mixing accents, trying out others, and developing new personal versions, and examining them from the point of view of comfortable intelligibility. Use the course book pron, then close the book and try the same language with a different accent, …

Pron and accents afford wonderful opportunities for the teacher too to practice. The best teachers of pron are in my view those who are learning at the same time as their sts, so everyone is having fun together, on the same side of the learning fence. For more on Comfortable Intelligibility click here

OK, what about the chart? Does that not signify RP?

It might have done in the 1950’s. But what happens now? Me and my Glaswegian friend both look up the same word in the same dictionary to see how to say it. We both see the same phonemic symbols, and he says it his way and I say it my way. We both project our L1 ‘set’ onto the symbols. Find out what sound you attribute to the symbols, and then you start to hear how other accents do it differently.

When you teach your accent, the chart becomes a map of your own pron.

And if as you say in your question you are not able to accurately produce all the sounds that your model embraces, or that you want to embrace, then pitch in with your students and lead with your own learning while teaching pron. And as you develop your accent, then the chart develops with you. I hope this gives you some insights to develop, change, reject, push against.