Understanding and teaching pronunciation has been controversial in TESOL for many years. At one time, pronunciation was taught in a high bottom-up behavioristic manner. Students were drilled until they had the appropriate “accent” (American, British, Australian, etc.). To be understood meant capturing one of the established accents.
Now there is more of an emphasis on top-down features such as stress, tone, and rhythm. There is now an emphasis on being more non-directive and focus not on the sounds being generated by the student but the comprehensibility of what they say.
This post will explain several common factors that influence pronunciation. These common factors include
- Motivation & Attitude
- Age & Exposure
- Native language
- Natural ability
Motivation & Language Ego
For many people, it’s hard to get something done when they don’t care. Excellent pronunciation is often affected by motivation. If the student does not care they will probably not improve much. This is particularly true when the student reaches a level where people can understand them. Once they are comprehensible many students lose interests in further pronunciation development
Fortunately, a teacher can use various strategies to motivate students to focus on improving their pronunciation. Creating relevance is one way in which students intrinsic motivation can be developed.
Attitude is closely related to motivation. If the students have negative views of the target language and are worried that learning the target language is a cultural threat this will make language acquisition difficult. Students need to understand that language learning does involve learning of the culture of the target language.
Age & Exposure
Younger students, especially 1-12 years of age, have the best chance at developing native-like pronunciation. If the student is older they will almost always retain an “accent.” However, fluency and accuracy can achieve the same levels regards of the initial age at which language study began.
Exposure is closely related to age. The more authentic experiences that a student has with the language the better their pronunciation normally is. The quality of the exposure is the naturalness of the setting and the actual engagement of the student in hearing and interacting with the language.
For example, an ESL student who lives in America will probably have much more exposure to the actual use of English than someone in China. This, in turn, will impact their pronunciation.
The similarities between the mother tongue and the target language can influence pronunciation. For example, it is much easier to move from Spanish to English pronunciation than from Chinese to English.
For the teacher, understanding the sound system’s of your students’ languages can help a great deal in helping them with difficulties in pronunciation.
Lastly, some just get it while others don’t. Different students have varying ability to pick up the sounds of another language. A way around this is helping students to know their own strengths and weaknesses. This will allow them to develop strategies to improve.
Whatever your position on pronunciation. There are ways to improve your students’ pronunciation if you are familiar with what influences it. The examples in this post provided some basic insight into what affects this.