Nine research facts about L2 phonology teaching and learning that every teacher should know

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1. Introduction

In the last three weeks I have been researching L2 phonology acquisition as the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills is one of my performance management targets for this year. This post, written in collaboration with Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net and Dylan Viñales of Garden International School, is a ‘prequel’ to a longer and more exhaustive article I will publish in a few days in which I will lay out the approach to phonology instruction I undertake in my lessons. Here I will concern myself with nine research facts about the acquisition and teaching of L2 pronunciation and decoding skills that every modern language teacher should know and that should constitute the starting point for any teaching approach to L2-phonology instruction. Here they are:

2. Pronunciation and decoding are the most neglected skills in Modern Language classrooms

As Elliott (1995) points out, Foreign Language Instruction does not concern itself with pronunciation and decoding skills as much as it does with listening, speaking, reading, writing and grammar. Whereas there is some focus on the L2 sound system during the first stages of instruction, especially when the L2 alphabet is introduced, teachers rarely continue to duly emphasize pronunciation for the rest of the course. It has to be added that often teachers think they are teaching pronunciation whilst they are actually mostly focusing on teaching decoding skills. Not the same thing.

Decoding-skill instruction is about teaching students how to convert the written form of the L2 into sound, that is to say how letters, when combined together, should sound in the target language; Pronunciation, on the other hand, is about learning how to accurately master the L2 Phonological system in any oral production. Whereas teachers do occasionally provide some instruction and practice in decoding skills, they rarely give their students information about subtleties in L2 pronunciation, e.g. the differences between the plosive English /t:/ and the non-plosive Spanish /t/ allophones of the letter ‘t’ (i.e. two different phonemes associated with the same letter). When they do, it is usually on a sporadic, ad-hoc and a-systematic basis; recycling of that information is rare Elliott (1995).

As Forman (1993) pointed out, one of the reasons for this neglect is that teachers do not receive sufficient training in pronunciation teaching. We may add that most modern language teachers in the UK were not formally taught the L2 phonology system in their undergraduates years and, although they often do have near-native or even native pronunciation they do not have explicit knowledge of how different sounds are produced and of the relevant metalanguage (e.g. what kind of sounds the labels ‘affricate’, ‘fricative’, ‘occlusive’, ‘plosive’ refer to).

Implications for teaching – (1) If teachers do not emphasize pronunciation from the very early stages of instruction and sustain this emphasis throughout the course, students will not see it as important and consequently may not develop intentionality (the desire to learn) vis-à-vis this aspect of their L2 learning. This is important in view of findings by Suter (1976), Elliott (1995) and other studies that found that if students are more concerned about their pronunciation they tend to have better pronunciation of the target allophones. In particular, Elliott (1995) found that university students’ attitude towards acquiring near-native or near-native pronunciation was the principal variable in relation to target language pronunciation. (2) Pre-service UK teachers should be trained in the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills and should be provided with a good understanding of the differences between their L1 and L2/L3’s sound systems.

3. L2 learner levels of Integrative motivation can affect the acquisition of pronunciation

As a university lecturer at Reading University – many years ago – I was always surprised by the huge differences in terms of pronunciation between L2-Italian students who came back to England after spending a whole year abroad, in Italy. Some had near-native pronunciation whilst others still retained a strong British accent. After investigating this phenomenon, I found that those who had the best pronunciation had fully embraced the Italian culture and tried hard to integrate both psychologically and socially with the natives – they displayed, in other words, what Gardner and Lambert (1959) call integrative motivation. The less Italian-sounding students, on the other hand, had made much less effort; yes they had enjoyed Italy and liked the language but had been less open and proactive in terms of integration. My ‘findings’ echo those of many theorists and research studies (e.g. Schumann’s,1986, Sparks and Glachow,1991) who posit that a positive orientation towards the target language/culture is an important factor in developing native-like pronunciation

Implications for teaching – getting the students to develop a positive orientation towards the target language and culture is paramount. It is obvious that a student with a dislike for the French civilization will not want to sound French. This is a further reason to aim at heightening cultural empathy for and appreciation of the target language culture(s) in the L2 classroom. Moreover, ways must be found to get students to practise the language orally with target language native speakers outside the classroom. Considering that social media is our teenage students’ most common past time these days this should not be an impossible task.

4. Age as a catalyst or inhibitor of acquisition of pronunciation

It has been posited by some researchers that there is a critical age beyond which it is impossible to acquire native-like pronunciation. A study of Korean children aged between 5 and 10 adopted by French families (Pallier et al., 2003) indicates that at least until the age of ten humans can still acquire 100 % native pronunciation. However, studies by Bialystock (1997), Bongaert et al (1997) and others have demonstrated that this can be achieved with adult L2 learners, too.

It should be pointed out that the commonly held assumption that simply learning a language as a child will lead to the acquisition of perfect L2 pronunciation is only true of naturalistic acquisition, i.e. of acquisition in a second language context in which the child has masses of exposure to the target language (e.g. a child of immigrants/expatriates acquiring the host country’s language or a non-English native speaker in an English medium international school). However, a five-year-old attending two L2-Mandarin lessons a week will not necessarily develop native-like Mandarin pronunciation just because of their age – in fact, in my experience more than often they do not. Frequency of exposure and other factors (e.g. motivation and aptitude) will play an important role, too.

Implications for teaching – language teachers should not be put off by the misconception that beyond puberty L2 learners cannot acquire native-like pronunciation.

5. L2 sounds are interpreted by the brain using the L1 phonological system

For several decades, language instructors were told by theorists working in the Nativist paradigm (e.g. Stephen Krashen) that there was no need to explicitly teach the target language phonology as students would acquire it naturally by simply being exposed to aural input, very much as children learn the mother tongue by listening to caregivers. The proponents of Communicative Language Teaching have a slightly more positive attitude to the teaching of pronunciation. However, because CLT’s main aim is intelligibility of student oral output, not accurate L2 pronunciation, CLT instruction does not greatly emphasize the teaching of pronunciation either. This is why on your teacher training course you were probably not taught how to teach pronunciation and decoding skills.

The assumption that L2 students will ‘pick up’ accurate L2 pronunciation through frequent aural exposure to the language – like children do in the first language – is very intuitively appealing: if you listen to L2 speakers over and over again, day-in day-out you will eventually get a perfect or at least very good pronunciation.  Yet – as much research has shown – this assumption is flawed. Why?

The reason is that the average human brain, unlike what happens in first language acquisition, automatically uses the existing L1 phonological system to interpret any L2 input it hears. In other words, we match any foreign language sound we hear to the most similar L1 sound stored in our Long-term memory. So, for example, an Italian student of English will automatically hear [t] or [f] instead of [θ] whenever s/he hears the first two letters in the word ‘thirsty’; a French native speaker, on the other hand, will hear [s].

What is interesting is that this perceptual mismatch influenced by the native language occurs even though the sound the student hears does actually exist in their mother tongue but is marked by another more frequent similar sound. For instance, the way the ‘n’ in ‘canyon’ is pronounced in English is marked by the more frequent way ‘n’ is pronounced in the same language (e.g. in the word ‘name’). This means that when an English native is taught to pronounce the Italian ‘gn’ sound – very similar to the way the ‘n’ sounds in ‘canyon’ – they will inevitably pronounce it as ‘n’.

Implications for teaching – This automatic response of the brain to foreign language aural input has huge implications:

(1) if we do not raise students’ awareness of the perceptual mismatch which occurs in the Working Memory from the very early days of instruction, they might – as it often happens – end up automatizing a highly L1-influenced L2-pronunciation.

(2) Whether by using a deductive or an inductive approach, it is paramount to raise L2 learner awareness of the differences between the L1 and L2 phonemes the students perceive as identical. I found visual aids very useful in this regard. In teaching the difference between the way ‘T’s are pronounced in French and in English for instance showing through a diagram where the tongue hits the tooth has helped many cohorts of my students to greatly improve their pronunciation of those sounds.

(3) If teachers do know the sound system of their students’ native language, they will be able to anticipate the barriers to accurate L2 pronunciation that L1 transfer erects and plan their teaching accordingly. A perfectly bilingual teacher with native/near-native pronunciation in both their students’ L1 and the target language will have a greater advantage, in this respect, over a teacher with monolingual mastery.

(4) Frequency of exposure and practice in L2 pronunciation and decoding is pivotal. Better a few minutes every day than one or two pronunciation lessons a month.

6. Accurate acquisition of L2 phonology leads not only to more effective listening skills but also to better vocabulary and grammar acquisition

A number of studies have systematically evidenced the fact that L2 learners who have successfully acquired L2 phonology usually have a better mastery of L2 vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Why? Because they are more likely to pick up from aural comprehensible input grammatical features that L2 learners with a less developed grasp of the L2 phonology may not be able to notice. An example: imagine an L2 learner of French who knows that ‘ts’ at the end of French words is usually silent wherear ‘-tes’ is pronounced ‘t’. On hearing the sentence ‘les grenouilles sont marrantes’ (frogs are funny) this learner will understand from the pronunciation that frog is a feminine noun. On the other hand, a student who pronounces ‘marrants (masculine plural) and ‘marrantes’ (feminine plural) the same way, as many L1 English learners of L2 French do, will never pick up on that.

Implications for teaching – In teaching pronunciation and decoding skills teachers ought to prioritize those sounds that may enhance or hinder students’ noticing and understanding of key grammar features (e.g. ‘e’ versus ‘é’ or verb/noun/adjectival endings in French).

7.L2 graphemes automatically activate L1 phonemes in the L2-learner working memory

Whenever a beginner L2 learner who has not as yet mastered the L2 phonological system is asked to pronounce a new L2 word, they will tend to automatically decode it (i.e. transform the letters into sounds) using their native language decoding system – unless other mechanisms (e.g. overcompensation) set in. For instance, an Italian beginner learner of English is very likely to wrongly pronounce the consonant cluster ‘gn’ as an English native speaker would pronounce ‘n’ in the word ‘canyon’.

What is interesting is that many L1 learners, when reading silently, report often repeating the words in their phonemic form ‘in their heads’ (sub-vocalizing), especially when they struggle with the meaning of a text. This entails the risk of L1 learners learning the wrong pronunciation even as they read silently.

Implications for teaching

The above has important implications for teaching. Firstly, this is another important argument in favour of teaching pronunciation and decoding skills explicitly from day one. Secondly, exposure to L2 words in their written form ought to be avoided as much as possible with beginner learners. When new lexical items are indeed presented, they should first be presented through visual aids or gestures; their written form should be provided only after much exposure / practice with their phonemic form.

Another important implication of this phenomenon refers to the frequent use of word-lists and writing mats by many modern language teachers. Unless the students have mastered the L2 decoding system this practice is likely to be very detrimental to their learning as the chance of them mispronouncing the words on those lists/mats will be high. This is particularly the case when the target words have not been selected according to easy-decodability criteria – as it is often the case in textbooks. Hence, teachers should endeavour to use wordlists – with beginners – that are pitched to the right level in terms of ease of pronunciation. When selecting or creating word lists for use, they should model extensively the pronunciation of the words the mats contain through lots of aural activities aimed at raising learner awareness of the pronunciation of the more difficult items.

8. U-shaped developmental curve of phonology acquisition

As it is obvious, frequency of exposure is more likely to result in better acquisition. What several studies have shown, however, is that a U-shaped developmental curve can be observed when students are being taught pronunciation across a range of L2 phonemes. During the first four weeks of instruction there is usually a marked improvement. In the three or four weeks thereafter the L2 learner seems to make more pronunciation errors due to cognitive overload; after this phase, which lasts three or four weeks, accuracy in production appears to be on the rise again.

Implications for teaching – when imparting pronunciation instruction, teachers must be mindful of the transitional phase observed by research. It is a necessary step the human brain takes in which through trial and error the learner refines their grasp of the target language phonology. Hence, teachers should not feel discouraged and give up on pronunciation instruction; instead, they should double their cognitive and affective support to the students and provide masses of constructive feedback through critical listening (whether by themselves or peers) and remedial strategies (e.g. metacognitive listening) which help restructuring.

9. Effective decoding skills and pronunciation play an important role in L2 reading comprehension

A substantial body of research evidence (e.g. Walter, 2008) has demonstrated that poor L2 readers do not often comprehend L2 texts not simply due to lack of grammar or vocabulary knowledge but because of poor decoding skills and issues with the phonological representation of what they read in their Working Memory (in the Articulatory/Phonological Loop to be more precise). The reasons for this are too complicated and beyond the scope of this post. It will suffice to say that they refer to the obstacles to Working Memory processing efficiency that bad decoding skills pose and which, in turn, hinder comprehension. If you do want to know more about this, read Catherine Walter’s fascinating article ‘ Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra’ (at https://www.academia.edu/1125848/Phonology_in_second_language_reading_not_an_optional_extra ).

Implications for teaching – When confronted with poor L2-reader students teachers often provide them with extra reading practice or focus on widening their vocabulary repertoire. This may not be sufficient; they may want to also focus on enhancing their decoding skills and, in particular on their ability to discriminate between L2 sounds that they confuse – due most often to L1 transfer. For instance, Walter (2008) reports findings from Flege and Mckay (2004) that many Italian immigrants who had been residing in Canada for many years still had problems discriminating aurally between the English sounds /ɑ / and /ʌ/ and between /æ/ and /e / (a very common problems amongst L1 Italian learners of English). This hindered their reading comprehension.

10. The temporariness of phonological storage in Working Memory

A fairly recent acquisition of neuroscience is that Working Memory’s phonological storage does not last more than a few seconds (some say two!) unless, that is, we make a conscious effort through rehearsal (repetition) to keep items in there. This limited storage time has important implications given that memory is phonologically mediated (i.e. when we retrieve L2 words from Long-Term memory we do so through their sound); it means that when we hear the words ‘cats’ and ‘cuts’ and we are not clear as to the difference between /ɑ / and /ʌ/ we do not have much time to decide which one we are actually hearing, unless we have automatized the ability to discriminate between those two sounds. Imagine this kind of scenario happening to one of our students during a high stake listening examination… it would cause confusion, slow down the whole process and, should the ambiguous word be crucial to the understanding of the text, it may seriously undermine their performance.

Implications for teaching: Same as per point 9.

11. There is no link between musical ability and pronunciation ability – Researchers have often attempted to evidence a link between the two and have systematically failed to find one. In fact, they have identified a lot of people who have one of these ‘talents’ but not the other.

Implications for teaching – Do not presume that the musical prodigies in your language classes are being failed by you if they do not exhibit excellent pronunciation. In the past, teachers I have worked with were so baffled by the fact that musically-talented students in their classes were not pronouncing words correctly because of this commonly held misconception. No need to be baffled – the two skills are not necessarily related.

12. Concluding remarks

Pronunciation and decoding skills are the most neglected aspect of L2 instruction in secondary school settings nowadays. This is because the trending language teaching methodologies either posit that L2 phonology is acquired subconsciously exactly as happens in L1 acquisition or concern themselves with intelligible communication – hence, accent does not matter as far as a sympathetic native speaker would understand what the student is trying to convey. However, the level of mastery of L2 phonology can seriously impact the acquisition of L2 grammar, syntax and vocabulary and can affect L2 reading and listening comprehension. In particular, the inability to clearly discriminate between similar-sounding L2 phonemes can slow down the processing of aural and written L2 input with potentially disastrous consequences for L2 learning and performance. Hence, it is imperative that Modern Language curricula lay more emphasis on the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills. At Garden International School, Dylan Vinales and myself are currently experimenting with pronunciation and decoding-skill instruction through various approaches and techniques which I will describe in the sequel to this post (to be published over the next few days).

You can find more on this topic in my book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ , co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com

23 thoughts on “Nine research facts about L2 phonology teaching and learning that every teacher should know

  1. Thank you Dr. Conti for this incredible and insightful article!!!!! I am a high school teacher of Spanish in the U.S. I have a master’s degree in Spanish linguistics where I studied phonology, As a native speaker of Spanish, I have always strived to teach my students correct pronunciation and require my students to come converse with me outside of class time (as a grade) so that I can have a one-to-one conversation to work on those sounds that separate a native from a non native. I am always, of course, the bad teacher, the hard teacher, etc for requiring that. In fact, I am currently working on my National Board re-certification and I am showcasing how exactly I do that. I’ve been told that I may not pass it because “that is not a lesson” when in fact is the best lesson of all!!!! I am truly thankful I got to read this article today!!!!!! Looking forward to your other publications!

  2. Hi Gianfranco,

    I agree that pronunciation is a neglected aspect of language teaching and learning but I disagree that it should be linked to decoding. “Decoding” assumes that the learners first contact with a new word is via a heard or written model. But we do not speak with our ears or eyes, we speak with our vocal tracts: mouth, larynx, lungs, abdomen… These are used differently in different languages. The articulatory approach suggests students should begin by learning the articulatory settings required by the target language as a motor skill. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_approach_for_teaching_pronunciation for a longer description and links to references.

    There also happens to be an Electronic Village Online (EVO) 2016 (http://evosessions.pbworks.com/w/page/10708567/FrontPage) free, 5-week session running at the moment: Teaching Pronunciation Differently (http://teachingpronunciationdifferently.pbworks.com/w/page/87858775/Teaching%20Pronunciation%20Differently%20-%20Home).

    Cheers,
    Glenys

  3. Very interesting indeed and I agree wholeheartedly with all 12 points. Currently, I teach French to primary age children and could not imagine a lesson without some explicit teaching of the sounds of the language and the letter connections. A colleague and I have devised a method of teaching the sounds of French using a kinaesthetic approach which have proved to be very effective both for children and the linguistic up-skilling of primary teachers. It is called ‘Physical French Phonics’ http://www.physicalfrenchphonics.co.uk

    • I’ve been writing French resources in the UK for over 30 years now, and it’s been an uphill struggle to include a modicum of work on pronunciation and intonation in printed resources, believe you me!

      The fact that it can be key to comprehension escaped many teachers – and publishers, who it must be said respond to teachers’ wishes – for a very long time it seems.
      I remember managing to squeeze something in the French Experience (published for adults beginners by the BBC in 1994) but it had to remain tokenistic, as it still is the case in many resources, even at primary level although that would be the ideal place to get the pronunciation in place, before inhibitions and whatnots kick in.
      I spend quite a few sessions with my private tutees (GCSE, A level) explaining about the importance of producing and recognising individual sounds, even when very close (like é and ai) not pronouncing the final consonants, making liaisons, etc etc. And then they realise that this awareness improves their listening by leaps and bounds.
      So thanks for putting this out there, Gianfranco!!
      Daniele Bourdais

  4. I spent much class time helping students produce sounds correctly either from the written form or from simply modeling after me those sounds which did not exist in the English language but did in German. Even at the University of Heidelberg, I was required to bring a mirror to class. The professor walked around the room and corrected us as needed by telling us to look into the mirror. She remained with us until it was correct. I taught my students to use the mirror at home if they struggled with certain sounds. I would sometimes listen to their attempts individually as they attempted to produce the u Umlaut (ü) sound for example. After listening to entire classes of 30, I could not spend extra time but advised them as homework to practice in front of the mirror. My Fulbright Exchange teachers told me that my students were well prepared. It takes extra effort to teach this way, but the benefits reaped are enormous! Thanks for the fine post.

  5. This article is pretty interesting. I’m working on the importance of having some training in L2 phonological system to have better teaching practices as well as improve and propose didactic strategies to help L2 students; since it is evident tnat the explicit knowledge for teachers is relevant particularly in exolingual contexts.

  6. I worked as co-ordinator of The Immersion Department at El Limonar International School in Muricia, South East Spain for many years and was very focussed on pronunciation at all times. However it always struck me as bizarre that despite the fact that these kids were exposed to native British English speakers intensively from the age of three, as soon as they got to secondary, after just one year with one American teacher, whose own accent wasn’t particularly strong, the entire school seemed to end up with an American lilt. People here tend to conclude it’s down to exposure to American movies, but if you ask, most of them tended to watch these things in Spanish voice-over versions. I am inclined to conclude that the Spanish accent naturally inclines itself towards and American sounding lilt. How important is it really, to have a ‘pure’ English accent, given that English no longer belongs to the English?

  7. Thank you for this article (and also – everyone else – for the interesting comments). I teach (and examine) EFL in Finland and one of the things I have been focusing on recently is pronunciation. My own teacher training (back in 1998-9) almost completely avoided any mention of phonology so I have invested considerable time and energy (and some money) in getting up to speed with phonetics, phonology and the related teaching methodologies.

    I find that both native and non-native teachers are resistant to teaching phonology but for different reasons. While native speakers, as you mention, simply lack the knowledge/awareness of their own phonological system, non-native teachers seem to lack confidence to teach it. Some teachers may feel that their students have better “accents” than themselves due, no doubt, to the influence of TV and the internet (nothing is dubbed in the Nordics). In Finland, most coursebooks (including the ones I have co-authored) use a simplified IPA that quite frankly makes me cringe. But I am told that, “The students can’t hear the difference.” That’s OK then…

    One issue that I am constantly at odds with, is “target pronunciation”. In any class (many of my classes are multicultural) there are students with different goals in terms of pronunciation. Nativeness is not always a goal. Some students are desperate to become intelligible and, as we know, nativeness does not necessarily equate with intelligibility! This is not so much an issue in the production of phonemes, especially consonant sounds but it becomes the elephant in the room when moving onto aspects of connected speech. Juncture, assimilation, elision… to teach or not to teach, that is the question. I feel that if I always put the onus on the student to decide how far he or she wishes to take their accent, I am just copping out! But I can’t insist on them sounding like…. me, or Sean Connery or Longman. Recommending non-native voice models (Javier Bardem, Yang Lan etc) produces mixed reactions.

    Looking forward to the follow-on article.

  8. Two points stick with me from this very interesting article. Firstly, the lack of language teacher’s declarative phonological knowledge as a constraint in supporting the best outcomes for their students.
    And, the importance for constructing grammatical knowledge through comprehensible aural input, because learners can accurately discriminate between L2 sounds, (an additional scaffold to learning).

  9. Fascinating article. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this. I have worked in a number of different contexts teaching ESL, EFL, working with children & adults in English-medium schools in former colonies in E. Africa. I have a couple of questions: 1) It seems that the phonological system of, for instance, many forms of Ugandan English are heavily influenced by Bantu languages, which have only 5 vowels. That and reduction of post-vocalic r leads to what seems to me a considerable difference between the spoken & written varieties of English. What do you think about encouraging teachers and students to at least recognise more of the vowels in English, and to hear r’s? Sometimes I feel like a cultural imperialist! 2) On a different subject entirely – do you think there are people who are essentially L2 “deaf”? I have a number of friends, usually a bit older, who seem not to be able to hear or reproduce many or even most of the sounds of a new language. ( One was a younger woman who, interestingly enough, had perfect pitch. She was almost completely unable to reproduce sounds in the TL that were even a little different from English.) I don’t mean to be discouraging to my friends and colleagues, but maybe for some L2 acquisition is going to be too great a struggle for them.

    If you have time for any comments, thanks!

    Greetings from Karamoja, Uganda – Martha Wright

    • Martha, I have also noticed that occasionally I have a student who cannot hear the differences between different sounds. For example (in Finland) some students cannot hear or reproduce /s/ /z/ or /p/ /b/ minimal pairs (which also leads to spelling errors in words like ‘prize’, ‘probably’ etc). Even with things like contrastive stress they cannot always hear the emphatic tone. Some students get quite frustrated, almost upset, that they can’t hear the sounds. I’ve found it useful to focus on physical effort (muscle movements, energy etc) to explain the sounds, which helps sometimes. But it is a total mystery to me why some students seem to be ‘deaf’ – even though in some cases they may be quite musical otherwise!

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