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Using Free Internet Resources to Self-Teach Pronunciation
by Kate Dobson

In the realm of teaching English for academic purposes (EAP), pronunciation is often not part of the curriculum, or perhaps it is only marginally touched upon. This underrepresentation may reflect the capacity of a given EAP program, or it may indicate lack of demand from students.

Without a course to recommend to a student, and strapped on resources and time (as many of us are), what guidance can an English as a second or foreign language teacher give to his or her students who are interested in improving their pronunciation, or who may benefit from such instruction? One possible solution is to look to the recent crop of free language-learning Web sites as an impetus for self-directed study.

Today’s Research: What Matters in Pronunciation Instruction
In trying to revive pronunciation instruction in the teaching of English, it is important to consider which aspects of pronunciation are important to impart to our students. Though many learners may equate pronunciation with accent, accent is only one aspect of pronunciation – and not the most important.

Accent and Intelligibility
Instead of accent, many researchers point to intelligibility, or “the extent to which a speaker’s message is actually understood by a listener,” as the crux of teaching pronunciation (Munro & Derwing, 1999, p. 289). Suprasegmental features of pronunciation, such as prosody (intonation and patterns of stress), are crucial to achieving intelligibility (Celce-Murcia et al., 1996, p. 10).

Yet today’s predominant pronunciation instruction models, including accent reduction courses, focus on the correction of segmental errors, or errors in the individual sounds of a language (Celce-Murcia et al., 1996, p. 10). Most accent reduction instruction has not been informed by research in ESL pedagogy and is instead based on models from the field of speech pathology, in which the focus lies on segmental features (Derwing, 2003).

Many researchers and TESOL professionals believe that accent reduction is useless at best, and exploitative at worst. But because English language learners may report discrimination due to their accents (see Munro & Derwing, 1999), accent reduction courses will likely continue to prosper, despite their lacking a sound theoretical backbone. In addition, learners themselves frequently believe that correcting segmental errors is the most important factor in improving their pronunciation. In Derwing’s (2003) exploration of how English language learners view their accents, she reported that “many of these ESL students have no idea what their own pronunciation problems might be. Furthermore, most of those who could identify a problem named one or two individual sounds, some of which are unlikely to have a significant impact on intelligibility” (p. 559). Thus, perhaps a first step of implementing effective pronunciation instruction is to expose learners to the current research, which flouts the perception that segmental error correction is of utmost importance in improving pronunciation.

Using Computer Programs to Improve Pronunciation
For learners who want to improve their pronunciation in speaking English through independent study, there are scores of computer-assisted language-learning programs that focus on accent reduction through correcting segmental errors. Yet, given the current research that segmental error correction is not the most ideal way to improve pronunciation, learners and teachers may want to consider other pedagogical options.

Language Learning Through Social Networking
Though not a panacea, a recent crop of specialized social networking sites may be a valuable tool in the endeavor of self-taught pronunciation. Web sites such as www.livemocha.com, www.busuu.com, www.italki.com, andwww.languageexchange.org are described as online language-learning communities. Though each site is slightly different (some offer limited free grammar and vocabulary language lessons, and others offer more extensive lessons for a fee), each has as its central goal connecting users for language learning through authentic communication. Some of the sites (such as www.livemocha.com) offer a peer review feature in which learners may submit their recorded utterances in the target language for native speakers’ feedback. This feature, of course, invites nonprofessional language teachers to provide feedback, which may arguably do more harm than good. This is not, however, the most salient feature of these Web sites in terms of pronunciation learning and practice.

Learning Pronunciation Through Online Chat Interaction
Of more importance is the social networking aspect of these sites; each site promotes a conversation partner model in which subscribers communicate with one another by text, audio chat, and even video chat in some cases. The fact that learners’ interaction with one another is central to these Web sites is essential for learning to take place. As Seferoğlu (2005) warned, “Whilst practising individual sounds and suprasegmental features in structured drills through pronunciation software may be helpful, pronunciation taught in isolation may not carry over to improved pronunciation in actual communication” (p. 314). Thus, it is important that students apply their pronunciation practice to situations of real-time interaction. And as language learners worldwide use these sites, an English language learner may end up using English as a lingua franca with some of the nonnative English-speaking users of these sites. In these cases, learners may find it easier to focus on intelligibility instead of accent as their interlocutors may also have accents.

In addition, in studies of language learning and technology (such as Belz, 2007), learners’ motivation is found to increase when they have international electronic pen pals with whom they can communicate authentically for meaningful purposes.

The Teacher’s Role
Though this tool may be more ideal for a motivated, independent learner, a teacher with some flexibility in his or her curriculum could design an assignment around one of these online communities to raise awareness of the important factors in English pronunciation. For example, after introducing the suprasegmental features of English language pronunciation, the learners could be directed to find an online conversation partner and listen for patterns of stress and intonation in his or her speech.

As with any endeavor involving social networking, these sites come with some caveats. First, learners must use caution in choosing conversation partners. These sites do not have a screening function to keep out users with less than desirable intentions. Second, even users who have joined the site for its intended purpose of language learning through interaction may not end up being the most dependable conversation partners: Without the accountability of receiving a grade for their participation, they may cease communications if something else in their lives takes priority over the regularly scheduled language-learning chat. This would leave the English language learner constantly searching for a new partner, which may negatively affect his or her motivation.

Final Thoughts
Although language-learning social networking sites are not the answer to perfecting all students’ pronunciation, they may indeed serve as a useful tool for some learners whose aims are to improve their intelligibility. These sites are free and easy to navigate, and may be used by a learner in an independent study of English language pronunciation, or given by a teacher as a class assignment.

The popularity of these sites is fairly recent, and so much research is still needed for informed pedagogical application. Yet, with our interconnectedness and the ever-increasing advances in technology, the practice of language-learning social networking is likely not going anywhere soon and thus is a development for all language teachers to keep an eye on.

References

Belz, J. (2007). The development of intercultural communicative competence in telecollaborative partnerships. In R. O’Dowd (Ed.), Online intercultural exchange: An introduction for foreign language teachers (pp. 127-166). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., & Goodwin, J. M. (1996). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Derwing, T. M. (2003). What do ESL students say about their accents? Canadian Modern Language Review, 59, 547-566.

Munro, M. J., & Derwing, T. M. (1999). Foreign accent, comprehensibility, and intelligibility in the speech of second language learners. Language Learning, 49,285-310.

Seferoğlu, G. (2005). Improving students’ pronunciation through accent reduction software. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36, 303-316.

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This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of As We Speak…/aez wiy spiky/, the Speech, Pronunciation, and Listening Interest Section newsletter of TESOL International Association.

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Kate Dobson has taught English in Guadeloupe, French West Indies, and has worked with immigrants and refugees in community-based ESL contexts in the United States. She is an MA student in English with a TESOL concentration at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and serves as a research assistant at the Indiana Center for Intercultural Communication.


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