Pronunciation in Coursebooks

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My impression is that coverage of pronunciation in current coursebooks is usually imbalanced in favour of individual sounds, to the detriment of syllables, connected speech and discourse. This gives a slightly dated flavour to the pronunciation strand of the syllabus, as if course books are lagging behind what is nowadays perceived as best practice. Often we see individual sounds represented with their phonemic symbols, which may be a good investment in learner independence in the long run. But there is also a serious disadvantage: An emphasis on phonemic spellings obliges us to be over-exact. For example, phonemic spelling may oblige us to present the vowel sounds in door and poor as distinct. In my opinion, that degree of detail is much more than they need to know, especially when it comes at the cost of neglecting other much more important areas of pronunciation.

I think a lot of good pronunciation material has been sacrificed at the altar of authenticity. Material with a word-play flavour. Rhymes, chants, limericks, sketches and so on can neatly amplify features of pronunciation, making them more salient for the student. And giving them a memorable text to read aloud. But I feel that some adult course books project the image of a user who is far too grown up and sensible for language play. As if adults don’t do language play. But they do, as Guy Cook convincingly argues in his book Language Learning, Language Play (OUP). It may be that the retreat to the phoneme is in fact the flight from word-play.

Proponents of English as a Lingua Franca  point out that coursbooks oblige students to study material which is irrelevant to their needs. Many features of English phonology are likely to morph as the language becomes the property of the world rather than the property of its native speakers. I think coursebook writers should keep this in mind as they write, and avoid obviously arcane and parochial details such as the door – poor vowel distinction mentioned above.

On the question of relevance, there is also the obvious fact that many coursebooks are written for various different national markets. It may be appropriate to have a minimal pair task like best-vest in Spain, but not in Germany, where west-vest would be more useful. Minimal pair tasks seem to be getting fewer in course books, and this may be the reason. I think that’s a pity, since minimal pairs are a great pedagogical device in my opinion. It’s better to show a phoneme by comparison with another than on it’s own.


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