Walker, Spiewak and Hancock on English as a Lingua Franca

The Pronunciation SIG Pre-conference event for 2013 took an ELF perspective on teaching pronunciation. The speakers were Robin Walker, Grzegorz Spiewak and Mark Hancock, and it was hosted by Wayne Rimmer. Robin Walker started off the day by showing the differences this perspective makes in terms of goals, models, view of L1, variations and accents, and intelligibility. Goals: the ability to accommodate both productively and receptively to other interlocutors, be they native or non-native speakers of English. Model: any competent ELF communicator, no matter what the accent. View of L1: L1 transfer may be a hindrance to intelligibility, but it is also a resource since there will be plenty of L1 features which are perfectly adequate for communication in ELF. Varieties and accents: a natural feature of Englishes in a globalized world; part of speaker’s identities and never to be stigmatized. Learners can perfectly well keep their own accents, but they must also learn to be flexible listeners to accommodate to other accents. Intelligibility: seen not in terms of comfortable intelligibility for native-speaker listeners but to be negotiated mutually between any pair or group of interlocutors.

Grzegorz Spievak continued the day by showing us what aspects of phonology are likely to require a focus in an ELF environment, and how the learners’ L1 can be used as learning capital in the task. To begin with, he compared a traditional pronunciation syllabus with the much more manageable and focused syllabus of the Lingua Franca core. He pointed out that many features of the traditional syllabus are either irrelevant to ELF intelligibility (eg vowel quality) or even detrimental (eg vowel reduction). He went on to demonstrate, using the example of Polish, how a learner’s L1 can be used as a springboard. For example, research suggests that aspiration of initial /p/, /t/ and /k/ sounds are important in ELF, and yet it can be difficult to make learners aware of the difference between the aspirated and the non-aspirated versions. Taking a Polish cognate such as papier (paper), and saying it in Polish, but with the initial P aspirated, immediately makes the word sound funny; the unfamiliar sound in the familiar context stands out in high relief.

Mark Hancock set out to explore how pronunciation teaching materials could be tweaked to become more ELF-friendly. He set out to do this through the lens of accommodation. To begin with, he looked at some traditional minimal pair games and discussed their value in an ELF context. We found that minimal pair distinctions which are not in the core, such as had-head, are no longer a priority. Competent speakers of English can be understood despite having very dissimilar realizations of these phonemes – the sounds are very variable even among native speakers. Other minimal pairs focusing on vowel length are more generically useful. A third category of minimal pair however was the most useful – the tailor made pair, which focus on problems very specific to a learner’s L1. In all cases, the procedure can be tweaked to be framed as accommodation – for example, feedback can be framed in terms of how well the communication went, rather than in terms of correctness. After this, we went on to consider how relevant other pronunciation tasks were. Mark suggested that sometimes, the goal of the material may be modified. For example, certain chants and rhymes may be useful, but not for promoting rhythm (not in the core), as they may traditionally have been conceived, but rather for creating a baseline default upon which to work on tonic stress placement (in the core).

With regard to receptive accommodation, Mark suggested working on transversal features across different accents. For example, we may identify ‘vulnerable sounds’ such as the vowel in ‘had’ or the first consonant sound in ‘three’ and focus on how they vary in different recordings. We also saw how these accent variations can be simulated in the written form, to graphically demonstrate how the accommodation process works.

In the final section, Robin Walker returned to talk about syllabus planning and assessment in an ELF context. He explained that competence in core features could be considered as a first phase in the learning process. After that, learners may go on to add further competences, such as receptive awareness of other native and non-native accents.

Much of what Robin and Gzegorz spoke about can be found fully written up in Robin’s book, reviewed here. Mark’s ideas on receptive accommodation can be found in the section on accents in this article.

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