Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca

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Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca by Robin Walker

Written by Robin Walker, Oxford University Press 2010
ISBN 978-0-19-442200-0 (This review first appeared in English Teaching Professional)

In language teaching, we often assume that the objective is to enable the learners to communicate with native speakers, perhaps in the country where the target language is spoken. In the context of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), this assumption is no longer valid. Here, the objective is to enable the learners to communicate internationally, not necessarily with native English speakers and not necessarily in a country where English is spoken. This new objective has important implications for language teaching generally, and pronunciation teaching in particular, and it has generated a large amount of research and theorizing. Robin Walker's new book Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca (TPELF) is intended to bridge the gap from this research and theory to actual classroom practice.

TPELF does not assume that readers are already familiar with ELF, and the first two chapters are dedicated to filling in the background. Chapter 1 explains the new role of English as a medium of international communication, and suggests that the goal of pronunciation learning in this context is mutual intelligibility rather than approximation to native speaker norms. Chapter 2  summarizes the lingua franca core concept as developed by Jennifer Jenkins. This core is an inventory of the features of pronunciation which are essential to ensure international mutual intelligibility. It also lists the features which are non-essential and the features which actually make a speaker less intelligible. Walker makes it clear that this core should not be regarded as finished and definitive, and this is a very important point. I think that teachers could refer to the core for guidance, but they will also need to use their own judgement in its application. I personally would still teach some of the features that the core currently leaves out.

Since it was published in 2000, Jennifer Jenkin's book The Phonology of English as a Lingua Franca (OUP) has provoked a lot of controversy, and many teachers have expressed concerns about adopting and ELF approach to pronunciation teaching. In Chapter 3, Walker outlines the most frequently expressed concerns and responds to them. He goes on to point out the benefits of adopting an ELF approach. In particular, I would highlight the new positive role it implies for the learners' mother tongue and for non-native teachers. I think it's very welcome to discuss teachers' worries about their own accents openly, instead of trying to pretend the issue doesn't exist.

In Chapter 4, Walker presents some practical classroom techniques for teachers following an ELF approach. Some of these are traditional pronunciation teaching favourites such as minimal pairs and drills. The author also includes techniques which are more commonly associated with speaking practice in general rather than pronunciation work, such as information-gaps. The reason for this is that a key aspect of the ELF approach is accommodation. In real life interaction, learners are going to encounter a wide range of different accents, not just an idealized standard English, and they need to be flexible enough to accommodate to these varieties. Here, communication tasks are adapted to provide practice in this vital accommodation skill.

The chapter concludes with a section dedicated to the problems and possibilities of adopting an ELF approach in a classroom where all the learners share the same mother tongue. I was very pleased to see this, because on the surface of it, it would seem almost impossible to get a group of students to use English as a lingua franca when they already have their own L1 as a lingua franca. Again, the author is tackling a key practical issue head on instead of pretending it doesn't exist.

The new positive role for the learners' L1 mentioned earlier is expanded in Chapter 5 in glorious detail. Experts from around the world have contributed specific details which are particularly pertinent to ELF learners about ten different languages.  This will be a very useful reference resource for pronunciation teachers. Finally, Walker concludes in Chapter 6 by considering the implications of an ELF approach for syllabus planning and assessment. This latter is vital, since it would be grossly unfair to teach ELF and then test for native-speaker-referenced pronunciation features. Many pronunciation features which are regarded as errors in a traditional ELT context are considered as accent variations in an ELF approach, and accent variations do not need to be corrected or penalized.

TPELF is accompanied by an audio CD featuring interactions in English between pairs of speakers from a range of different L1 backgrounds. The author makes reference to these conversations throughout the book and this helps to keep the practical reality of the issues clearly in focus - we are not talking about imaginary beings in a theoretical world but real people communicating using English as a lingua franca. Indeed, practicality is the key note in this valuable new addition to the literature on pronunciation teaching.

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