Phonology in the Fens by Fiona Hardy

On Saturday 17th June, I attended a conference put on by the Pronunciation Special Interest Group of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language.  It was hosted by the Bell School of English in Cambridge and the conference focus was on that particularly vexed question of English pronunciation, namely connected speech.  There were talks by six practitioner/researchers as well as a two plenaries.

The opening plenary was given by Professor Francis Nolan, Professor of Phonetics at the University of Cambridge, and it tackled the challenges posed by intonational complexity in the teaching of L2 English.   His talk put forward a set of prosodic priorities to guide teachers in arriving at a sensible and realistic syllabus for helping learners process native speaker output efficiently as well as improving the intelligibility of their own output.  Having presented his findings on his research into the major differences in intonation which exists within the British Isles and the potential these have for causing misunderstanding, he put forward a strategy to optimise the pedagogical cost-benefit ratio in terms of intelligibility, avoidance of inadvertent offence and the mastery of intonational nuances.  These translate into teaching goals which focus on accent (stress, rhythm and pitch prominence) and on the reduction of L1-influenced pitch accents which can convey unintended meaning.

Further presentations all yielded useful and practical ideas for the pronunciation class.  Laura Patsko demonstrated a strategy for identifying pronunciation priorities in a multilingual classroom through a diagnostic exercise which reveals each learner’s specific difficulties both in processing speech receptively and in producing it.  Richard Cauldwell presented a series of pronunciation activities focused on listening rather than on speaking in order to help them ‘decode the messiness of everyday speech’.  He put forward that it is important for learners to get things wrong in order to arrive at an understanding of how normal speech, rendered at times barely comprehensible by the assimilation, elision and catenation of sounds, particularly at word boundaries, works. Roslyn Young put her audience in the learner’s shoes by making them hear and produce the sounds and pitch movements of Japanese; then she demonstrated ways of using the phonemic chart to raise awareness of the fact that there are three weak sounds, not one – a revelation to her audience!  Piers Messum then went on to complete the task of robbing his audience of their phonological certainties by showing them how English is not a stress-timed language but that its rhythm stems from an aerodynamic/physiological cause – native speakers of English use their lungs and their diaphragm far more actively than speakers of many other languages.  By doing breathing, whispering and stuttering exercises with our learners, we can help them acquire this elusive ‘rhythm’ more naturally than by the more traditional listen-repeat approach.

Jonathan Marks provided the closing plenary with a useful reminder, underpinned by a number of practical ideas, that pronunciation should not be a separate section of the syllabus or of the lesson, it is part of every skill and needs to be integrated into one’s teaching; no more ‘slots’, instead, many more opportunities to add value for learners by helping them with their pronunciation at every possible point.

The conference was altogether a thoroughly useful day;  every session was pertinent to the needs of our learners and refreshed and revalidated existing practices as well as adding new perspectives to enhance and improve them.