Teaching English Pronunciation to L1 Speakers of German at Gymnasium

Term Paper, 2009

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Foreign Accent: A Practical Approach for Teaching

3 Sources of Influence on Learners’ Pronunciation
3.1 Utilization of Individual Personal Resources
3.1.1 Age
3.1.2 L1 Background and Interference
3.1.3 Gender
3.1.4 Language Aptitude
3.1.5 Personality and Motivation
3.2 Social and Cultural Issues
3.2.1 Interactions in the Classroom
3.2.2 Socio–Cultural Factors

4 Conclusion

5 References

1 Introduction

In the course of the last three decades a whole new prominence has been granted to the significance of foreign language (FL) learning. Due to the recent development of globalization, further emerging of multi-national enterprises and the coalescence of the European Union, this appears to be the logical consequence. Because of its nowadays widely accepted status as a lingua franca (Acar 2006) the learning and teaching of English as the most frequently spoken second language has gained importance – in Germany as well as in most industrialized countries speaking prevalently another first language (L1). In the recent past, since the end of the 19th century, changing trends have focused on different methods of language teaching, such as the ability to translate texts, correct use of grammar, or wide range of vocabulary. However, the teaching of English pronunciation finally has come back into the focus of interest since the second half of the 1980s due to the mentioned economic and social changes. Nowadays the ability to (net-) work internationally – and thus reach the “ultimate goal of communication with other speakers of the second language” (Brown 1994: 226) seems to be one of the highest goals of achievement of second language (L2) learning. During the time of almost one century of pronunciation teaching the attitude towards the issue has changed as well: as Chun (1991: 179) states in her article, the development started from a segmental and comparative sound repetition learning strategy, followed by a period of simply ignoring the topic completely from the 1960s to the early 1980s, leading finally to the up-to-date approach of teaching suprasegmentals, sentence intonation as well as other aspects of connected speech. The most current approach towards second language teaching lies, according to Neri, Cucchiarini and Strik (2006: 357), in “the achievement of communicative effectiveness”. This means that learners do not necessarily have to eradicate the slightest traces of foreign accent in their productions of L2 speech but are trained to avoid serious pronunciation errors.

Although the aim of foreign accent reduction apparently seems to have gotten somewhat out of fashion in the process of second language teaching, the main objective of this paper will be to prove that achieving near-native pronunciation for learners of English is a goal worth laboring on. With the secondary school English teacher being permanently confronted with the topic, major factors of influence on expectable learning outcome will be discussed in the following parts of the paper. In order to achieve noticeable and lasting improvement in learners’ accent, the teachers’ obligation should be to take these factors seriously and then conceive their way of teaching according to the knowledge about their students. The features under discussion will namely be the learners’ age, whether or not L1 interferes, what gender the students are and if there is something like a general language aptitude – and if so, how we as teachers can benefit from that. Further on the possibilities of being aware of different individual learning styles and methods will be highlighted, followed by a detailed examination of the crucial influence of learners’ (self-) motivation and in which degree it affects on his or her articulatory production. Last but not least, as the focus is going to be on class room interaction, the paper will try to analyze chances of using certain group dynamics to further improve teaching efficiency.

2 Foreign Accent: A Practical Approach for Teaching

There are, of course, several factors in the quality of oral speech production which can be measured objectively with the help of computer programs like for example the Praat software. These programs visualize speech by language learners to make them comparable to native examples of speech. Some of the discriminating factors of foreign accent which have been proposed in an empirical study by Herry and Hirst (2002) are for example rhythmical criteria like duration of vowels, consonants, and whole sentence units or criteria concerning pitch, like the difference between a test group’s and native speakers’ (NS) range of F0. To get interpretable results from that, the students’ samples of speech were compared to the native speakers’ samples in terms of average extent of deviation. Simply speaking, the wider the test group’s speakers’ deviation from the native speakers’ samples of pronunciation, the more evident was their accent.

An easier comprehensible view on the issue of quantifying accent is provided by Markham (1997: 85) who proposes an explanation for the term “foreign accent” as a theoretical construct, based on subjective individual judgment. This means that foreign accent in an everyday conversation would be measured by the listener’s degree of tolerance towards deviation from his or her acquired standards about local pronunciation. The object of doubt would then be categorized as either “native non-local” or “non-native”. For teachers in a higher secondary schooling system like German Gymnasium this seems to be a much more reasonable argumentation pro teaching near-native pronunciation to students belonging to an age group of about ten to eighteen, than the rather technically difficult approach with Praat. Derwing (2008: 347) in her article additionally points out three major deliberations to be considered before starting to teach: firstly it obviously is important in which context a learner will have to utilize the L2. Secondly teachers need to be aware whether their students are willing to improve their pronunciation at all and thirdly the speaker’s actual intelligibility is not to be discounted. In case the teachers should learn that considering these first three criteria, the teaching of foreign accent improvement makes sense for their class, the actual instruction should then be oriented on the following sources of influence on learner’s oral articulation.

3 Sources of Influence on Learners’ Pronunciation

The debate which factors actually do have a major influence on an English as second language (ESL) learner’s pronunciation is a highly controversial one. In fact as yet there is no final scientific consensus about the hierarchy of importance of influencing factors. As many past studies concerning this topic have been focusing on immigrants’ performances, there are naturally some sources of influence on L2 speech production which are irrelevant to teaching in a German secondary school and therefore can be neglected in this paper. For instance age of arrival and length of residence in the L2 environment, or their students’ frequency of domestic L1 use will hardly be relevant to teachers of English in Germany. So in the following part, the paper will be discussing characteristics which should seriously be taken into account when planning a lesson about improvement of a native-like English pronunciation and thus foreign accent reduction.

3.1 Utilization of Individual Personal Resources

One thing which linguists actually succeeded in agreeing on is that in fact there are some individual characteristics which are likely to influence non-native speakers (NNS) during the process of fine-tuning their pronunciation. Yet it remains a question of doubt, whether this improvement necessarily must lead towards sounding like a NS. Of course, it would be somehow naïve to attempt a complete eradication of even the slightest traces of foreign accent with each speaker in a class of about 20 to 30 students. So Avery and Ehrlich (1995: 16) strongly recommend the setting of realistic goals before the teaching begins in the first place. To avoid disappointment, both on the students’ as well as teacher’s side, it is then helpful to recall the fixed objectives and to which extent they have been accomplished at a given point of time.

For instance, Emmitt, Komesaroff and Pollock (2006: 139) propose an awareness-rising in order to help learners to understand the sound system of English and how it differs from their own native language. In the following this and other solutions of improving students’ pronunciation will be introduced and discussed. The progression thereby will be to give an insight on current scientific views on the respective topic. Further on, an examination of what ESL teachers have to be careful about but also in which way they can profit from the given circumstances will conclude each section.

3.1.1 Age

One term which one will inevitably come across while researching the influence of learner’s age on attainability of a near-native pronunciation is the ‘critical period hypothesis’. The core of this theory holds, as formulated by Lenneberg (1967) that the way a second language is learned by children clearly differs from an adults’ technique of acquiring the concept of an L2. The end of the critical period is claimed to be the onset of puberty with its processes of cerebral maturation. This naturally should have an effect on phonetic production as well: as late learners of L2 according to this hypothesis have hardly a chance of attaining near-native accent, child second language learners are thought to succeed in almost any case. Derwing (2008: 350) in her article on teaching pronunciation partially contradicts this opinion. As a matter of fact there are but a few cases of L2 speakers who started to learn the FL before the age of six and who are still identifiable as NNSs. Furthermore, as summarized by Piske, MacKay, and Flege (2001: 196) there are reported speakers who started learning their L2 after the age of 12 and who achieved an almost accent-free pronunciation.

Nevertheless, according to Flege (2002: 217) “the earlier is the better”, as far as language learning is concerned. He continues with reasoning this opinion by plain observation of facts. As mentioned in his article, several studies have come to the result that “early bilinguals generally have milder foreign accents in the L2 than late bilinguals do”. For instance in Flege, Yeni-Komshian, and Liu (1999) 240 native speakers of Korean, all with different ages of arrival in the United States, were compared to a control group of English NS. In this the overall phonological ratings of the NNS declined proportionally to their age of arrival. Early bilinguals also scored higher on ability to produce and to perceive L2 vowels and consonants (MacKay, Meador, and Flege 2001) and they were found to understand L2 words more easily in a noisy surrounding.

One basic approach for teaching English in school would therefore be to use the possibilities of all the different stages of the individual maturation process. In order to address the higher plasticity of younger brains before the onset of puberty, rather playful methods in practicing L2 pronunciation would thus be recommendable. On the other hand, the older students’ ability to use their meta-knowledge of their L1 could then logically be utilized to help them in the organization of the new L2 system (Dziubalska-Koɫaczyk 2002: 98). Whatever the actual execution of accent reduction training in class may be like; it should naturally make sense to follow the methodological-didactical progression of complying with younger childrens’ enthusiasm for play as well as using grown-ups’ cognitive capacities later on.

3.1.2 L1 Background and Interference

Since the overall topic of this paper is teaching English pronunciation to L1 speakers of German in particular, the respective influence of the L1 on verbal utterances in the L2 needs to be examined. Consequently, the following section is going to analyze whether the given L1 influences the improvement of pronunciation and how the teacher should react to that while arranging his or her lessons.

Apart from the indirect influence of the classroom setting on FL and especially articulation learning, there likewise seems to be a more direct effect on it by the speaker’s mother tongue itself. Neri, Cucchiarini and Strik (2006: 358) for instance explain that mechanisms of speech perception and production become ingrained right from the first months after birth – featuring naturally the L1. This concurs with other authors’ findings like for example Avery and Ehrlich (1995: 15) who argue that every language “has a different inventory of sounds, different rules for combining these sounds into words, and different stress and intonation patterns.” Both articles, namely Neri et al., and Avery and Ehrlich further agree on the predictability of learners’ potential difficulties with the L2 pronunciation resulting from these language specific systematics. To go into further detail, Avery and Ehrlich propose three areas of the native language’s influence on students’ pronunciation: firstly problems can arise with the prosody of speech – i.e. rhythm, stress, and intonation of connected speech. Further on, the combination of sounds into words could cause trouble with inexperienced learners and lastly sounds which are not part of the learner’s L1 inventory at all may cause trouble.

Research on interference by the L1 phonetic system is provided by Flege (1995) in his Speech Learning Model (SLM). His model basically holds that elements from the L1 exist in a common phonological space with the L2 elements. This would certainly not be a problem if sounds were articulated equally in different languages. Unfortunately, there are certain distinctions, so-called allophones, for one and the same phoneme to be made; for instance German and English similar use of the phoneme /l/ with the additional English allophone “back ‘l’” /ɫ/ (Kortmann 2005: 58) in certain word positions. The peril in this lies in the fact that the confusion of clear ‘l’ and dark ‘l’ will not cause a difference in meaning on word or sentence level thus will be comprehended easily by NSs as well as other ESL speakers. Nonetheless, if speakers utilize /l/ in the way incorrectly as described above, they inevitably will be recognized as NNS – with a heavy foreign accent. Still, some hope can be found in the SLM: as Bohn (2002: 195) states, “the SLM predicts that any L2 learner, whether child or adult, will be able to establish a new category for an L2 sound which is perceived to be sufficiently dissimilar from any L1 sound.” Yet, this formation of new categories is impeded by the L2 learner’s continued use of his or her L1. According to Flege (2002: 224), if L1 and L2 are spoken concurrently – which in most cases will be the case – both languages “will mutually influence one another”. That this is first of all a disadvantage for the articulation of the L2 seems logical. This notion has inter alia been confirmed by Flege, Frieda and Nozawa (1997) who examined the influence of amount of L1 use by Italian immigrants to Canada on their foreign accents. Basically the result of this study was a consistently lower rating of speakers with frequent L1 use. Another study in favor of reducing use of L1 to achieve a more native-like pronunciation is Moyer (2004). When she asked her participants to reflect on what they considered to be helpful for foreign accent reduction, most of them claimed that personal contact with NS of the target culture and language was most important. Some of the subjects even admitted avoiding interaction with NS of their own L1 (Moyer 2004: 103).

It is unquestionably not an easy task for a language instructor to overcome the above mentioned factors of influence. This is the truth because he or she will partly not even be able to positively influence them – like for example the amount of L1 use outside the classroom – at all. What can be done is to simply declare English as the language of conduct in class. It is therefore important to create a non-threatening environment in which mistakes are not regarded as a reason for vast criticism but rather an opportunity for everybody to learn and improve (Avery and Ehrlich, 1995: 14). This will give the students the opportunity to speak and communicate with each other and the teacher on a regular basis and thus improve their speaking skills towards a native-like production. Nonetheless, this improvement is not going to happen on its own: as stated by Edwards (2008: 255) mere increase of L2 use is not a significant factor as far as pronunciation accuracy is concerned. In fact it is the teacher who perpetually has to correct mistakes and indicate better solutions. Hence, possible ways proposed by Petek (2002: 273f.) to achieve this would be to show a variety of native speakers’ samples in class or make use of computer-assisted language learning from time to time – but most importantly the teacher has to be a good model himself.


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Teaching English Pronunciation to L1 Speakers of German at Gymnasium
University of Augsburg  (Phil-Hist Fakultät)
Teaching and Learning English Pronunciation
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ISBN (Book)
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Foreign Language Teaching, Fremdsprachenunterricht, Applied English Linguistics, Englischunterricht, Phonetik & Phonologie
Quote paper
Michael Burger (Author), 2009, Teaching English Pronunciation to L1 Speakers of German at Gymnasium, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/126400


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