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Teaching English Pronunciation to Iranian Students: Problems and Suggestions
October 5, 2008
ABSTRACT: Pronunciation no doubt is one of the most significant and inevitable parts of teaching English in particular and any other languages in general. Regarding the degrees of accuracy necessary in teaching pronunciation different notions have been proposed by many linguists all over the world. In fact, in teaching (especially the phonology of) a language, the learners' objectives (or better said the class objectives) are to be taken into account. If their goal in the long run is either to teach the language or to use it in radio news broadcasts, they should learn pronunciation accurately, correctly, and authentically; otherwise, when communication is possible, there is no obligation to strive for perfect pronunciation, although this option is not advised either.

1. Introduction

There exist different enviornmental, physical, psychological, instructional, and other factors that affect the process of learning and teaching English-- particularly its sound systems. For the sake of brevity and clarity these factors may be divided into two groups: internal and external, the former denoting factors directly related to both the teacher and the student, and the latter referring to factors with somehow indirect impact on the teaching and learning task.

1.1.Internal factors

Among the internal factors, learners' objectives are very important in learning English. Iranian students seem to be more interested in reading English (technical) materials found in magazines, books, newspapers, etc. to collect necessary information for their specific field of interest. Therefore, a very important internal factor influencing the value of correct pronunciation arises from the society's needs and attitudes. The general goal of the system of education in Iran, regarding English teaching, is eventually confined to "reading" and "translation" of the English materials containing scientific information.

The inadequate knowledge of some teachers of English about linguistics and methodology has also caused many problems for both teachers and their students. For instance, an English teacher pronounces a word in his/her class. The year after, the same students may hear the same word with a completely different pronunciation. Confused with the two diverse pronunciations, the students suggest that they have been taught to pronounce that word in a different way by their previous teacher. It is obvious that one of the teachers is making a mistake because the difference between the two pronunciations suggested for the same word is so big that it is rarely justifiable by dialectal variations, i.e. British, American, Australian, etc. In such controversial situations, there is sometimes the possibility of presenting a self-accent which is neither English nor Persian (I call it Penglish). Accordingly, this idiolect, as Corder (1973) calls it, will be transfered to students by those teachers suffering from lack of essential knowledge about Phonetics. As a result, the students' interest and motivation in learning English will collapse.

1.2.External factors

Concerning the external factors, firstly, the assigned time for English classes through an academic year is so short that the teachers may not even be able to cover the whole textbook. Secondly, the presence of a large number of students in class does not allow the teacher to control the class effectively. Therefore, the educational result of such 60- or 70-student classes may be either a depressed teacher, who had a complete lesson plan, although such teachers are few in number, or a satisfied one for whom teaching is only a matter of pass-fail. The third external factor related to the school enviornment is the lack of facilities which could help the teacher a lot. Laboratories (at least tape-recorders with a few preliminary instructional tapes), simple English books in libraries, and some other teaching devices seem to be of great use and help in teaching English, especially in early intermediate classes where the students' minds are particularly capable of acquiring a large amount of materials.

In addition to enviornmental factors, methodology largely influences the learning and teaching of pronunciation. A number of methods, most of which were based on psychological facts have been used in teaching foreign languages, especially English. Traditional linguists emphasized the idea of using the students' mother tongue to a very large extent; later, in the history of linguistics, structuralists advocated the use of mechanical drills in language teaching. On the other hand, cognitivists claimed that meaningful practice is more advantageous than other methods. In a reaction against the theory and practice prevalent from the 1960s until the early 1980s, good pronunciation skills are now increasingly being seen as important in a communicative approach to teaching English as a Foreign/Second Language (Stibbard, 1996).

All of the above theories have been tested analytically all over the world. Nevertheless most Iranian English classes are still concerned with the traditional methods of language teaching. Okita (1999) with reference to the system of teaching English in Japan says, "Many teachers still adhere to the kind of pronunciation practice once predominant during audiolingualism which is not consistent with the recent trend towards CLT (Communicative Language Teaching)." More interesting than that, one may experience students who have been asked to write the pronunciation of the English words in their own language! The following are some examples:

EnglishPersian
pencil/pensəl//pensel/
that/ðæt//zat/ or /dat/
student/studənt//estudent/

2. Procedures

The common procedures, on the whole, fall into two different categories: one focusing on teaching English sound patterns within short sentences, and the other taking contextualization into account. Each category will be evaluated in the following sections.

2.1 Context-free sentences

There have been a variety of techniques suggested to help the students master the correct pronuciation of the target language. Firstly, imitation (some may call it modeling) is believed to play a significant role in learning the English sound system. Through this technique, the teacher pronounces a word several times, having the students listen carefully. He then asks them to imitate the word in exactly the same way as it has been pronounced. It is widely believed that the students should repeat the words first in chorus and then individually. Listening to and repeating after some given tapes also seems to be an effective way to familiarize the students with the special foreign accent(s).

The second technique mostly used by English teachers is explanation. One helpful device is the simple face diagram in which the various "organs of speech" are shown. Using pictures, drawings, objects, etc., the teacher attempts to teach the place and manner of articulation of difficult sounds.

Another technique is to compare and contrast the phonological elements of the students' native language (L1) and English (L2). Through comparison and contrast, students learn that there are similarities and differences between the sound system of their mother tongue and that of L2. In this way, the teacher tries to convince the students that there would be no serious problems with the pronunciation of the similar-to-L1 sounds; however, it is necessary to spend enough time on the production of difficult sounds. The greater differences between the first and the second language structure, the more difficult the learning task will be (see Hayati, 1997; Yarmohammadi, 2000).

Well-known among all linguists and methodologists and many language teachers, the last technique is mimicry memorization (Mim-Mem). Through mim-mem, the student repeats a word, a phrase, and/or a short sentence several times in order that the sound segment(s) of the word, phrase, or sentence become memorized and established in his mind. Mim-mem is one of the techniques insistently used by the followers of the audio-lingual method.

In order to find an appropriate way of teaching pronunciation, these common techniques will be evaluated by setting out their disadvantage(s) in turn. The advantages will implicitly be introduced when the available effective method is proposed. First of all, teaching the sound system in isolation does not seem suitable. As experience has shown, students learn the production of sounds used in the contexts relevant to the real situations. Thus, pure imitation of the phones appears boring to the learners because they are taught the sounds in a vacuum. On the other hand, explanation also seems inefficient and even in some cases unnecessary, e.g. for early language learners. Listening to the teacher's explanations and looking at the confusing mazes on the face diagram simultaneously, students should have some knowledge about the linguistic organs and their process of operation. In fact, it suggests multi-faceted teaching on the part of the teacher and not desirably teaching one point at a time.

Pure, Mim-Mem, too, has some disadvantages which lead to monotony and consequently destroy the tempo of the teaching process. Stevick (1982:51) indicates the insufficiency of Mim-Mem as follows:

Mimicry memorization is less widely used today for two reasons:

1. The memorization part, though highly effective and reasonably quick for some learners, was thoroughly unpleasant and very slow for others.

2. Both the mim side and the mem side of this technique are what teachers call "drills", by which they mean the activities are purely mechanical and both dull to the learner's mind.

As well as the explanation technique, making comparison and contrast between the sound patterns of L1 and L2, in which the students are faced with two phonetic categories, does not suffice for learning pronunciation. Explaining to the students, for example, that in English the /i/ sound is pronounced by having the jaws laxed, the front part of the tongue moved a little high, lips unrounded, etc. and mentioning that the Persian language lacks such a sound, does not solve the problem of pronunciation. Students may also mix the production of sounds while trying to distinguish and differentiate between the sounds of L1 and L2. Therefore, using the comparison and contrast technique, what can be done to make students pronounce the short /i/ correctly?

2.2 Contextualization

The second method, contextualization, seems to a greater extent effective, although it may have some minor shortcomings. According to Bowen (1972:58), "One way to effect an improvement would be to find means of better integrating pronunciation instruction with other elements of instruction." Using different situations related to real life or to the students' experience, the teacher can present a pronunciation problem through different techniques. One is to tell the students a brief story in which the teacher can insert difficult sounds in the form of minimal pairs.

The advocates of the audio-lingual method, however, may claim that minimal pairs could also be practical in isolated sentences. It should be noted that there are some problems in using minimal pairs in out-of-context sentences. In fact there are some criteria based on which the teacher can prepare a contextualized way of teaching. Bowen (1972:92) mentions that teaching pronunciation through contextualization requires some special qualities for the situation:

... all that is necessary is a bit of imagination and ingenuity to devise an appropriate situation, one that is (1) meaningful, (2) pictureable, (3) balanced, and (4) if possible, relevent to the experience and/or interest of the students.


Back to the audio lingual method, one may argue that their context-called sentences do not fit the above criteria. The following sentence, for instance, by which the /au/ sound is going to be presented, does not clearly communicate a certain meaning:

He found it rounded.

To whom does "He" refer? What specific object does the word "it" suggest? What is the relationship between "it" and "rounded"? These and other similar questions indicate the situational vagueness of the above sentence.

However, in Bowen's description of contextualization, a very obvious problem arises from the idea of pictureability of the situation. Apparently the concrete words can be taught without serious difficulty through pictures. There are neverthless obstacles in the way of teaching certain sounds within abstract words. Take a short passage as an example, conveying a certain situation in which you have used such words as WISE-RISE, MIND-KIND, HATE-FATE, etc. Perhaps one solution for the teacher is to avoid using abstract words in his/her class as much as possible; but, to tell the truth, facing such words at least in the textbooks is inevitable. At this stage, the only solution is to use the students' mother tongue. Whenever the teacher encounters such difficulties, s/he can give the meaning of the unpictureable word in the students' L1, although there have been controversial ideas regarding the use of mother tongue in teaching English as a foreign language. To give evidence, it is worth mentioning that, in a study, Tang (2002) proved that moderate use of mother tongue was not a disturbing factor in EFL situations. In fact, "The research seems to show that limited and judicious use of the mother tongue in the English classroom does not reduce students’ exposure to English, but rather can assist in the teaching and learning processes (Tang, 2002; see also Nunan and Lamb, 1996).

3. Suggestions

In the light of the brief account of some techniques mentioned above, a few points are suggested below in regard to teaching pronunciation to Iranian students.

a. According to psycholinguistic principles, as Brown (2001) states, “The overwhelming majority of adult learners will never acquire an accent-free command of a foreign language
” (p.268) and of course the young learners will acquire as many languages as they are exposed to. If they understand why a concept is important they will be more likely to remember it (Andrews, 2005). In the same line Rosenberg (2005) states, "Becoming Bilingual is a special gift parents can offer their children, but the gift must be planned and presented with care for it to be well used and appreciated." Therefore, it is suggested that English be taught at the very early stages. Although there is no such course as English at the primary level, it would be quite useful if school children were motivated to keep contact with the language for at least 90 minutes a week or 15 minutes a day.

b. Teachers of English will be able to collect theoretical and practical information about the "what"s and "how"s of language and teaching if they are provided with some inservice classes. These classes, whose least effect is to motivate the English teachers towards further instructional information, can be scheduled for almost three months. The problem with inservice training is that English teachers, like other teachers, find themselves too busy with daily school chores to attend any of the courses provided, even though teachers are granted the right to attend courses by the ordinance (Okita, 1999). To solve this problem, then, the teachers should be given enough time to attend the required courses. A one-month course concentrating primarily on practical techniques may be attractive when teaching can be conceived of as the implementation of a particular method or set of procedures (Ferguson and Donno, 2003:32).

c. A three-hours-a-week class is actually not sufficient for teaching a language. This short time is not even enough for the teachers to remember their students' names. The class hours therefore must be extended if a teacher is going to work successfully in class.

d. In the line of the above justification, it is worth mentioning that the textbook also plays an important role in course material design. It may function as a safe base for other activities. A text book can serve different purposes for teachers: as a core resource, as a source of supplemental material, as an inspiration for classroom activities, even as the curriculum itself (Garinger, 2002). However the English textbooks used in Iranian Guidance Schools and High Schools suffer from shortcomings as regards the sequence of presentation of materials, text selection, pronunciation exercises, etc. The fact that textbooks have not accurately reflected authentic interactions in the past is understandable when we bear in mind that materials writers have traditionally tended to use dialogues as a medium to reinforce particular grammar points or to pesent vocabulary and functional language (Gilmore, 2004:370; see also Burns and Seidlhofer, 2002).

In order to remove this problem, it is advised that the committee of material design move along with the newest theories and methods of teaching a language knowing that the idea of language learning also might be culture-specific. That is, considering topic familiarity in discourse analysis, the materials could be designed based on the students' culture, quietly moving towards the "color purple" which is the boundary between the learners' culture and that of the target language. What is clear from this paper and others, is that the teaching of pronunciation programs must be included in the students' training, yet that training must be country specific, and materials and research must now stop focusing on the 'general' and start considering the 'specific' (Robertson, 2003). Grainger (2002) presents the following chart for ESL educators to help them to decide on the appropriate textbook for their classes:

CHECKLIST FOR ESL TEXTBOOK SELECTION

A. Program and Course

Does the textbook support the goals and curriculum of the program? ___Yes ___No

Is the textbook part of a series, and if so, would using the entire series be appropriate? ___Yes ___No

Are a sufficient number of the course objectives addressed by the textbook? ___Yes ___No

Was this textbook written for learners of this age group and background? ___Yes ___No

Does the textbook reflect learners’ preferences in terms of layout, design, and organization? ___Yes ___No

Is the textbook sensitive to the cultural background and interests of the students? ___Yes ___No


B. Skills

Are the skills presented in the textbook appropriate to the course? ___Yes ___No

Does the textbook provide learners with adequate guidance as they are acquiring these skills? ___Yes ___No

Do the skills that are presented in the textbook include a wide range of cognitive skills that will be challenging to learners? ___Yes ___No


C. Exercises and Activities

Do the exercises and activities in the textbook promote learners’ language development? ___Yes ___No

Is there a balance between controlled and free exercises? ___Yes ___No

Do the exercises and activities reinforce what students have already learned and represent a progression from simple to more complex? ___Yes ___No

Are the exercises and activities varied in format so that they will continually motivate and challenge learners? ___Yes ___No


D. Practical Concerns

Is the textbook available? ___Yes ___No

Can the textbook be obtained in a timely manner? ___Yes ___No

Is the textbook cost-effective? ___Yes ___No




e. The teacher should pay particular attention to the integration of all the skills. For instance, if the students think of "reading" as the only necessary skill for their long term objectives, it should be made clear to them that mispronunciation of a word may occasionally lead them to a wrong semantic interpretation. Below are a few examples:



HOMOGRAPHSMINIMAL PAIRS
object/∗bjekt/sheep/shi:p/
/∗bj∗kt/ship/ship/
minute/maInu:t/leave/li:v/
/mIn∗t/live/liv/

In a word, skill interaction is a fact that both the teacher and students should be conscious about.

f. In order to formulate a better approach for teaching pronunciation, an eclectic method is advised. Whenever there is a need to use the compare and contrast technique the teacher may appeal to it. In other instances, where a short explanation helps the students to distinguish the sounds, this technique may be used.

g. It should be kept in mind that the main objective of the English class is to make the students capable of communicating in the language; accordingly, all efforts should be put on reinforcing communicative competence rather than linguistic competence. Celce-Murcia (1995) states that, “In many instances where reduced speech or imperfect acoustic processing might obscure a message, an effective listener is able to use the situational context and/or the preceding and following discourse to disambiguate or to decide on the best interpretation.” (p. 369). To let "listening" enjoy popularity and attention among methodologists, different techniques are being presented by the authorities in the field. Wilson (2003), for instance, talks about the notion "discovery listening" in which students are helped to focus on their listening problems, the causes of these problems, and their importance in a listening task. In other words, "The main goal is to guide students towards noticing the differences between their reconstructed text and the original, and then 'discover' the reason for their listening difficulties" (Wilson, 2003:337). Moreover, if the "English" sound is not clearly received, the brain of the learner converts it into the closest sound in their native language (Dalton, 1997). Otlowski (1998) citing Glbert (1984) believes that, "If they cannot hear English well, they are cut off from the language
If they cannot be understood easily, they are cut off from conversation with native speakers." For this reason, in order to improve their listening comprehension competence, students should be exposed to listening activities as much.

h. In today's world of technological developments, the Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) has a great effect on improving the students' mastery of pronunciation (see Hayati, 2005). Hill and Storey (2003), for example, have presented an online-based procedure through which students can make themselves ready before attending the class. They state, "
we have felt that-through the use of online course-we have been able to maximize the use of classroom time for practise and feedback to students on their presentation skills (Hill and Storey, 2003: 376). Therefore, a very important remedial way to stop the effect of those external factors which lessen the speed of language learning is to provide the schools with facilities (not necessarily those which call for a large amount of budget). Each high school, for the sake of economy, can and must have at least a tape-recorder to work with in teaching a second language.

Finally, it is suggested that teachers of English acquire necessary information about the phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic aspects of both L1 and L2. On the other hand, there are varieties of communicative procedures and techniques suggested by many methodologists which are applicable in certain enviornments; they are at least worthy of experiment. Techniques such as “problem-solving”, “role-playing”, “dramatization”, and the like could be of great help to make the students practice the communicative aspect of language (see Larsen-Freeman, 1986; Mills, 1987; Stringer, 1987; Nunan, 1988; Crouch, 1989; Tarone and Liu, 1995; Cook, 1997; Tompkins 1998; Marilyne, 1999; Richards and Rodgers, 2001; Krish, 2001; Gil, 2002; Rifkin, 2003; Hayati, 2006). From among these methods and techniques, the teachers should search for the ones by which the language can most easily be presented. Otherwise, the English classes will be nothing but a waste of time.

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photo black and white
Dr. A. Majid Hayati

About the author...

A. Majid Hayati holds a doctorate in Linguistics from the University of Newcastle, Australia. He teaches TEFL, Language Testing, Linguistics, etc. at Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz, Iran. Hayati has published a number of articles in Roshd Magazine (Iran), Language Teaching Journal (Iran), Reading Matrix (USA), PSiCL (Poland), Asian EFL Journal (Korea), Arts and Humanities in Higher Education (England), GLOSSA (Puerto Rico), etc. He has also published the second edition of his book "Contrastive Analysis: Theory and Practice" in 2005. His recent book, "A Review of Language Teaching", was published in 2007.