Vol. 11, Issue 1, October 2010

Pronunciation Corner
Joyce Mandell

Joyce Mandell

Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference 2010

Although I consider myself to be a pronunciation coach/trainer/teacher – more of a practitioner than a researcher – I always try to stay on top of the latest research concerning pronunciation and second language learners.  Clearly, research always informs my practice; therefore, this column will focus on the highlights of the conference I recently attended at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.  It was the second annual conference on “Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching,”  hosted by the TESL/Applied Linguistics program of the Department of English.  This conference attracted a host of luminaries in the field; most notably Murray Munro of Simon Fraser University, and his co-author of many research papers, Tracy Derwing of the University of Alberta, both in Canada.

The theme of the conference’s plenary – Intelligibility: Buzzword or buzzworthy – was engagingly delivered by Munro.  He began by commenting on the notion that intelligibility is much more than just a fad or a vogue in the field; in his words, it is “almost always seen as a fundamental requirement in human interaction, while the costs of unintelligibility range from minor inconvenience to matters of life or death.”   To illustrate his point, he provided some case studies where unintelligible communication of important directions between pilots and air traffic controllers led to fatal or near fatal crashes.  He also made very clear the distinction between three terms – accentedness, comprehensibility, and intelligibility.  Accentedness is defined as how noticeably the speech of someone is different from your own (or that of the target language).  Comprehensibility describes how difficult someone’s speech is to understand.  Finally, intelligibility measures how much of the speaker’s utterance is understood.  The main thrust of his talk seemed to support the idea that accentedness alone does not necessarily make for low intelligibility.  One can have a marked accent and still be very easy to understand; thus, the focus should be less on accent and more on general habits of speaking (to include pronunciation) that might impede clear communication.

Munro went on to talk about accent scapegoating – when someone’s accent is blamed for poor intelligibility, when in fact the real culprit could be other poor speech habits that lead to the breakdown.  Some of those factors include a monotone voice, low vocal projection, inability to sustain volume, or vocal fry (that low and “raspy” quality that even some native speakers often display.)  I was very pleased to hear this addressed, as I always include vocal exercises that work on volume, pitch, and general vocal settings in my classes.  Students who have language backgrounds that are too “breathy” or too high or low pitched can really have a hard time being understood despite accurate pronunciation.  The conclusion seems to be that there are a myriad of communication breakdowns that do not have clear and straightforward phonetic explanations, and improving the speech habits of NNSs could surely increase their comprehensibility and intelligibility. 

Tracy Derwing contributed her research in a longitudinal study of two groups of immigrants, Mandarin speakers and Slavic (mostly Russian) speakers, after 7 years of living in Canada.  The results were clearly in favor of the Slavic speakers, who felt that after 7 years their goals were met in their new country, whereas a much larger percent of the Mandarin speakers felt that their goals were not met.  One of the contributing factors included contact with native speakers; the Slavic speakers were more likely to seek out opportunities to engage with English speakers, while the Mandarin speakers kept more to their own language group. Clearly, the degree of input to the target language was the factor that increased the pronunciation and listening comprehension of the Slavic speakers.  She left us with a vivid image of three different ways immigrant speakers can identify themselves in their new country, and presented them to us as a food analogy.  The first one is the American ideal of the melting pot:  all immigrants, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, end up in one big soup pot that is labeled “American.”  The second analogy is that of the “salad”; that is, each ingredient in the salad keeps its intrinsic characteristics but blends well with each other.  In the salad version, all the nationalities are separate but harmonious.  The final image is that of the “salad bar” – all ingredients in separate containers, apart from each other; in other words, isolation.  She likened the salad bar to many ethnic groups who have little contact with native speakers and who remain linguistically and culturally isolated.  Melting pot, salad, or salad bar – three vastly different images of the way immigrants adjust to their new country. 


Joyce Mandell has been teaching speech and pronunciation skills to the non-native speaker for over 15 years, working in a variety of educational and business settings.  She is an adjunct at Baruch College in both Continuing and Professional Studies and the Communication Studies Department, where she teaches public speaking.  She also works individually with business professionals.

Feel free to contact her with questions or suggestions at dialogue@nystesol.org.