Accenting intelligibility, instead of accents

accentA lot of discussion in the language learning world is centered on accent. Having a “native-like accent” is often the gold standard for adult learners, despite how unrealistic, and how unnecessary, it usually is. It is unrealistic because second language learners have brains and tongues that are hardwired for their first language(s), and if particular sounds, like “th” (unvoiced as in “think” and voiced as in “the”) exist in the second language but not the first, learners are going to come up with creative solutions for pronouncing the sound. Native-like accent is unnecessary, because so long as the speaker can be understood, does it really matter how the words come out? A Bostonian and a Charlestonian can understand one another, despite the difference in accent, so what makes a Parisian and Muscovite any different?

With intelligibility being the primary goal, that’s not to say that good pronunciation shouldn’t be taught to younger students. For one, prior to puberty, children still have a shot at developing a “native-like accent,” so it would be a disservice not to provide input in the mainstream accent of their context, since they may pick up that aspects of language unconsciously. But all language learning students can benefit from turning their attention to how a second language sounds, especially compared to their first language. This kind of metalinguistic awareness hones two of the Four C’s of Education: critical thinking, and communication. It comes in the form of training the ear to hear the difference between similar sounds, such as the oft-cited r and l distinction among Japanese speakers, as well as training the tongue to differentiate, such as helping German speakers produce the difference between cap and cab. Even if students don’t permanently adjust their pronunciation to a more English-like accent, it can only benefit them to know how sounds are produced in the mouth and throat. Besides, giving students realistic, concrete goals to improve their speech will keep them from feeling self-conscious about “talking funny.” Let’s start accenting intelligibility in the classroom.

For some ideas to teach pronunciation, check out this article.

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