When was the last time you turned to the Internet to solve a problem or find an answer to a question? Minutes ago, right? Well, guess what: Our students are doing it too, and many of them are looking for help with their pronunciation.
When it comes to improving one’s L2 pronunciation, adult learners of English encounter a number of challenges. L1/L2 differences, fossilization, and a lack of opportunities to practice speaking are just three that come to mind. But there’s a bigger, more ironic problem that many learners face: insufficient access to effective pronunciation instruction, even in their own ESL/EFL programs (Murphy, 2014).
It is therefore not surprising that learners turn to the Internet for a bit of do-it-yourself help. But have you seen what’s out there, lying in wait for the unwary L2 speaker looking to improve his or her pronunciation? Try a simple search of “accent reduction” on YouTube, and prepare to be shocked. Not that it’s all bad…but there is certainly a lot of bad out there.
In their discussion of the ethical aspects of pronunciation instruction, Derwing and Munro (2015) call out the following video as an “eye opening” example of just how far accent reduction instruction can stray from what we actually know about L2 pronunciation:
I’ve watched this clip over and over, like a so-bad-it’s-good scene in a bad horror film. The speaker instructs the learner to “hit” or “smash” (and, later, “push”) the word “photograph” as “one syllable” while making the vowel “long.” He them emphasizes that “in American English there are no syllables,” a blatant falsehood.
In fact, there is no indication that this individual has any idea what he’s talking about, which points to the real problem: There is no regulation when it comes to the accent reduction business.
Much of the online accent reduction business occurs in the form of prerecorded video-based programs, one-on-one coaching via videoconference, or a combination of the two (Thomson, 2014). There is nothing inherently wrong with this instructional model, but two concerns do come to mind:
- Providers: Anyone, regardless of training or expertise, can make a video and charge money for the “accent reduction” or “accent elimination” they purport to teach. And the quality of online instruction varies wildly (Thomson, 2014; Derwing & Munro, 2015).
- Methodology: When not combined with some kind of face-to-face instructional component, the very medium of video-based instruction promotes a “listen and repeat” paradigm, sending out the false message that improving one’s pronunciation is a simple matter of learner effort (i.e, listening hard enough).
Thomson (2014) recommends we take a proactive role and “… give students tips on how best to avoid charlatans” (p. 183). Of course, the challenge here is figuring out how to equip students without overwhelming them. Here are a few things to watch for:
Five red flags that English learners should watch for when seeking pronunciation instruction (adapted from Thomson, 2014, pp 183–185)
1) The use of fear in marketing. Thomson provides this website excerpt as an example: “If you speak English as a second language and feel like your foreign accent is holding you back from jobs, promotions, and even friendships, this may be one of the most important messages you will ever read…”. If they try to play on your fears, walk away.
2) The promise of magic and/or speed. Thomson’s example: “Can you really lose your accent? Yes! [In 28 days], says [this accent reduction expert]”. Pronunciation improvement takes time and consistent practice.
3) An exclusive focus on the mouth. Watch sample lessons and evaluate their content. Instructors that focus solely on individual sounds (and not on stress, intonation, linking, or reduction) or who suggest it’s just a matter of knowing where to put your lips/tongue/teeth should be regarded with caution.
4) A lack of information about the instructor. As you browse the Internet for accent reduction programs, look for the “about” tab on a given website. If the instructor offers little or no information, that’s definitely a red flag. Thomson adds, “If providers simply state they they have years of experience or are SLPs [speech language pathologists] or ELTs [English language teachers], ask where they gained their specific knowledge of L2 pronunciation instruction.”
5) High and/or up-front payments with complex terms of agreement. It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: Read the fine print carefully.
Of course, the best way to protect our learners from accent reduction charlatans is to provide learners with the pronunciation instruction they crave. That said: Have you ever had a student ask you for advice about online pronunciation instruction? What advice have you given?
Derwing, T., & Munro, M. J. (2015). Pronunciation fundamentals: Evidence-based perspectives for L2 teaching and research. Philadelphia, PA: Benjamins.
Murphy, J. (2014). “Training programs provide adequate preparation,” in L. Grant (Ed.), Pronunciation myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Thomson, R. (2014). “Accent reduction and pronunciation are the same,” in L. Grant (Ed.), Pronunciation myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.