Pronunciation Perspectives: A Video Conversation With Tracey Derwing

Move over, Perfection—there’s a better, smarter game in town for pronunciation teaching. Starring twin hitters Intelligibility and Comprehensibility, and it’s all about evidence-based instruction and the listener-speaker dynamic.

You see, I recently had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Tracey Derwing, Professor Emerita at University of Alberta, pronunciation teaching practitioner, researcher, and coauthor of the newly released Pronunciation Fundamentals: Evidence-based Perspectives for L2 Teaching and Research (Derwing & Munro, 2015). If you’re not already familiar with their work, know this: Derwing and Munro are to intelligibility and comprehensibility what Howard Gardner is to multiple intelligences. It’s game-changing stuff.

Tracey DerwingWhat I’d originally envisioned as a simple Skype interview swiftly revealed itself to be the kind of conversation that deserves to be served in small, rich bites. And so today’s pronunciation video morsel highlights Tracey Derwing’s thoughts on intelligibility and comprehensibility.

Derwing describes intelligibility as how much of what a speaker says is understood by the listener, while comprehensibility gets at the effort required by the listener to understand and the resulting ease (or frustration) associated with that effort. Don’t let the -ibilities get in the way of appreciation: Think of intelligibility as message-oriented and comprehensibility as experiential, interpersonal, emotional.

Unlike past, idealized notions of native-like speech, these concepts are fundamentally linked to the L2 speaker and their listeners in social context. That context is shaped by geography, culture, and discourse group: We’re not talking about one or even a few idealized accents, but rather real speech in the real world.

I know you’ll enjoy the video excerpt below, for Derwing-as-linguist is herself highly comprehensible, exacting minimal effort from us-as-listeners to understand the kinds of ideas that often remain buried in academic journals. Here, she makes three simple yet profound points that every teacher of English should spend some time thinking about:

  1. Not all features of an L2 accent impact intelligibility.
  2. Just because an L2 accent feature is noticeable, it doesn’t mean it needs to be addressed.
  3. With the help of current research, we can focus our attention on L2 pronunciation features that are shown to affect intelligibility the most.

It’s wonderful, isn’t it? In just under 5 minutes, Derwing gives us the informed authority to say, out loud, that the “th” sounds /θ/ and / ð / are simply not all that important when considered in the larger context of intelligibility. It’s something I’ve been saying for years, but until now, it’s been perhaps more a matter of intuition than fact.

No doubt some learners may resist messages like this (What? Give up worrying about the “th” sound? Never!), but teachers, supported by functional load research like that of Brown (1988, 2014) and Derwing & Munro (2006, 2015) will be able to prioritize the time they spend on pronunciation issues: Use the data, and invest your time on the features that matter most, like stress and high-load phonemes like /p/ vs /b/.

Used as points of departure for good research, intelligibility and comprehensibility have the potential to revolutionize how teachers decide which pronunciation features deserve time and effort. What’s more, intelligibility research will make it easier for teachers to customize instruction for each learner’s pronunciation needs.

If you’re like me, it’s thrilling to see Derwing and Munro shine their mighty flashlight on that very old elephant in the room: a long-standing tendency in our field to teach pronunciation as a matter of “good” and “correct” versus “bad” and “wrong”—shallow adjectives that, at best, draw on prescriptive notions of spoken language in isolation. Derwing boldly recasts pronunciation as it really is: as a dynamic phenomenon that involves both the L2 speaker and the intended listener.

What do you think? Are you ready for some good change?

Read part 2 of this blog and see the rest of the video conversation with Tracey Derwing.

References

Brown, A. (2014). Pronunciation and phonetics: A practical guide for English language teachers. London, England: Routledge.

Brown, A. (1988). Functional load and the teaching of pronunciation. TESOL Quarterly, 22, 593–606.

Derwing, T. M., & Munro, M. J. (2015). Pronunciation fundamentals: Evidence-based perspectives for L2 teaching and research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Derwing, T. M., & Munro, M. J. (2006). The functional load principle in ESL pronunciation instruction: An exploratory study. System: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics, 34(4), 520–531.

About Karen Taylor de Caballero

Karen Taylor de Caballero
Karen Taylor de Caballero is an educational consultant and trainer. She holds a Master’s Degree in TESOL from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and BA in English Literature from Georgetown University. She has taught extensively in the Washington DC area, as well as in Namibia and Mexico, where she served as a Fulbright TEFL specialist. Karen is co-author of the Color Vowel Chart and co-founder of English Language Training Solutions, dedicated to empowering teachers, learners, and our society at large with sound awareness for mutual comprehensibility. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and 6-year-old twins. Visit Karen's personal blog at http://elts.solutions/category/blog/
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6 Responses to Pronunciation Perspectives: A Video Conversation With Tracey Derwing

  1. english teacher. 56 senior high school,west jakarta Indonesia says:

    Thank for the interesting video, it helps me to be careful and remember in pronoucing special words especially on the high – load sounds in dealing with intelligibility and comprehensibility.

  2. Jack says:

    Thanks for the great video. I’ve been trying to teach my students those sounds that are more likely to affect intelligibility. I was just wondering how I should teach /p/ and /b/ when most students seem to already know how to pronounce these sounds correctly. Thanks.

    • Hi, Jack. If I understand your question correctly, you’re wondering how to teach learners who substitute /p/ for /b/ or vice versa, is that right? If so, it’s not unlike the problem of Japanese students who substitute /l/ for /r/ or speakers of Spanish who substitute /b/ for /v/: it’s not as much of a “how to” problem as it is an awareness issue. And that’s not an easy-fix issue.

      I think we have to start with our own sincere (teacher) awareness that each of these pairs of sounds really are ‘the same’ in the context of a learner’s L1, i.e. allophones (two only slightly different ‘versions’ of what is considered the same sound in their L1). The conundrum of allophony in the L2 classroom is that many native English speaking teachers can’t quite believe that the learner validly perceives two sounds (such as /p/ and /b/) as ‘the same.’ So I think we need to start there: validating the difficulty, and not taking a “listen harder” approach. From there, I think I’d move forward with lots of pattern practice (important words that feature /p/, important words that feature /b/ and then perhaps some focused minimal pair practice as a formative assessment) with a mirror in hand (for self-monitoring) throughout. I hope others will weigh in with their ideas on this good question!

  3. Hi, Dedene,

    Thank you for your comment; I’m glad you enjoyed the interview! I think it’s important we be reminded, constantly, that what we as people notice most in pronunciation– i.e. segmentals like the two “th” sounds– are often the least significant barriers to communication. The real barriers– i.e. suprasegmentals such as word stress, linking, and intonation– are the real deal breakers of communication, and we as teachers need ongoing training to notice how these work and how to teach them.

  4. Dedene Nelson-Court says:

    Karen, thank you for this fascinating interview. As an English teacher to non-native speakers, I’ve often wondered if I wasn’t wasting the learners’ time making them practice ‘th’ sounds and other non-essential pronunciation. Now I see that I need to focus on the ‘high-load’ sounds and be more concerned that the speakers are intelligible and comprehensible.

    Thanks again!

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