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The Role of Contrastive Phonetics and Phonology in EFL/EIL Teaching
Paulo Roberto de Souza Ramos

For many EFL teachers, specially the so-called ‘non-native speakers’, the teaching of pronunciation presents itself as a challenge too great to be overcome. It is my belief that the teaching of pronunciation for speakers of other languages can only be tackled through a contrastive approach in which the learner’s L1 and the desired L2 are analysed in what they share and/or differ. Besides that, it is essential that teachers ask with whom the learners in their classrooms want to communicate.

Over the years, a myriad of different methods have been applied to teach learners to acquire the desired pronunciation. In their Teaching Pronunciation, Celce-Murcia, Brinton, and Goodwin (1996) provide the reader with a history of pronunciation teaching. Their history starts in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the Direct Method. Here, pronunciation was taught through intuition and imitation; learners ought to imitate a model – the teacher or a recording – and do the best they could to approximate that model by means of imitation and repetition. In the 1890s, as part of the Reform Movement in the language teaching there came the first linguistic or analytic contribution to the teaching of pronunciation. The phoneticians Henry Sweet, Wilhem Viëtor, and Paul Passy among others were quite influential in this movement. These phoneticians formed the International Phonetic Association in 1886 and developed the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It is never too much to remind the reader that this alphabet resulted from the establishment of phonetics as a science dedicated to describing and analyzing the sound systems of languages. The existence of a phonetic alphabet made it possible to more accurately transcribe the sounds of languages because of the consistence between the written symbol and the sound it represented. The Reform Movement was responsible for the following notions and practices: a) the spoken form of language is primary and ought to be taught first; b) the findings of phonetics should be applied to language teaching; c) teachers must have solid training in phonetics; d) learners should be given phonetic training to establish good speech habits. The 1940s and 1950s saw the coming into being of Audiolingualism in the USA and the Oral Approach in the UK. In both approaches, pronunciation plays an important role and is taught explicitly from day one. As in the Directed Approach, the instructor, or a recording device, models the sound students ought to imitate or repeat. The difference is that along with that, the instructor also makes use of information from phonetics, e.g. transcriptions or charts that illustrate the articulation of certain sounds. There is also time for teachers to use minimal pair drills (derived from the notion of contrast in structural linguistics). With the 1960s came the Cognitive Approach. This trend was influenced by Noam Chomsky’s transformational-generative grammar and Neisser’s cognitive psychology and viewed language as “rule-governed behavior rather than habit formation (p.5).” Cognitive Approach emphasized grammar and lexis to the detriment of pronunciation because, according to those who advocated it, a) nativelike pronunciation was an unrealistic goal and could not be achieved (Scovel 1969); and, b) time would be better used in teaching more ‘learnable’ things, e.g., grammar structures and vocabulary. The 1970s brought into attention two methods: the Silent Way and Community Language Learning. The former, like Audiolingualism, is characterized by the attention paid to accuracy of production of sounds and structures of the target language from the very beginning. Silent Way proponents argue that it enabled learners to ‘sharpen’ their ‘inner criteria for accurate production’; The Community Language Learning is rooted in the humanistic client-centered learning as found in Carl Rogers (1951). The CLL – Community Language Learning was developed by Charles A. Curran (1976) for the teaching of second and foreign languages. In it, the teaching approach is intuitive and imitative just like in the Direct Method, but the fact it has exact content and practice takes place in an environment where the learner/client ‘rules’, not the teacher (or the textbook).

From the 1980s on, language teaching started being guided by the Communicative Approach. As its name makes clear, it holds that the primary purpose of language is communication, and this should be central in all language classrooms. Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) list 10 items relevant for pronunciation teaching as part of the Communicative Approach:

1. Listen and imitate;
2. Phonetic training;
3. Minimal pair drills;
4. Contextualized minimal pairs;
5. Visual aids, e.g., sound-color charts, pictures, mirrors, realia, etc.
6. Tongue twisters;
7. Development approximation drills;
8. Practice of vowel shits and stress related by affixation;
9. Reading aloud/recitation;
10. Recording of learners’ production.

No matter how different the above methods are, all – except for the Cognitive Approach in which pronunciation was secondary. – have one basic assumption in common: the learner wants and needs to approximate his pronunciation to that of a native speaker.

Is there anything wrong with that? There is nothing ‘wrong’ with wanting to acquire something if that something is what you need, but as Jenkins writes in the beginning of her book, “for the first time in the history of the English language, second language speakers outnumber those for whom it is the mother tongue, and interaction in English involves no first language speakers whatsoever” (p. 1, Jenkins 2001). If that is our reality, and you can add the findings of Crystal (1997) and Widdowson (1994) to it, then one question that begs to be answered is: Do all learners need (or want) to acquire near-native pronunciation?

Jenkins claims that most of the pronunciation materials available in the market assume that learners will have a native speaker as interlocutor. The consequence, she argues, is that such materials will involve elements that are unnecessary, many times unrealistic, and sometimes harmful for learners. Teachers cannot assume that there is one homogenous thing called ‘pronunciation’ and that, unlike others parts of their teaching, it does not require the setting of a certain audience as a goal; it should not be taken for granted that learners learn English to speak with native speakers only.
My practice as a TEFL teacher corroborates Jenkins’s view that the solution is to approximate (English) pronunciation teaching by exploring the phonology of English as an International Language (EIL). Instruction and pedagogy should aim at mutual intelligibility. However, mutual intelligibility for EIL is nothing short than problematic. It is beyond the scope of the present article to discuss the possible solutions. For a detailed discussion, though, see Jenkins (2001), chapter 4.

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