Are you looking to build your confidence in speaking English? If you experience stress because you worry about your accent there's a good reason for it. In this article, I will show why pronunciation is key to being understood. However I will also show that to have confidence, you don’t necessarily have to change your accent. If you can master specific pronunciation skills, you will be able to speak clearly, and confidently, especially in a global English situation.
Global English - English as a Lingua Franca
Around the world, English is the language people who speak different languages use to communicate. People who are native speakers of many different languages do business, discuss politics, develop ideas and make small talk in English. Researchers call this situation, English as a Lingua Franca (ELF).
I have many students who speak English in an ELF situation. For example, Burakh is a software engineer from Turkey. He has weekly video calls with two other engineers from the U.S. - one a native Cantonese speaker and one a native German speaker. Byung Jo is a native Korean speaker in Seoul. She works for Finnish Airlines, and her immediate boss is from Singapore. She has to make regular presentations in English to groups of people from different countries.
Pronunciation- The the Key to Communicating Across Cultures
In high stakes meetings or presentations, what do Burakh and Anna need to know to communicate in English effectively? They probably don’t need culturally specific idioms or phrasal verbs that are only spoken in one English speaking country or region. What they need is to be understood.
One researcher, Jennifer Jenkins, was curious about how teachers can best prepare their students for an ELF environment She analyzed communication problems in her multi-lingual classes to understand the cause. She found the most important factor that caused breakdowns were errors in pronunciation. Pronunciation was responsible for over 65% of communication problems. Secondly was using the wrong word, which was the problem about 20% of the time. (Jenkins, 2000; 85-87)
When native speakers have a communication problem in English they can solve it using their familiarity with grammar and common word groupings. Non-native speakers don’t always have that knowledge. Burakh and Anna have to produce sounds that other people can recognize as a word so it is vital for them to have good English pronunciation.
What Kind of Pronunciation?
But how? What aspects of pronunciation will help them speak English most clearly? Jenkins identified the four most important things that make English understandable in an ELF environment. They are:
- the consonant sounds (with the noticeable exception of voiced and voiceless ‘th’ sounds, as in ‘then’ and ‘think’)
- aspiration of initial /p, t, k/ (as in ‘pen’, ‘ten’, ‘coat’)
- the pronunciation of consonant groups in the beginning or middle of a word (as in ‘product’ or ‘breakfast’)
- vowel length (as in ‘live’ and ‘leave’, or ‘peace’ and ‘peas’)
- tonic stress placement (as in ‘He arrived YESTERDAY’, and ‘He ARRIVED yesterday’)
Keep your Accent but Speak More Clearly
This is good news! So good pronunciation in a global English environment does not mean trying to change your entire accent. It means pronouncing the most important sounds clearly, and giving the right words more stress.
Some ways global English can improve your pronunciation are:
Listening to a variety of different accents as part of listening in English classes.
Looking for recordings of non-native speaking models; excellent speakers of English who have a similar accent to you - then you can try to copy their speech. An example of an Egyptian Arabic model for example is Jehan Sadat https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avdCDEQig7M who speaks beautiful English. For Spanish speakers, Javier Bardem could be an excellent model https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-ubO1SgJRs
Reconsidering the idea that it's aways best to have native English speaking teachers. Non-native English teachers have learned themselves how to speak clearly and might be able to teach pronunciation more effectively for an ELF environment.
And finally having confidence in your spoken accented English. If you experience stress because you worry about your accent it can making speaking much more difficult. I have seen many of my students improve after I told them that they were very understandable. Knowing that gave them the confidence to express themselves more naturally.
What is your opinion? Do you have experiences in this area you can share?
Reference: Jenkins, J. 2000. The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.