Making Accurate, Sound Comparisions in ESL/EFL Conversation Classes

ESL teachers, especially working with oral skills and pronunciation, face a difficult task. Is there a single, correct form of English that should be taught? Should all English speakers sound like Americans or British? What if EFL students plan to study in Australia or Canada? The question is far more complicated than many English pronunciation instructors admit.

How do you say that again? Which is correct? What is a sound comparison?

English teachers and linguists might also find website worth a visit. Focusing on the many different dialects of English across the world, it implicitly challenges the notion of a “correct” or “accurate” pronunciation of English. The sound files come from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, North Amerca, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, India, and Singapore. Some accents, for this American listener, require significant effort to understand. All dialects, however, successfully function within their local areas. People are able to communicate with their neighbors, co-workers, and customers. The language, in short, works.

Of course, context matters. If international students plan to study at an American university, it behooves them to listen to North American dialects – and make sure that their pronunciation is clear and comprehensible to American listeners. If they hope to attend a Scottish university, students might want to try out that accent as the target sound. Being audience focused, after all, is part of effective communication and good manners.

That is also why I focus less on “correct” pronunciation if I can understand the students and friends. I certainly note the gap between what I heard and standard American pronunciation when giving feedback, but I try to avoid using judgmental words like “wrong” if the word is comprehensible. This issue, as one would expect, often comes up with Indian speakers of English with their fast tempo and sometimes sing-song patterns. Perspectives differ, but I prefer to focus on comprehensibility.

Among international friends and if asked, I will also gladly observe the standard “American” pronunciation and repeat what I heard. Yet focusing, perhaps even obsessing, on “correct” pronunciation can often block English language learners from communicating ideas and being themselves in English. Let’s keep the focus on comprehensibility and ideas – and remember the wide, wonderful world of English accents!

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