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Who should your students sound like? A pronunciation discussion

Should your ESL students sound like Brits? Should they sound like Americans? Or does their accent even matter? Recently, I have been working with students on their pronunciation and it has really made me think about what our pronunciation goals should be. Most often, students want to sound like native speakers. Most learners will never get there. And they don’t have to!

wili_hybrid's, Creative Commons

I try to make it clear to my students that our goal is comprehensibility and intelligibility. I want people to be able to understand what they are saying. But I don’t see the need to linguistically hide their colorful backgrounds (like the one in this picture).

Accents are wonderful and beautiful. Sadly, in some situations you may be at a disadvantage if you have an accent. But I hope that in the future accents won’t hinder. If anything they should be looked at positively. It shows that someone knows two or more languages.

Still, I am not trying to make a political stand by telling students that they shouldn’t try to sound exactly like a native speaker.  I just would rather have them be understood (which requires using the correct intonation and stress), than know how to say individual English sounds. Honestly, the rising intonation in questions like this one is more important than the American r.

I am not alone in this thinking. The movement towards teaching larger pronunciation rules (called Suprasegmentals)  instead of little sounds is very popular in pronunciation teaching. But it requires teachers to explain that sounding like a native speaker isn’t that important. Which some students just don’t want to hear!

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