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Walker, R. 2011. Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Reviewer: Karen Smith

20 February 2012

Robin Walker’s ‘Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca’ gives us, as EFL practitioners, food for thought.  The book’s first half introduces English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and discusses the implications this has for teachers and students alike. The second half of the book is devoted to practical teaching suggestions, descriptions of typical problems caused by L1 transfer by language type and transcripts which can be used in conjunction with the CD samples of ELF speakers.

The first chapter describes English today as it is used worldwide and the development of new varieties of English.  Importantly Walker highlights the fact that there is exponential growth of numbers of ESL speakers, while ENL remains static, which leads to the unusual situation of there being more non-native speakers of English than native speakers.  In light of this he argues that the pedagogic goalposts in ELT have moved, or should be moved if we are to teach English as a Lingua Franca.

Many learners today will not use English to communicate with native speakers, therefore obtaining a native speaker accent, such as RP (Received Pronunciation) or GA (General American) is no longer a useful objective.  ELF is spoken between non-native speakers, yet pronunciation work in almost all current course books prepares the learner for interactions with native speakers.  Walker says that ELF represents a community of users of English upon which NS cannot impose their norms. I’m not sure ELF speakers form a ‘community’ but I think he has a point.

Walker teases out the issues involved in language variation and accents.  Speakers’ accents are linked to their identity, and intelligibility is not directly linked to accent.  Intelligibility can only be judged by the interlocutors because it is the result of the interaction between them.

The book refers to research by Deterding and Kilpatrick (2006) and also the VOICE corpus data on European ELF which identifies consistent features of lexis and grammar which previously would have been considered errors or interlanguage.  Walker also draws heavily on the research of Professor Jenkins into the pronunciation of ELF which has identified a small number of features that are central to ELF intelligibility.  Jenkins’ (2000) work concluded that incorrect grammar does not cause miscommunication in ELF contexts, but incorrect pronunciation does.  Specifically, communication breakdown is caused by the transfer of L1 sounds (Jenkins, 2000:88).

With that in mind Chapter 2 proposes that the teaching of ELF pronunciation must cover four main areas identified by Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core (LFC).  Most RP/GA consonants, with the notable exception of dental fricatives, will need to be taught.  Rhotic ‘r’ should be taught; as this reflects spelling more closely and should increase intelligibility.  Strategies for coping with consonant clusters are recommended, such as avoiding deletion but tolerating addition.  Focussing teaching on length differences between vowels, rather than producing perfect native speaker quality sounds, and limiting the teaching of connected speech to the placement of nuclear sentence stress are also recommended.

Walker argues that the workload for the teaching of ELF pronunciation is less because the task is simplified in order to meet three aims: mutual intelligibility, identity and ‘teach’-ability.  This change of emphasis means that we should spend less time on trying to teach tone, word stress and stress timing.  Great news for us!

Chapter 3 is an honest discussion of concerns raised by teachers and learners alike.  In response to the argument that the new approach will lower standards, he responds that the LFC sets high standards – just not with the same emphasis as those required of learners hoping to achieve a native speaker accent.  He underlines the importance of setting achievable standards, which is why non-core features which are difficult to teach and can have a negative impact on learners are left out.

Chapters 4 to 6 deal with the practical side. Walker points to techniques and materials particularly suited for teaching ELF. He talks about the importance of making learners aware of ELF, understanding accent variation, using the students as a resource and the importance of exposing learners to a range of ELF accents in order to develop accommodation skills. Chapter 5 covers the well-known pronunciation difficulties of various L1 backgrounds such as Arabic, Mandarin, German, Greek, Japanese, Malay, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish in light of the LFC.  Chapter 6 includes a useful discussion of how ELF may be assessed.

So, setting aside debate about the true nature and future of ELF, the book makes the case, rather convincingly, for a more pragmatic approach to teaching pronunciation.  A lighter workload (see table on p.62) gets a thumbs up, as does setting more realistic goals for practitioners and learners alike.  It leads to increased progress and success.  In my experience there are far fewer individuals who achieve a native speaker accent, than those who learn to speak English in a perfectly intelligible but accented way.  His proposed changes will probably be greeted with a sigh of relief from non-native speaker teachers and native speaker teachers alike as suddenly their regional accents are accepted as valid models.

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