The following post was contributed by Yoko Uchida and Junko Sugimoto. You can read a short biography of Yoko and Junko and their work at the end of this post.
Towards the implementation of ELF-oriented pronunciation teaching in Japan
The acquisition of appropriate pronunciation in English instruction often poses a significant challenge for non-native English teachers. Although the prevalent use of English as a lingua franca (ELF) is widely recognized, and its application to pedagogy is encouraged by many researchers (Jenkins, 2000; Seidlhofer, 2011), its significance does not seem to be sufficiently acknowledged in classrooms and among non-native teachers (Jenkins 2007; Timmis, 2002).
This seems to be the case also in Japan. We conducted a questionnaire survey of 100 junior high school teachers in Tokyo, and found that most believed teachers’ pronunciation should not have traces of a Japanese accent, and that teachers should instead acquire native-speaker accents (Uchida & Sugimoto, 2016). A follow-up study asking the same questions to 16 Japanese college students enrolled in a teacher-training program also obtained a similar result—the majority of the preservice teachers aimed to have native-speaker (mostly American) pronunciation.
This prompted us, as phoneticians and phonetics instructors of the teacher-training curriculum at the university level, to further investigate the underlying reasons behind Japanese teachers’ preference for native-speaker English. Why do they pursue such an unrealistic goal when merely acquiring intelligible pronunciation is acceptable (Celce-Murcia et al., 2010)? What makes them hesitant to set a more attainable goal? What should be included in our phonetics class to enable the preservice teachers to acquire a better perspective of ELF-oriented pedagogy?
To find answers to these questions, we had the same preservice teachers read two texts that introduce the concept of ELF, and then asked them to answer an open-ended essay question: What kind of pronunciation should English teachers aim at? The responses were qualitatively analyzed after classifying them into five categories: teacher’s roles, native-speaker accents, Japanese-accented English, attainability, and intelligibility.
Many responses associated teacher’s roles with positive attributes such as “good” and “correct.” Also, as a role model for students, many respondents believe teachers should set a “higher goal” for themselves and conduct classes with “native-like” pronunciation. Native-speaker accents were described with positive adjectives such as “correct,” “perfect,” “authentic,” and “intelligible.” In contrast, negative labels such as “bad habits,” “difficult to understand,” and “not acceptable,” were assigned to Japanese-accented English. No one mentioned the association of the Japanese accent with their identity (c.f. Sung, 2016). With regard to attainability, the Japanese accent was considered “more realistic and attainable” compared to native-speaker accents that are “more desirable but less attainable.” The importance of intelligibility was acknowledged overall, but there was no mention of what intelligible pronunciation is or what the threshold level is.
The results revealed a few misconceptions held by the preservice teachers, one of which was the persistent belief that teachers should sound like native speakers. For example, they believed that teachers should speak with better pronunciation than students to serve as a role model, but did not realize that better pronunciation did not necessarily equate to native-like pronunciation. In our opinion, however, to become good role models to their students, they do not need to speak with a native accent, but need to be able to communicate efficiently with native and non-native speakers alike using appropriate communication strategies. Many respondents also did not seem to fully understand that there is more NNS-NNS communication today than NS-NNS communication.
Another misconception is the belief that native accents are always correct and more intelligible. One reason behind this misconception is that teachers have exposure to limited varieties and types of English accents in Japanese classrooms. Many assistant language teachers (ALTs) are from the Inner Circle countries and enunciate clearly in the class. In addition, textbook audio materials use mostly North American accents spoken slowly and clearly (Sugimoto & Uchida, 2016). As Japan is mostly a monolingual society, neither teachers nor students have sufficient exposure to different varieties and types of English, which can be heavily accented (whether it be a native or non-native variety), spoken at a fast rate, or pronounced unclearly (depending on the contexts of language use).
As for the comment that the Japanese accent is not intelligible, unfortunately, there are studies that report negative attitudes toward the Japanese accent (e.g. Jenkins, 2007); therefore, it appears the respondents’ claim holds true to some extent. However, when it comes to determining what part of the Japanese accent affects intelligibility, previous studies have not provided convincing data, and further investigation is required.
Responses by the preservice teachers appear to stem from the fundamental fact that Japanese speakers of English lack sufficient interaction with diverse English users and have never had their English challenged in terms of intelligibility. For instance, the respondents’ misconception that native-speaker varieties are more intelligible can be rectified if they listen to a wider variety of native-speaker accents and to intelligible non-native pronunciation, which can serve as good models (Murphy, 2014).
Japanese speakers of English need to experience communication breakdowns many times through communication with both native and non-native speakers, and need to face situations in which they need to accommodate their speech. In our opinion, this would be indispensable for them to truly understand what intelligible pronunciation is. As phoneticians and teacher-training instructors, our job includes helping our students correctly understand the current use of ELF and incorporating and introducing various resources available (e.g., Internet chat services, international television broadcasting), which will help them experience using ELF both inside and outside classrooms (c.f. Matsuda, 2003).
In short, the notion of ELF can be introduced through teaching, but intensive hands-on experience is essential to acquire a complete understanding of it.
Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., Goodwin, J. M. (with Griner, B.) (2010). Teaching Pronunciation: A Course Book and Reference Guide. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jenkins, J. (2007). English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Matsuda, A. (2003). Incorporating world Englishes in teaching English as an international language. TESOL Quarterly, 37, 719-729.
Murphy, J. (2014). Intelligible, comprehensible, non-native models in ESL/EFL pronunciation teaching. System 42, 258–269.
Seidlhofer, B. (2011). Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sugimoto, J., & Uchida, Y. (2016). A variety of English accents used in teaching materials targeting Japanese learners. Proceedings of the 1st International Symposium on Applied Phonetics, 43-47.
Sung, C.C.M. (2016). Does accent matter? Investigating the relationship between accent and identity in English as a lingua franca communication. System, 60, 55-65.
Timmis, I. (2002). Native-speaker norms and international English: A classroom view. ELT Journal, 56, 240-249.
Uchida, Y., & Sugimoto, J. (2016). A survey of Japanese English teachers’ attitudes towards pronunciation teaching and knowledge on phonetics: Confidence and teaching. Proceedings of the 1st International Symposium on Applied Phonetics, 38-42.
About the authors: Yoko Uchida and Junko Sugimoto
Yoko UCHIDA studied at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and obtained her PhD in Humanities in 2001. She is currently a professor at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology. Her research interests include, but are not limited to, the perception of English sounds by Japanese speakers, intelligibility, and Maritime English. One of her current topics is the pursuit of intelligibility levels expected of different groups of native Japanese speakers who use English in different contexts and for different purposes.
Junko SUGIMOTO is currently a lecturer at the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo. She has an MA in Phonetics from University College London. Her research interests include the acquisition of rhythm and intonation by Japanese learners of English, teaching pronunciation, and intelligibility. She is currently focusing on how to effectively teach selected segmentals and suprasegmentals that affect intelligibility to Japanese learners of English.