The Urgency of Teaching Pronunciation for EFL learners

English ArticleBy : Ust. Serman Prayogi, S.Pd

Pronunciation refers to the way a word or a language is spoken, or the manner in which someone utters a word. If one is said to have ‘correct pronunciation’, then it refers to both within a particular dialect ( It involves far more than individual sounds. Word stress, sentence stress, intonation, and word linking all influence the sound of spoken English, not to mention the way we often slur words and phrases together in casual speech. In EFL countries, many learners are getting difficulties in speaking English with a good pronunciation-in this case; ‘good’ means they full fill the standard of RP (Received Pronunciation). Received Pronunciation refers to the pronunciation which can be cached the exact meaning by the native speakers. Making a mistake in pronunciation can lead a misunderstanding for the native speakers. Furthermore, unfortunately, many English teachers in EFL countries are also same. Many of them still cannot speak English well (even they may understand well about grammar). That’s one of problems for the learners in EFL countries to be able to communicate with native speakers effectively.

It is actually not easy teaching pronunciation. Greenwood (1981: 38) says that “the aim of teaching pronunciation is, of course, to make learners to able to speak English which is both intelligible and acceptable to the recipients, those who listen to the pronunciation. Both criteria are important, especially when so much emphasis is given to communication nowadays.” Intelligible means what one say is clear enough to be understood and acceptable means the person who one talks to can accept the same meaning of the words or sentences are spoken. The similar statement is adapted from the Brown’s, that teaching pronunciation means not only building a learner’s articulatory competence simply as the mastery of a list of phonemes and allophones, but also features of pronunciation such as stress, rhythm, and intonation must be given high priority.

T h e  r o l e s

At the beginning, pronunciation was thought as an unimportant aspect to teach in English class. Indeed, when Classical Method (also well-known as Grammar-Translation Method) was very popular, teachers didn’t teach how to speak, or how to pronounce the words or sentences. Teachers just focused on the grammatical rules, memorization of vocabulary and of various declensions and conjugations, translation of texts, and written exercises (Brown, 2007: 18). In many EFL countries, teaching pronunciation is still ignored. We do not know whether they (the teachers) just think that it is just something not important or they don not want to be confused by the pronunciation rules that they themselves still cannot speak with the Received Pronunciation.

Here are the examples; at the primary, secondary and tertiary level in Bangladesh, an English pronunciation course or English pronunciation as a component in the English course is hardly given any considerable place at all. In China, an English phonetics course is simply left to chance or given no room (Cheng, 1998). As in Bangladesh, some teachers in Taiwan might argue that English pronunciation is not important at all, for very few tests would require students to show abilities related to pronunciation or speaking (Lin, Fan and Chen, 1995). Similarly, English pronunciation is arbitrarily overlooked in Thailand (Wei and Zhou, 2002). In Mexico, pronunciation is described as “the Cinderella of language teaching”; that means an often low level of emphasis is placed on this very important language skill (Dalton, 2002). But now we have to change it. Even though, the usefulness of teaching second/foreign language pronunciation is a widely debated issue in the language teaching world. Purcell and Suter (1980:286) hold that pronunciation practice in the class has little effect on the learner’s pronunciation skills and, moreover ‘that the attainment of accurate pronunciation in a second language is a matter substantially beyond the control of educators’. Contrariwise, Pennington (1989) questions the validity of Purcell and Suter’s findings, and states that there is no firm basis for asserting categorically that pronunciation is not teachable or it is not worth spending time on teaching pronunciation. Nonetheless, pronunciation is definitely the biggest thing that people notice when a person is speaking. Let us look at an anecdote:
Whenever I spoke to a person in America, they kept asking me “What? What?”. I would repeat my sentence again and again. Finally they would say “Ah-ha!” and then say my sentence, using exactly my words! It was very humiliating. I knew my words and grammar were good, but nobody would understand me, just because of my pronunciation (


So, from the fact according to that anecdote, we can consider that pronunciation is urgently required in teaching English in order to make the learners be able to communicate effectively. That’s why pronunciation must be taught as an important aspect to learn by the students-especially, EFL students. Baker (1992) has explained about this, “pronunciation is very important and learners should pay close attention to pronunciation as early as possible.” All people must understand that learning a language, especially English, doesn’t only require being good in writing or knowing well about grammar, but furthermore, there is something that is as important as those. It is pronunciation. Some experts have realized that there has been a good development recently, ”Recently as English teaching has moved to language functions, and communicative competencies, a new urgency for the teaching of pronunciation has arisen” (Celce-Murcia, 1987; Morley, 1994; Gilbert, 1994).

The experts believe that pronunciation is one of big factors that we need in order to master English. And the good thing that we can know is, now days many people have assumed that one doesn’t succeed in mastering English if he/she doesn’t be able to speak fluently or smoothly like a native speaker does. “Many Learners of foreign languages feel that their ultimate goal in pronunciation should be accent-free speech that is indistinguishable from that of a native speaker” (Brown, 2007: 340). Then Brown (2007: 339) also explains that it became clear that pronunciation was a key to gaining full communicative competence. That’s why pronunciation is required to be taught. Scarcella and Oxford (1994) similarly postulate that pronunciation should be taught in all second (/foreign) language classes through a variety of activities. With the emphasis on meaningful communication and Morley’s (1991: 488) premise, that ‘intelligible pronunciation is an essential component of communication competence’, teachers should include pronunciation in their courses and expect their learners to do well in them.

Another reason to show that there is urgency of teaching Pronunciation for EFL learners is that pronunciation can affect other language skills of the students. Wong (1993) demonstrates that a lack of knowledge of pronunciation could even affect learners’ reading and spelling. When a learner reads a text, he/she must read it correctly and fluently (the pronunciation is clear and received) so other people who listen on it can understand well the meaning/message that the text carries out. Then the last urgency is, pronunciation considerably affects the listening skill. If a person speaks clearly with the Received Pronunciation, he/she is automatically able to listen well. His/her hearing sense is sharper. For example, if a person is faced into a dialogue which contains many clustering sounds, then he/she masters pronunciation well, we can ensure that he/she can understand well about the message of the dialogue. Because he/she knows how to produce that clustering sounds so he/she also knows what word a particular sound belongs to.

A s p e c t s   t o   b e   a w a r e

There are two kinds of aspects that we need to be aware. The first is that factors within learners that affect pronunciation and the second is the features that either the learners or the teachers must pay attention to.

Below is the list of the factors within learners that affect pronunciation (adapted from Kenworthy, 1987: 4-8) in (Brown, 2007: 340-341) or of variables that we should consider.

  1. Native Language. Clearly, the native language is the most influential factor affecting a learner’s pronunciation (see PLLT, Chapter 9). If you are familiar with the sound system of the learner’s native language, you will be better to diagnose student difficulties. Many L1-L2 carryovers can be overcome through a focused awareness and effort on the learner’s part.
  2. Generally speaking, children under the age of puberty stand an excellent chance of “sounding like native” if they have continued exposure in authentic contexts. Beyond the age of puberty, while adults will almost surely maintain a “foreign accent,” there is no particular advantage attributed to age (see PLLT, Chapter 3). A 50-year-old can be as successful as 18-year-old if all other factors are equal. Remind your students, especially if your students are older, that “the younger, the better” is a myth.
  3. It is difficult to define exposure. One can actually live in a foreign country for sometime but not take advantage of being “with the people.” Research seems to support the notion that the quality and the intensity of exposure are more than mere length of time. If class time spent focusing on pronunciation demands the full attention and interest of your students, then they stand a good chance of reaching their goals.
  4. Innate phonetic ability. Often referred to as having an “ear” for language, some people manifest a phonetic coding ability that others do not. In many cases, if a person has had exposure to a foreign language as a child, this “knack” is present whether the early language is remembered or not. Others are simply more attuned to phonetic discriminations. Some people would have you believe that you either have such a knack, or you don’t. strategies based instruction(see Chapter 16), however, has proven that some elements of learning are a matter of an awareness of your own limitations combined with a conscious focus on doing something to compensate for those limitations. Therefore, if pronunciation seems to be naturally difficult for some students, they should not despair; with some effort and concentration, they can improve their competence.
  5. Identity and language ego. Yet another influence is one’s attitude toward speakers of the target language and the extent to which the language ego identifies with those speakers. Learners need to be reminded of the important of the positive attitudes toward the people who speak the language (if such a target is identifiable), but more important, students need to become aware of – and not afraid of – the second identity that may be emerging within them.
  6. Motivation and concern for good pronunciation. Some learners are not particularly concerned about their pronunciation, while others are. The extent to which the learners intrinsic motivation propels them toward improvement will be perhaps the strongest influence of all six the factors in this list. If that motivation and concern are high, then the necessary effort will be expended in pursuit of goals. You can help learners to perceive or develop that motivation by showing, among other things, how clarity of speech is significant in shaping their-self image and, ultimately, in reaching some of their higher goals.

The second aspect below is the list of features that we have to take more attention (adapted from Greenwood, 1981: 40-43) when we are on Pronunciation class.

  1. Consonant clusters

Learning difficulties may arise where the MT (Mother Tongue) has a syllabic structure with single consonants and no clusters, so that the learner is inclined to insert a short vowel sound between adjacent consonants; e.g. film may be pronounced /fɪləm/. Or maybe the word sport will be pronounced /səpɔːt/ by an Indonesian learner. Some final clusters are important, particularly those which involve grammatical inflection:

Consonant +/s/             for the Simple              (he eats)

Consonant +/z/             Present                           (he digs)

Consonant +/s/             for Noun plurals         (books, Pat’s, cats’)

Consonant +/z/             and for ‘s and s’           (cards, Tom’s, dogs’)

Consonant +/t/             for the Simple Past     (walked)

Consonant +/d/            and Past Participle     (screamed)

So we as teachers have to be aware for this. We have to show the right pronunciation by repeating again, again, and again until the learners know how to produce the right pronunciation.

  1. Linkage between words

The term liaison is sometimes used to refer to this feature of continuous speech. A weakness in many learners’ pronunciation is the jerky, staccato effect caused by not linking words together; e.g.

heisalwaysearly               instead of         he’s always’ early.

There is also a tendency with some learners to place a glottal stop before a word beginning with a vowel in a stressed syllable; e.g.

He always may be pronounced /hiɔːl.weɪz/.

However, such linkage often results in

(i) omission of a consonant; e.g. last week may be pronounced /lɑːswiːk/;

(ii) assimilation, whereby a consonant changes to another by the influence of an adjacent consonant; e.g. this year may be pronounced /ðɪʃjɪə r /.

  1. Intonation

This is the rise and fall of pitch in an utterance, that is, the tune. Intonation, indeed, can affect the communication. A wrong intonation will not normally fail to convey any meaning at all, but will succeed in conveying a meaning different from that intended by the speaker. For instance, there is a world of difference in the wife’s response to her husband’s enquiry: Would you like that fur coat in the window?

  • (with a high fall) – enthusiastic
  • (with a low fall) – unenthusiastic

Even if the different tunes have different meanings, it is difficult to confine a particular meaning (often the attitude of the speaker) to a particular tune, or to list fully all possible meanings to any one tune. In short, there is much overlap.

  1. Stress and rhythm

Stress refers to the amount of energy with which a syllable is spoken, whereas rhythm is the combination of strong and weak stresses in a sentence and their timing. There are two types of stress: word-stress and sentences-stress.

  1. word-stress

This is invariable and so the learner should always learn the stress pattern of a new word as well as its meaning. It is more important to get word-stress right than even intonation, because if it is wrong the listener may well fail to recognize the word altogether, even if the vowels and consonants are correctly pronounced. There are obviously many stress patterns because of the variation in the number of syllables in English words.

  1. Sentences-stress

English is often called a stress-timed language because it has strong stresses or beats at more or less regular intervals. The greater the number of weak-stressed syllables between two adjacent strong stresses the quicker those weak-stressed syllables are uttered.

For example: Go’ ‘a ‘way ‘from ‘the ‘door.

So, from all those explanation, what we can conclude is that Pronunciation plays a big role in making affective conversation, understandable, and meaningful utterances. There are many factors that we have to pay attention more when we teach pronunciation, that’s why teaching pronunciation is not easy. Even it’s not so easy, if I may say, that’s a must to teach pronunciation for your EFL students in order to make their English utterances correct with Received Pronunciation, and understandable (by the native speakers).


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Cheng, F. (1998). The Teaching of Pronunciation to Chinese Students of English. English Teaching Forum, Jan-Mar, 1998, 37-39.

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  1. Hello. What a good article is! I do agree that today’s teaching of pronunciation serves as an essential point to do by EFL teachers to EFL students. This now, however, turns to be different. Pronunciation teaching in Indonesia, may be also in some other EFL countries, is too much referred to native speakers’ accent. I remember a remark by Prof. Jennifer Jenkins. She said that “non-native students are worthy to be introduce the local English accent. This is not much seen by teachers of English in Indonesia. Dr. Nugrahenny T. Zacharias also contended that it is now the time for Indonesian teachers to teach their students’ own English, not British and or American! This issue is much elaborated in World Englishes literature. We teachers of English in Indonesia need to keep up reading this. If this is done, identity of self from students and teachers would possible live up! So, native speaker’s pronunciation is no longer persisten in EFL contexts.

    M. Faruq Ubaidillah
    A fresh graduate student of ELT program, Universitas Islam Malang (UNISMA), East Java.

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