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ESL Teachers having a difficult time with students' L2 Pronunciation Acquisition

Updated on January 2, 2017

L2 teachers are often considered a kind of superheroes in classrooms because they are expected to achieve the most outrageous changes in students’ behavior and knowledge in a short time period. Outsiders believe L2 learning is an automatic process that can be easily performed by these extraordinary characters whose only weapons are their academic background and experience. Under this perspective, teachers are made of steel, able to fly and also know every single strategy or technique that students may require in order to learn an L2. Teachers’ biggest challenge is to get students to speak an L2 naturally by using a native - like pronunciation. Is that really possible? Real classroom experience has shown that many teachers do not get good results at it and there are understandable reasons. Therefore, teachers should stop feeling guilty for students’ failure in this respect, because it is not true good teachers have super powers. If an L2 teacher has accomplished all academic requirements, has a second language sufficiency, has the teaching experience and has the will to do his job within an effective educational environment, only then, he is able to have the chance to use his real “power” which is applying his knowledge and doing his best with the students he has in a classroom. Now, every student is different and there could be difficulties too. What are those key factors that may affect students L2 pronunciation acquisition that teachers should be aware of?. This paper will analyze some of them and will also provide recommendations for teachers to facilitate input and enhance their students’ performance when producing L2 sounds.

Many L2 teachers may not feel confident at work, they might be getting low evaluations from students and/or authorities. Criticism is not helping them. When students do not perform L2 sounds as they should, teachers get so discouraged that they prefer not to challenge their students during classes, so they can work within a peaceful environment. Teachers slow down to make students feel at ease in a safe comfort zone. Some students have serious difficulties when learning an L2 so when they are exposed to new methodologies, they tend to misbehave. In the worst case, if they fail the course for not being able to speak accordingly, they end up complaining about the teacher. Unfortunately, teachers are always responsible of his students’ failure during the process. They are constantly blamed for giving unfair grades, the methodology he applied was not accurate, the level of exigency was too high, there were too many rules, etc. Students’ reasons for failing are so varied, but what about the teacher?... Why are L2 teachers seen as superheroes who can do the unbelievable?. Teachers have the right to know what limitations they may have to deal with in their classes. They should be informed of what has been proven by experts research in order to focus on more realistic objectives depending on the group of students they are in charge of. Teachers self -motivation and reassurance are two aims of this paper. Teachers need to know there are some features that affect L2 sound acquisition. All teachers will face them and their work is to try different alternatives to deal with them, keeping in mind what is actually achievable and what is not.

Universities in the Ecuadorian framework require their students to pass certain amount of levels of English Language (as an L2) in order to get its sufficiency degree and graduate in their careers. English courses are mandatory for students who have had poor introduction to this learning experience. It is important to mention that some students are reluctant to study a new language because they do not consider it relevant for their careers or they just do not like it for personal reasons. English classes often take place on a basis of: a text, grammar exercises, students participation, visual aids, platforms, internet use, projectors and screens. The spoken language production is oriented to the Communicative approach. Pronunciation seems to be considered not a very important aspect though. Oral tests are much more focused on evaluating content, use of structures, coherence and vocabulary. As Janczukowicz (2014) mentions, the criterion whether a speaker has managed to communicate a message successfully recurs in education standards, such as the Common European Framework as well as the international Cambridge examinations at various levels. It is also known that L2 teachers’ aim when teaching pronunciation should be focused on communicative efficiency. Hawkins’ (2004) definition of communicative efficiency implied that communication is efficient when the message (M) intended by the speaker (S) is calibrated to the hearer’s (H) mental model in such a way as to achieve accurate comprehension of M with rapid speed and the least processing effort compatible with H’s mental model. Therefore, if accurate comprehension is required, native – like pronunciation input of words and phrases is also a must.

Dr. James E. Flege, a prestigious linguist from The University of Alabama, and some of his colleagues worked on an interesting research that examined the different variables influencing on immigrants’ success in learning acquisition of sounds in L2. Their findings suggest that there are some factors that should particularly help foreign language students to develop a high level of second language proficiency.

a) Age of L2 learning

The results of Dr. Flege’s studies support the view that the earlier an L2 is learned, the more native-like its pronunciation and perception will be. Individuals who began learning their L2 in childhood (often called “early” learners or bilinguals) have not only been found to pronounce sentences more accurately than do late learners (individuals who began learning their L2 in late adolescence or early adulthood) (Flege, 1988b; Flege & Fletcher, 1992; Flege, Munro, & MacKay, 1995b; Flege, Yeni-Komshian, & Liu, 1999; Piske, MacKay, & Flege, 2001). Therefore, it is obvious and reasonable to introduce foreign languages as early as possible, because early age is an important determinant of success in learning to accurately produce and perceive L2 sounds.

b) Intensive use of the Foreign Language and the importance of native-speaker input

The results obtained by Flege & Liu (2001, 2002) indicate that progress in learning an L2 is dependent on both the quantity and the quality of the L2 input L2 learners receive. That means that simply spending many years in a foreign language classroom will not help students to learn a foreign language well. Students will probably only show significant progress in learning a foreign language and accurate pronunciation if they continuously receive a substantial amount of high-quality input.

c) Formal instruction and the importance of training in the perception and production of L2 sounds

Piske et al. (2001) states that intensive training in the perception and the production of L2 sounds should also help foreign language students develop a more accurate L2 pronunciation.

One of the reasons why early bilinguals are usually more successful in L2 pronunciation than late bilinguals probably is that early bilinguals spend much more time than late bilinguals in schools where they receive a large amount of L2 input from native speakers. Students in a foreign language classroom should particularly benefit from learning environments in which they receive a substantial amount of high-quality input over a period of many years.

Other important factors to be mentioned are:

Motivation: Piske et al. (2001) inferred that factors pertaining to motivation do not automatically lead to accent-free L2 speech and that they are rarely so strong that late learners will still be able to develop a native-like L2 pronunciation. For the foreign language classroom, this means that students beginning to learn a foreign language in secondary school or later should not be expected to learn to pronounce an L2 in a native-like manner, even if they are highly motivated.

L1 background: The results of research indicate that a different approach should be followed in classrooms with students from different L1 backgrounds. In such classrooms, each student should receive training based on the differences and similarities between his/her particular L1 and the L2. (Piske et al., 2001).

In reference to this analysis, it can be concluded that the best way to achieve phonological success in students’ performance is by early immersion, this way they should develop a high level of foreign language proficiency due to the inclusion of those factors that have been identified by Flege and his colleagues as important determinants of immigrants’ L2 proficiency research. Identifying those factors influencing immigrants’ success in learning an L2 may help teachers understand how effectiveness could be increased in their work.


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