Pronunciation Training Matters

Contributor: Cade Christensen | Reviewer: Huy Phung | Date: 2022-03-15

Photo by Nothing Ahead on Pexels.com

What is this study about?

Does pronunciation training really aid the speech development of ESL learners?  If it does, what type of training is most helpful? These are the questions investigated by Tracy Derwing in this study. Pronunciation instruction aimed at narrow language features was compared with broad feature training and no training to see how each affected ESL students. Native English speakers listened to sentence length utterances and longer narratives produced by students at the start and end of a 12-week course and rated them in terms of understandability, accentedness, and fluency. Both narrow and broad feature training brought about pronunciation gains when compared to the results of no training. However, only one type of pronunciation training yielded gains for both speech types. 

What did the researchers do?

48 adult intermediate-level ESL students at a Canadian university were divided into 3 groups of sixteen and given twelve weeks of general ESL instruction (listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills). One of the three groups received no specific pronunciation training during this time, while the other two groups also received 20 minutes of pronunciation instruction each day. One group focused on narrow sound and syllable contrasts (i.e., “segmental” pronunciation). The other group focused on broader features such as stress, intonation, and rhythm (i.e., “global” pronunciation). Speech samples consisting of short, sentence length utterances (read from a printed list) and longer, free-flowing narratives (based on describing events in a picture) were recorded for all participants at the beginning and end of the course. The sentence-length utterances were evaluated by 48 native English speakers in terms of comprehensibility (how difficult they were to understand) and accentedness (how much they differed from native speech). Raters used a nine-point evaluation scale (1 = easy to understand/no accent; 9 = impossible to understand/heavy accent). The narrative samples were similarly rated by six experienced ESL teachers except that, in addition to comprehensibility and accentedness, they also evaluated fluency (“smoothness”, tempo, and flow).     

What did the researchers find?

In terms of sentence-length utterances, the two groups of ESL students receiving pronunciation instruction showed improvement in the comprehensibility and accentedness of their speech when compared to the control group (no pronunciation instruction), with the “segmental” group improving the most. In terms of narrative speech, only the “global” group showed significant pronunciation improvements, and these changes were limited to comprehensibility and fluency; accentedness was not affected. It appears that focusing on the pronunciation of specific sounds placed different demands on the attentional resources of speakers and listeners than the “global” features, and each type of utterance required a greater emphasis on one type of pronunciation skill than the other.  

Why are the findings important?

Both “segmental” and “global” pronunciation instruction have their place in the language learning classroom. Segmental training can help students resolve problems with specific sounds and forms while global instruction can provide learners with skills to aid them in the production of longer, more natural sounding narratives. 

Original Article:  Derwing, T. M., Munro, M. J., & Wiebe, G. (1998). Evidence in favor of a broad framework for pronunciation instruction. Language Learning, 48(3), 393–410. https://doi.org/10.1111/0023-8333.00047

Cite this summary: 
Christensen, C. (2022). Pronunciation training matters. Multiʻōlelo Summary of Derwing et al.(1998) in Language Learning. Retrieved from https://multiolelo.com/?p=1763

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