English pronunciation – Can it be a criterion to measure English level?

Yerim Lee

As a speaker, learner, and English teacher, I’ve been wondering what good English pronunciation is. There are numerous kinds of pronunciation in this world, but there’s no definition or criteria of which pronunciation is the ‘good’ one. When I was young, my English teachers used to tell me that I had a good pronunciation, which led to the situation where I often was selected to read the text book out loud. In addition to that, some friends thought my English was very good and even asked me whether I came from the States. Looking back to those days, I think it is a very funny thing that people saw me as having very good level of English only because of my pronunciation. But, did I really have a good pronunciation? What are the criteria to decide so? In my personal opinion, the basis of good pronunciation depends on the perception of listeners.

There was a very interesting experiment on the different perceptions of pronunciation in between Korean people and native English speakers a few years ago. This experiment was conducted by Korea Educational Broadcasting System, EBS, in order to observe how people perceive pronunciation and link it to measure English levels. Participants listened to several speeches including different levels of vocabulary in English while not seeing speakers from different countries. Most of the participants were Korean people, and most of them had beginner levels of English. After they listened to the speeches, they were interviewed how they felt and asked to guess the people’s English levels. Here is the intriguing result. Most of the participants answered that the people who had ‘native-like’ pronunciation or fluent speech in terms of speed have very good English levels, whereas the people who had their own accent or a bit slower speed have poor English levels. And one of the people who had been judged as having poor English level was Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations. Thus, we can see the participants judged the other people’s English levels not by the contents of the speech but only by the pronunciation. On the other hand, the native English speakers who participated in the experiment said that Ban Ki-moon has very high level of English after listening to his speech, and other speakers who were seen as having a good level of English by Korean participants were fluent in speech, but had very shallow contents and showed weak vocabulary levels.

This experiment is showing how Korean people who are learning English as a second or foreign language perceive pronunciation as an important factor to measure others or their own English levels. And this perception causes a phenomenon in Korean society which puts too much emphasis on teaching and learning English pronunciation. Thus, many people who do not have ‘native-like’ pronunciation say they don’t have enough confidence, which leads to language anxiety in English. In addition to that, as last class’s group presented, some unfair issues can arise, such as discrimination against people who have thick accent or ‘bad’ pronunciation for getting a job as English teacher.

I agree with the opinion that pronunciation is important to some extent. However, I also believe that pronunciation should not be one of the criteria to judge other’s English levels or to hire English teachers. We learn English to communicate with people in other societies or cultures. Before we judge other people’s English pronunciation, we should consider the importance of English as a tool for communication in this globalized world.

Reference

TV documentary: Riddles with language development by EBS (Korea Educational Broadcasting System), 2011, Oct. 24th – 26th.

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7 thoughts on “English pronunciation – Can it be a criterion to measure English level?”

  1. Hey Yerim,
    I see what you mean about the perception of pronunciation. I think even teachers sometimes perceive students with strong accents as ‘less proficient’. I generally take a more ‘functional’ approach to pronunciation, in that I tend to address a student’s pronunciation mainly if it is interfering with comprehensibility. That being said, I suppose it’s up to the individual student to decide how they want to sound when they speak a particular language, and how much ‘accent reduction’ they hope to achieve. I do think it’s unfortunate how many people with accents can be perceived, and there can be quite a bit of discriminatory assumptions attached to them. I sometimes wish every person who had that way of thinking would have to try to learn an additional language and see how ‘natural’ they sound! It might shock them into a little empathy for speakers of English with accents!

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  2. Simon Desmarais – Comment 3

    That’s a really interesting post! To complicate everything even more, pronunciation is the one thing that people aren’t really sure if it can ever be completely acquired after a certain age. Many studies in language acquisition have shown that even though syntax, morphology, etc. can eventually be acquired at any age, pronunciation is way more difficult than everything else, and in fact many people believe that it’s simply impossible to do, if you start learning a language after 7 years old (some people say successful pronunciation acquisition is still possible until 14; 7-14 years old is a ‘soft window’). So that puts even more value on your point: people who don’t acquire ‘perfect’ pronunciation aren’t necessarily at fault. Although I believe that, in general, ‘native-like’ pronunciation usually correlates with high proficiency (usually because that person has had extensive exposure to the language), I guess it is possible to ‘fool’ people (probably by drilling over and over correct pronunciations, which is what the people in the study you mentioned seem to have been doing). In any case, it really puts into perspective the idea that ‘no accent’ = ‘high proficiency’, because, as you have demonstrated in your post, it’s not necessarily true.

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  3. By Coco:

    Hi Yerim,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the interesting experiment! I agreed with you in that while sometimes a good pronunciation will lead to the assumption of high language proficiency, it is not necessarily always the case. We should move a step further and listen to the content of the conversation or statement. Your example of Ban Ki-Moon was quite appropriate because his pronunciation was not “perfect”. Yet, he served as one of the most important leadership roles in the world. In this case, it is one’s capability rather than the pronunciation matters more. As a result, I argue that the criteron of assessing English language proficiency really depends on what position you are looking at, or what role are you playing.

    For instance, let’s assume that you are a manager in the field of business. As a business manager, what is highly valued will be your knowledge in your expertise (business) and your managerial skills. While mastering a decent level of English will be mandatory, a non-native like pronunciation will less likely to be an impediment in the contract signing procedure. Instead, when you are negotiating with your business partners, what your partners are listening and evaluating will not be your accent but your idea in your contract or business plan or presentation. Conversely, I am a firm believer that if you are an English teacher, it’s essential for you to have a good pronunciation. Your students are counting on you. You are the role model to them. They will learn the way you speak English. In that case, the more native-like, the better. Thus I believe whether we evaluate pronunciation should depend on the contexts.

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  4. Hello Yerim,

    I agree with Coco’s thought that context is important when focus on accent. Moreover, In some occasions influenced English accent can narrow or effect a speaker’ opportunities especially in job offers. There is an interesting article written by Carlson and McHenry (2006), they draw the attention toward the employability considering different accents and dialects. In their article they mentioned about three females; one is Spanish and one Asian and the other is African American. They most likely got low evaluation in job opportunity due to their accents. It is hard to deny that it actually exist that most companies today judge many people based on their race or their dialect -even though they did not directly say it. To prevent such race judgment or perception, some people suggest implementing job interviews by phone! but agin accent can not be hidden in this situation. Cocchiara, Bell and Casper (2014) argued that “telephone interviews may also increase the potential for decision-makers to engage in illegal race-based discrimination or, at least, to do so earlier in the selection process” (p.464).

    Faten

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  5. Hi Yerim,
    I think that people who judge a speaker’s proficiency only on pronunciation are somewhat superficial. I’ve spent a number of years assessing EFL and ESL for different organizations, and pronunciation is only indicative of one aspect of a speaker’s English abilities. Sometimes younger people pronounce better than older people, but the former’s vocabulary and content are often at a lower level.
    Bonnie Reimer

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  6. Sihong Chen: Hi Yerim, your reflection on English pronunciation reminds me of my ” English Pronunciation class”. When I was a sophomore, we were required to take a course named English pronunciation. We were asked to imitate native speakers and we could choose either American accent or British accent. Professors in my university always said that pronunciation is like the first impression you leave with others and it is crucial to your career development. Since we are English major students, the pronunciation become particularly important. But I do think good pronunciation is not equal to higher English level in that language is not only about pronunciation.

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