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