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1.1.2. Segments vs. suprasegments in EFL pronunciation teaching

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Regarding English pronunciation teaching per se when it is taught, segmentals appear to be
studied at the expense of prosody. Vowels and consonants are the basis for English
pronunciation learning in French schools, however slight the teaching may be. Usually, it
consists in the same repetitive exercises, that is, minimal pair drills (e.g. beat vs. bit, leave vs.
live), spotting the odd one (e.g. break, great, steak, breath), or simply repeating words after the
teacher (Kelly, 1969). Brown (1995: 169) challenges the very usefulness of the most
widespread type of exercise that is the minimal pair drill (cf. 1.2.1. below), which he
describes as a “not very meaningful exercise”. The scope of pronunciation teaching is all the
more reduced as it displays not only an enormous advantage of segments over prosody, but
also of vowels over consonants.

Today, with the new generation of the Communicative Approach, the International
Phonetic Alphabet is re-introduced in textbooks. Concerning suprasegmentals, teachers do
sometimes let learners know about the special rhythm of English as a stress-timed language
(see 1.2.3. for more details) by giving regular taps on a desk, or by clapping their hands. Yet,
a regrettable lack of a more thorough teaching of prosody is widely observable, even though
English and French have totally different systems. McNerney and Mendelsohn (1992) point

Discussion with [ESL teachers] and an examination of some traditional
pronunciation texts quickly reveal that the norm has been to devote the majority
of time and effort to segmentals (individual sounds), and usually vowels. (185)

The authors assert that suprasegmental features are treated by teachers of English as a
Second Language (ESL) as “peripheral frills” (idem: 185), and their remark is also applicable
to EFL teaching. Thanks to a questionnaire, Burgess and Spencer (2000) found that EFL and
ESL teachers very often see suprasegmental features as difficult to teach and learn, even if
they are aware of their paramount importance. In fact, many authors and researchers
acknowledge that suprasegmentals should be granted a more important status than
segmentals in English pronunciation teaching, in as much as they are the basic structure of
spoken language. McNerney and Mendelsohn (idem) further allege that “it is the
suprasegmentals that control the structure of information”, and that they are “far more
important” in communication (the authors’ emphasis). As a justification to that, they remark
that individual sounds can be inferred from the context, whereas suprasegmental errors
cannot be helped or lessened by the context. For example, if a learner says I cooked the meat in
a pen, with pen instead of pan, the context makes it possible to guess the intended word
straight-away without too much mental correction from the listener. On the other hand, in
response to he went on holiday, a rising intonation or misplacement of the nucleus in where did
he go? unequivocally expresses surprise or the need for confirmation, and not a real question
asking for new information. As for French learners in particular, tones are not so major a
problem, unlike nucleus placement and rhythmic patterns, as will be seen below (cf. 1.2.2.).
At any rate, the role that suprasegmentals play is essential, and its being disregarded in EFL
teaching is hardly comprehensible. In his article devoted to minimal pairs in pronunciation
teaching, Brown (1995: 174) concludes that “minimal pairs should not be overemphasized at
the expense of other aspects of pronunciation, such as stress, rhythm, intonation, and voice
quality”, which means that there is no point in insisting on individual sounds, and prosody
deserves more room in EFL teaching.

The need for a re-evaluation of the teaching of suprasegmentals in ESL and EFL contexts
has been very much praised. A better place given to rhythm, stress, and other prosodic
aspects is believed to make learners improve both their production and perception skills, and
our experiment, described in Chapter 3, is an attempt at bringing support to that claim. As is
very well summarized in McNerney and Mendelsohn (1992):

A short term pronunciation course should focus first and foremost on
suprasegmentals as they have the greatest impact on the comprehensibility of the
learner’s English. We have found that giving priority to the suprasegmental
aspects of English not only improves learners’ comprehensibility but is also less
frustrating for students because greater change can be effected. (186)

This view is supported by several other authors. In her book intended for French EFL
learners and teachers alike, Huart (2002) recommends that the former should be made aware
of the specific melody of English as early as the very beginning of the L2 learning process,
even before vowels and consonants are studied. Similarly, Hodges (2006) has suggested the
following order to teach English pronunciation to non-native speakers: word-level stress,
sentence-level stress, intonation, consonants, vowels, and finally, linking. In the proposed
patterns, segments are put in the background and are only attributed a secondary role. In
reality, even in English studies at university level (licence d’anglais) where pronunciation is
thoroughly taught, syllabi usually start with articulatory phonetics, the phonemes and the
teaching of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), then transcription practice, and only in
last position is prosody taught, with syllable structure and stress in the middle position.

According to Ploquin (2009: 78), “it is clear that improvement of students’ production of
rhythm must start with the improvement of our understanding, closely followed by a muchneeded
revision of what teachers are taught”. The origin of the problem here is what teachers
themselves are taught, as is also defended in Herry (2001: 5). It is only when teachers have
better knowledge of and training on the role and status of suprasegmental phonology that
they will be able to teach what should be taught primarily, and assign to segmentals a more
secondary role. In the competitive examination to pass in order to become a secondary
school teacher of English in France (Certificat d’Aptitude au Professorat de l’Enseignement du
Second Degré), candidates’ knowledge of phonetics and phonology is not examined at all.
This just shows that English teachers are often not trained enough in phonology. One of the
major problems that still subsists and is raised by many researchers is the lack of integration
between research findings and language classes (Silveira, 2002), i.e. the need for a
collaboration between researchers and teachers (Burgess & Spencer, 2000; Klein, 1998; Pica,
1994). As is argued by Kelly (1969: 1), the approach to any discipline should be governed by
“theoretical findings in the sciences on which the discipline rests”. Herry (2001) also
underlines that, despite the growing research on prosody and the acknowledgement of its
importance in communication, EFL teaching methods still do not integrate the findings.

Resulting from this overview of English pronunciation teaching, it appears that a revised
version of EFL teaching should first and foremost put pronunciation before the teaching of
grammar and vocabulary (cf. the “ear before eye” method, but also the very fact that a
synonym for “language” is “tongue”, i.e. it should primarily be considered as something
oral), and prosody before segments. Further research should investigate these claims in more
detail. In addition, such a revision of the teaching of English pronunciation goes hand-inhand
with a close analysis of the recurrent difficulties that French learners come up against,
as well as an account of the most frequent errors to avoid.

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