In my second year of university, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to spend my summer studying French at the University of New Caledonia. The trip was great, but the teaching and learning wasn’t. At the time, I felt completely uninspired by what was happening in the classroom. We were in such a culturally rich and vibrant country, and we were spending far too much time in the classroom, doing lessons on translation, (of nineteenth century English texts that I didn’t understand, into French of course), watching long lectures on various subjects and – my worst experience – the speaking class.
Highlights of the class (taught in two-hour sessions, in a classroom filled with hot computers, and no air-conditioning) included learning the the phonetic alphabet, reading tongue-twisters such as the one I photographed below and looking at diagrams of where our tongue should be when making sounds.
So what did I learn from this class? At the time, not very much. I could already pronounce all the sounds the teacher asked us to when we began. I struggled with phonetics when I started, and I struggled equally as much when I was tested on it at the end. I simply was not invested in the class. In retrospect, however, it gives me an image of how I don’t want to teach. I learnt that it is not very interesting to learning pronunciation in isolation. The fact that there is no context also means that students find anything they might learn more difficult to remember. I also learnt that, like in all things, not all language learners are created equal.
I have met very few people who have absolutely no accent when they speak a second language. Sometimes people can get away with saying short utterances without being noticed, but after awhile something usually gives them up. But obviously, some find it easier than others. A student of mine has shared the theory with me that people’s ability to produce native-like pronunciation in a second language, follows their ability to learn music. For more information on this, check out Lorraine Gilleece’s thesis on the correlation between attitudes for music and foreign languages here.
As well as being unable to hear the different sounds produced in a second language, I believe that a fear of sounding ridiculous while producing unfamiliar sounds prevents students from having a more native-sounding pronunciation. While I’m not sure that this was the case when I was teaching multilingual groups in New Zealand, (made up of Chinese and Spanish speakers), I feel that this is definitely the case in France. This suspicion increased when I heard some of my students doing ‘Speedlingua ‘ lessons (online individual learning, focussing on natural pronunciation and intonation. Their pronunciation sounded much more natural than it did in class, and they were speaking louder than they usually would. Perhaps this was because they thought nobody was watching.
But at the end of the day, is accent really that important? Yes and no. Yes, because people need to understand you. Language is a means of communication, so it is useless to speak a language if others can’t understand you. As an English language speaker, (and I’m sure that others out there feel the same), I find it much easier to listen to someone who has less of an accent. So there could also be some interest in ‘improving’ your accent if you’d like people to be more attentive when you’re speaking. However, variety is the spice of life. Our accents are showcases of where we’re from, and give us a bit of individuality. They make us interesting, and give us a talking point when someone asks us where we’re from (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “Vous avez un petit accent mademoiselle. Vous êtes de quelle origine?‘. So to ahead and do some pronunciation work, but don’t get in a pickle because it’s not the end of the world if you still have an accent!