Teaching the pronunciation of ELF by Robin Walker, OUP

Reviewed by Chia Suan Chong, IH London

At the IH DOS Conference this year, Robin Walker spoke about ‘Teaching Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)’, and I watched him impassion even the ELF cynics into openly admitting that they could not wait to cascade his plenary talk to the rest of their teachers. The power of Robin’s speech was not simply in his charming and confident presentation style, but in the persuasiveness of his argument, the validity of his facts, and the appeal of his suggestions.

In his book of the same title, Robin speaks with the same authority that only a practitioner-turned-academic could have as he convincingly puts forward his argument that in a world where English is now a global language used for international communication, it is pronunciation issues, and not grammar ones, that have been found to be the most important cause of breakdowns in communication. Suggesting that low-level English learners tend to depend on bottom-up processing to access meaning, he persuades the reader of the importance of maintaining mutual intelligibility through working on phonological features in the Lingua Franca Core (LFC), while cautioning teachers not to spend time on supra-segmental features like weak forms and connected speech, which may be used to facilitate rapid speech in native speakers, but can be detrimental to ELF intelligibility.

Throughout the book, Robin questions the assumptions of adopting a native-speaker (NS) target in English language learning by addressing language variation even within native speaking countries and the role of accents in the expression of one’s identity, asserting that there is no such thing as ‘good English’, and presuming that a prestigious variety is suitable for all contexts represents a failure to understand the sociolinguistic reality. Giving clear evidence to support his facts, Robin shows how one’s perceptions of what a standard accent is could affect what we find socially acceptable. Resulting from sociocultural conditioning, the listeners’ attitudes towards a particular accent can greatly influence their judgements of intelligibility. Shifting the onus from the speaker, and giving part of the responsibility to the listener to employ appropriate strategies to understand or clarify understanding, Robin adopts a post-structuralist view where interactions are seen as two-way active and dynamic processes and focuses as much on receptive skills as he does on productive ones.

Seeing that most pronunciation books often choose to focus on helping the learner to produce ‘correct’ NS-like (usually RP or GA) phonological features, this book excels in the fact that it acknowledges the importance of being able to understand both NNS (non-native speaker) and NS accents, while also providing an accompanying CD to provide learners (and teachers) with good examples of expert ELF usage which offer invaluable listening practice through exposure to the different accents.

As Robin systematically debunks the most common myths and misunderstandings about ELF, he addresses the concerns that many teachers often have when talking about the practical implications of ELF pronunciation: e.g. that ELF is a dumbed-down version of NS English which patronises the learner by accepting their mistakes; that the celebration of identity through variation cannot occur simultaneously with the maintenance of mutual intelligibility; that an ‘ELF accent’ or ‘ELF standard’ is unteachable since nobody has it; that a ‘bad accent’ gives a bad impression; that most learners and teachers prefer to have a NS accent.

In a chapter aptly titled ‘Techniques and materials for teaching ELF pronunciation’, Robin lists ideas for raising our learners’ awareness of ELF and the sociolinguistic facts that surround it, before reminding us of useful pronunciation activities like minimal pairs and drills to help with LFC features like consonant sounds or vowel length. Bringing in other familiar task types like the information gap, dictations, and problem-solving tasks to focus on the learners’ accommodation skills and ability to negotiate meaning, Robin shows how teaching the pronunciation of English as a lingua franca does not have be a feat of re-inventing the wheel, but simply a shift in one’s way of thinking and prioritizing in the classroom.

An example of such a shift is the chapter in which he and his very credible co-authors provide a list of the pronunciation difficulties of LFC features based on ten different L1s. Although reminiscent of Michael Swan’s ‘Learner English’, this book differs in that it uses these L1s as a departure point rather than a source of L1 interference, and clearly shows how you can use the L1 ‘as friend’ and not ‘as foe’ to help learners with difficult LFC features.

With clear exemplification of how a programme for ELF pronunciation can be worked into the syllabus and assessed, Robin succeeds in making this book not just for practitioners, but also for educational managers and planners. Most importantly, it offers food for thought as the role of the English language teacher inevitably changes alongside the shift in the role of the English language.