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What does research say about accent modification and pronunciation classes?

Over the last few weeks, I've been binge-reading research articles (never thought I'd write that) and I stumbled upon Putting accent in its place: Rethinking obstacles to communication by Tracey M. Derwing & Murray J. Munro (2009).

The article summarizes some important considerations for pronunciation classes and their perceived and proposed role in accent modification. Coming from a science background (Undergrad in biology and experimental psychology), empirical testing and data are my bread and butter so I really enjoyed the wealth of data-backed information that supports and sometimes questions my own understanding of the field.

Here are my top take-aways from the journal article.

1. Accents are noticeable - doesn’t matter if it’s a dialectal difference because of region or class (e.g. Boston accent vs. New Jersey accent vs. Queen's accent) or phonological variations resulting from your native language's influence on your second language (e.g. Native French speaker speaking English)

2. Pronunciation instruction focused on native-like speech in ESL learners is unrealistic. It's a false promise that cannot be guaranteed. I personally believe it is still something you can strive for and may achieve with dedication/practice, but it is not something I can dangle in front of you like a carrot to continue to work with me. Instead, recent interest is focused on improving speech intelligibility instead of native-like speech.

3. Esling & Wong (1983) report that long-term configurations to the vocal tract differ from language to language. Transferring these configurations from a first language into a second language may be an important source of accentedness. For example, English is a mid-mouth shaped language where the focus of vibration/resonance is in the middle of the mouth whereas the for French speakers, the focus of vibration/resonance is further back in the mouth, near the uvula. This slight change means increased throat vibration and nasal vibration. If I try to speak English with a French speaking vocal tract configuration, my English will sound my throaty and nasal.

4. There is a difference between accentedness, comprehensibility and intelligibility.

Accentedness - how different a pattern of speech sounds compared to the local variety

Comprehensibility - how easy or difficulty it is to understand; how much effort is needed to understand.

Intelligibility - the listener’s actual comprehension of an utterance. This can differ from comprehensibility because they may still be able to answer/understand regardless of how easy/difficulty it was and regardless of how accented they thought he speech was.

5. Some errors impact your speech intelligibility more than others.

  • sentence stress errors have a negative impact on intelligibility (Hanh, 2004)

  • certain segmental contrasts have more relative importance to intelligibility than others (Catfold,1987) and Brown, 1991)

  • /sh/ → /s/ errors (so for show) impacts intelligibility more than /d/→ /th/ (day for they)

  • Pay attention to the big/general things including general speaking habits, volume, stress, rhythm, syllable structure and segmentals with a high functional load (Derwing & Munro, 2005)

  • Speaking slowly does not automatically make comprehensibility better (Munro & Derwing 1998, 2001)

6. Identity preservation and pronunciation are not incompatible (Timmis, 2002). You can teach someone how to improve their pronunciation without encroaching on their sense of self/identity/culture.

7. Part of the discussion involves the listener's responsibility in communication. When listeners are intolerant and not willing to put effort into discussions with non-native speakers, problems can and will arise from these negative attitudes. Rubin’s (1992) study showed that if listeners merely thought that a person might be from a different language background, they understood less of what was said.


Brown, A. (1991). Functional load and the teaching of pronunciation. In A. Brown (ed.),

Teaching English pronunciation: A book of readings. London: Routledge, 211–224.

Catford, J. C. (1987). Phonetics and the teaching of pronunciation: A systemic description of

English phonology. In Morley (ed.), 878–100.

Derwing, T. M., & Munro, M.J. (2009b). Putting accent in its place: Rethinking obstacles to

communication. Language Teaching 42, 276-490.

Derwing, T. M. & M. J. Munro (2005). Second language accent and pronunciation teaching: A

research-based approach. TESOL Quarterly 39, 379–397.

Derwing, T. M., & Munro, M. J. (2001). What speaking rates do non-native listeners

prefer? Applied Linguistics 22, 324-337.

Esling, J. & R. Wong (1983). Voice quality settings and the teaching of pronunciation. TESOL

Quarterly 17, 89–94.

Hahn, L. (2004). Primary stress and intelligibility: Research to motivate the teaching

of suprasegmentals. TESOL Quarterly 38, 201–223.

Munro, M. J. & Derwing, T. M. (1998). The effects of speaking rate on listener evaluations

of native and foreign-accented speech. Language Learning 48, 159-182.

Rubin, D. L. (1992). Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative

English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education 33, 511–531.

Timmis, I. (2002). Native-speaker norms and International English: A classroom view. ELT

Journal 56, 240–249.

#educational #research

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