CHENNAI: Last week’s column on the topic “Lay stress on the words without stress” has provoked responses from many readers. While some of them have found the article useful, a professor of English has reacted to it differently. This is an extract from his email: With my experience of having taught thousands of students, I cannot agree with this theory. Personally, I learned English without the theory of pronunciation, and the same is done when I share my knowledge with students. An accent neutralised English can easily serve the purpose of communication. Even among English speakers, not even one out of ten thousand can speak like native English speakers, but they are able to communicate nevertheless. What is the role of pronunciation here? Pronunciation varies when it comes to English spoken in the UK, US, South Africa, Australia and other English speaking countries. Could you name the country where the best pronunciation is used? How many of your co-faculty members use the right pronunciation? If not, does it mean that their English (is) bad? I feel that pronunciation is not at all important, or the least important thing in learning English. Sorry to say that this article is misleading.
Here is an extract of my response to the gentleman:
I am surprised at what makes you say the article is misleading. Have I stated anything against established theories? I’ll be happy if you can prove it. Pronunciation is important. We do teach pronunciation in schools. We do teach students how to pronounce words. Almost all standard textbooks prescribed to students have pronunciation tips and exercises. Pronunciation does help English language learners speak better English. If pronunciation is not important, why should people specialise in pronunciation, write books on pronunciation and teach pronunciation? I’m not talking about phonetics. Without teaching phonetics, we can teach pronunciation. In my previous columns, I have discussed the topics ‘pronunciation’, ‘intelligibility’ ‘neutralised accent’ etc, in detail. I have stated that there is nothing called perfect pronunciation. It is not required of Indian speakers of English that they use the King’s or Queen’s English. What is important is intelligibility. To enable our learners to speak intelligibly, we need to teach them how to pronounce words correctly…”
Later, I forwarded this email and my response to TH Lawrence, a regular reader and critic of my column, to get his views on the topic. An extract of his response is reproduced here:
“… That gentleman (professor) is mistaken; he probably means phonetics, as you also have observed. There are many common words being utterly mispronounced by foreign users of English. I can cite at least a hundred. Pronunciation is important. A good teacher would never say otherwise. Even a dictionary first teaches us how to pronounce a word. Of course, to understand it we need to know phonetic symbols. Nevertheless it emphasises the importance of pronunciation.
The English alphabet has 26 letters but 44 sounds in the language. It is not a phonetic language as there is no direct relationship between the spelling and the sound in the language. By looking at a written word, one cannot know how to pronounce the word. Or in other words, by hearing a word, one cannot know how to spell the word. This clearly indicates why learners of English as a second language (ESL)/ English as a foreign language (EFL) should be taught pronunciation.