When the class is struggling with remembering vocabulary, fighting with grammar rules, and also grappling with the whole notion of motivation to study English, taking time to perfect pronunciation seems like a real stretch of the imagination.
And while investing time and effort in building vocabulary or grammar have very real and observable outcomes, drilling pronunciation of individual phonemes (the letter sounds) or specific tricky words can seem to be a wasteful use of classroom time. Besides, how do you actually improve someone's pronunciation anyway!?
Take the dreaded 'th' phoneme, for example. This has students all around the world sighing with despair. And teachers too. We tell students to stick their tongues out of their mouths, but this just seems to embarrass them.
The problem is that this little sound is much more than simply sticking your tongue between your teeth and blowing a lot of hot air. The 'th' is actually not one sound, but two: there is an unvoiced version (θ), which involves only sound rushing between the tongue and teeth (as in 'think'), and a voiced version (ð), which requires the addition of a sort of humming in the voice box (like the one in 'those').
Which gets used when? Well, interestingly, there are some patterns: the unvoiced 'th' is common in content words (which are words that carry meaning, like 'thank', 'thrombosis', and 'thimble'), while the voiced version is more common in function words (which serve a grammatical purpose, like 'the', 'this' and 'then'). Also, a 'th' just before 'er', like in 'another' and 'father', is generally voiced. If this interests you, have a look at this cool blog about all this 'th' stuff.
But is the learning of rules like these helpful for our students, or is it just additional complication that isn't worth the effort, especially considering that some English speakers don't bother with this phoneme at all - as with Irish English, and Cockney too! And anyway, if the students master this phoneme, will it really improve their pronunciation? Does imperfect pronunciation of 'th' really interfere in communicative comprehensibility? Shouldn't valuable classroom time be allocated to more pressing issues?
In answer to questions like these, I'd like to quote a student of mine, who wrote on this topic:
I feel the need to be accurate both in spoken and written language. If I myself cannot speak with clear and right pronunciation, how can I do well?
This sentiment is quite common with students who are given the chance to express their opinion on the subject.
Another student told me it is 'unfair' when a teacher doesn't focus on pronunciation, and that these are 'lazy' teachers who don't do their duties in promoting good pronunciation. Perhaps for students who are putting in the time and effort needed to learn English, mastering pronunciation as far as is possible matters a lot. Are these students anomalies, or are they representative of students' opinion in general? I don't know - but perhaps it's worth finding out.
If you do decide to teach pronunciation, there are lots of issues to consider:
What accent - Texan? Geordie? Kiwi?
As a South African, am I qualified to teach pronunciation? (real question!)
How 'good' should we aim to have the students' pronunciation of the language? Is there such a thing as 'good enough' pronunciation?
How exactly do you teach pronunciation - is there a way? Should we focus on microphonological issues like the teaching of individual phonemes; or macro issues like intonation and rhythm? In which order?
Should we ignore those sounds that the students simply can't manage (like the 'r' and 'l' headache). This is a thorny issue: as an exercise in empathy, consider the problems Americans learning Cambodian have with the awful 'jrl' cluster, or the subtle difference between the Thai words for 'bee' and 'just' which some non-Thai ears simply can't seem to hear, or perhaps the abominable difficulty in hearing the difference between the second and third tones in Mandarin.
How much should we bow before the demigod of embarrassment that inevitably comes from students' failure to hear or produce specific sounds?
And finally, when should we teach pronunciation - in a specific lesson all on its own, or just whenever it comes up? Or perhaps all the time?
If you don't already have some beliefs about teaching pronunciation in the classroom, these are questions that are worth some attention. Perhaps let me introduce you to the guru of pronunciation in the English language classroom, Adrian Underhill, who has written extensively on all of these issues. If you have time, watch this video or others like it by Underhill on how to teach pronunciation. Or even better, read one of his books.
Ultimately, we need to remember that one of the reasons native English speakers are valued as teachers in Thailand (and elsewhere) is this question of pronunciation - so ignoring it in your classroom may amount to a dereliction of duty. Naughty you.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.