Teaching pronunciation to ESL adult learners

The acquisition of pronunciation proficiency may be one of the most intricate areas for ESL adult learners. For years it has been argued that adults have great difficulty in learning a second language, especially its phonological aspects. This paper aims at reviewing the theory regarding second language learning and at finding evidence in previous research that adults are capable of learning a foreign language as successfully as children.

In relation with pronunciation learning, there is evidence that adults may not acquire foreign sounds with the same accuracy as children do. However, it also possible to find within the seminal works in the field of learning theories that adults need a methodology that is different from the teaching methodology for children and that a change in the approach to teaching pronunciation may result in better acquisition of oral communicative skills in ESL adult learners, although the investigation done in the phonological area of ESL is scarce and further research in the field is needed.

Introduction

For years there has been a widespread conception that ESL adult learners cannot achieve pronunciation at a high-level of accuracy. This perspective could be based mainly on the Critical period hypothesis (Penfield, 1959), which proposes that there is a link between the ability to master a second language and the age of the learner. This article attempts to analyze the theory and research done on the field of adult pronunciation learning as a specific approach different from young learners or learners of a first language, with the purpose of opening a gate that may contribute to improve the results in ESL adult learners’ production of foreign language sounds.

The objective of this paper is to analyze through the theory to what extent adult ESL learners need a specific approach of instruction in pronunciation, and to what extent a basic but explicit explanation of elementary phonetic features and an explanation of the factors that make adult pronunciation learning different from children sound acquisition may be highly beneficial for ESL adult learners progress. In order to better understand the different processes that the ESL adult learner undergoes when facing a foreign language, it is necessary to resort to learning theories and research that are seminal in the field of second language instruction methodology. For this purpose, it is essential to analyze Behaviorism (Ellis, R. 1997), the Natural Approach (Krashen, S. 1983) and the Critical Period Hypothesis (Penfield, W. 1959). Regarding specific adult learning we will examine some aspects of Piaget’s Developmental theory (Piaget, J. 1976) and the factors that affect second language learning for adults, such as aptitude and age, the Affective Filter Hypothesis and socio-cultural identity.

Learning theories

Behaviorism

During the 1950s and 1960s, the dominant psychological theory was Behaviorism. According to this theory, all kinds of learning are achieved through habit formation. That is to say that learners are exposed to a certain stimulus in the environment and their response to such stimulus is reinforced positively if the response is correct or negatively if the response is incorrect. In other words, language learning would depend on habit formation, which is a stimulus-response connection (Ellis, R 1997). However, according to Ellis (1997), the behaviorist theory emphasizes only what is observable, the input and the output. This means that this view does not account for what goes on inside the student’s mind.

Often, learners do not produce output that is a simple reproduction of the input, but from the nature of their errors it is possible to assume that learners are actively involved in the production of their own language and its rules. In relation with adult learning specifically, it is worth to highlight that adults usually are pragmatically competent in their own language and, although this competence may not be transferrable to the second language, it would be a point of departure to start exploring the L2.

Vigotzky (Read, C. 2009) coined for this the term scaffolding, which refers to the ability to assimilate new knowledge on the basis of previous knowledge. Although pronunciation may be one of the most problematic areas for ESL adult learners, it could be possible to acquire a better level of sound production through, for instance, the comparison of the sound system of their mother tongue with the sound system of the target language at a more abstract level, and a basic explanation of the articulators and how they are used at a more concrete level. Therefore, specific instruction in pronunciation may lead the students towards a more solid production of L2-like sounds.

The Critical Period

The Critical period Hypothesis (Lightbown and Spada, 1999) suggests that there is a period in which the human brain is predisposed for success in language learning and that around puberty the developmental changes in the brain affect the nature of language acquisition. From a physiological point of view this stage would coincide with the point at which it is believed that the lateralization of the brain and the inner ear development is completed (Celce-Murcia, 1996). From this perspective, after puberty students’ learning may not be based on the innate biological structures that are considered to contribute to first language acquisition or second language acquisition in early childhood but on more general learning abilities, such as those used to process any other kind of new skills or information, which are mainly based on conscious strategies.

The Natural Approach

This approach is proposed by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell, who suggest that adults can acquire all but the phonological aspects of a second language and that the capacity to acquire an L2 is not necessarily affected after puberty. In fact, adults can make use of their abstract, solving-problem skills to better acquire a language (Kiymazarslan, V. 1995). It has been argued that children before puberty pick-up the language naturally, whereas adults have to learn it, making the acquisition of the language a conscious effort on the part of the adult. However, the Natural Approach hand in hand with Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device (Mason, T. 2002), argue that the human brain is pre-programmed to learn languages and that this device is active and available at any moment of the learner’s life. There is not much research done on adult cognitive behavior regarding the phonological aspect of the target language in relation with the LAD or the Natural Approach.

Piaget’s Developmental Theory

According to Atherton (2011), Jean Piaget’s Developmental Theory is a seminal work in the field of education. Although Piaget was a biologist and he devoted most of his early works to the study of mollusks, he later on moved into the study of children’s minds and their progress as they grew up. He mainly worked with the children in his family and his methodology was mainly interactional. Piaget concluded that there were several stages in the children’s cognitive progress in which the learners moved into new areas and had access to new abilities. These areas and abilities are believed to be independent of the concept of intelligence. In other words, there are certain abilities that children would not achieve, no matter how intelligent they are, until they have reached the stage in which their cognitive maturity enables them to do so. It is only fair to mention that Piaget’s Developmental Theory is much more complex and has many more implications than the ones presented in this paper. Therefore, in table 1 we will briefly mention the different stages that may contribute to the idea of finding an approach that may lead to better adult learning methodologies.

 Factors that affect Second Language Learning

Aptitude, Motivation and personality

According to Carroll (1981) there are four main characteristics that constitute language aptitude: 1) Phonemic coding ability: The capacity to discriminate and code foreign sounds as they can be recalled. 2) Grammatical sensitivity: The ability to analyze the language and infer the rules. 3) Inductive Language Learning ability: The capacity to pick-up the language through exposure. 4) Memory: The amount of rote learning activities needed to internalize something (a lexical item, rules or sounds). 5)

For the purpose of this paper, we will focus on the first trait, phonemic coding ability. Guiora (in Celce-Murcia, M. 1996), suggests that personality plays a key role in the acquisition of a second language, especially in the phonological area. “Speaking a foreign language entails the radical operation of learning and manipulating a new grammar, syntax and vocabulary and at the extreme level of proficiency, modifying one of the basic modes of identification by the self and others, the way we sound”. Lightbown and Spada (1999) present a number of personality characteristics that are likely to affect second language learning.

Inhibition is one of the main features that play an important role in the acquisition of an L2, especially in relation with pronunciation learning on the part of adults. Inhibition discourages risk-taking, which is necessary in the process of acquiring a second language. In a study conducted by Guiora (1972), students who were provided with small doses of alcohol did better on pronunciation tests than those who did not drink any alcohol. This may be due to the fact that alcohol reduced the level of anxiety and inhibition in the learners, who were more willing to speak in front of other learners and teachers. However, although the results seem to be interesting they are far removed from the reality of a classroom situation.

Other personality aspects such as empathy, dominance, talkativeness and responsiveness have also been studied. However, the research has not proved that there is a clearly defined relation between personality and language acquisition. The main difficulty in theses cognitive studies is that of identification and measurement. Nevertheless, many researchers believe that personality will prove to be an important influence on success in language learning, although this relationship is a very complex one and it is probably not personality alone but the combination of personality with other factors that contributes to second language acquisition (Lightbown and Spada, 1999).

Krashen’s Affective Fitler Hypothesis

Krashen (1998) claims that learners with high motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety are better prepared for success in second language acquisition. Low motivation, low self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety can combine to ‘raise’ the affective filter and form a ‘mental block’ that prevents comprehensible input from being used for acquisition. In other words, when the filter is ‘up’ it obstructs language acquisition. The Affective Filter Hypothesis may be a useful tool to take into account in pronunciation practice in the classroom, especially when working with adolescents and adults. It could be highly beneficial for learners to create an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable and do not fear making mistakes. It is also important to consider that especially adults already have their affective schema and personality fully developed, so the instructor should only monitor the class in an attempt to lower the affective filter so the learners feel free to take advantage of the opportunity to practice their language, especially in listening comprehension and language production.

Accent and Cultural Identity

Schumann (1986 in Celce-Murcia, 1996), presents the acculturation model which is based on the premise that learners will acquire an L2 in accordance with their level of acculturation. That is to say that the learner needs to feel identified with the target culture in order to acquire the most subtle aspects of its language. Two types of variables are studied in Schumann’s model: 1) Variables related to socio-cultural variables (size of the foreign language population, similarities between the foreign and the target culture, etc) and 2) Factors concerned with personality characteristics and preferences (personality, permeability, degree of culture shock and motivation). Therefore, some learners that are immersed in the target language community, for instance, a Spanish speaking learner living in the US, may either feel motivated to learn English by the working requirements in the country, may be feel identified with the target culture and therefore his acquisition of the language is facilitated or the learner may prefer to keep his foreign accent as a way of preserving his own identity and origin.

Conclusion

As Ortiz Lira (n.d.) suggests, an accent should only be considered a problem when it interferes with communication –it’s not intelligible for all the communities that share the language- or when it is not socially accepted as an accent or dialect. The problem of accent in ESL classrooms is by far one of the most complex areas of a foreign language, since there are a number of factors that affect the learner’s mastery of this area, which is considered by most researchers as one of the last abilities to be achieved by foreign speakers (Celce-Murcia, 1996).

However, Gilbert (1998) suggests that becoming intelligible to native listeners and being able to make sense of native speakers are considerably achievable targets for ESL learners, especially taking into account that adults can resort to their fully developed cognitive matrix and therefore, they can use their cognitive skills to build a solid knowledge of a foreign language. Although there is a great amount of research done on Learning theories, adult learning theories and more specifically adult pronunciation learning remain quite disregarded areas in research. In order to better understand the processes and mechanisms of adult learning and phonology for ESL adult learners the scientific community still has a long research path ahead of it.