Phonetics and second language teaching research

Authored by: Murray J. Munro , Tracey M. Derwing

The Routledge Handbook of Phonetics

Print publication date:  April  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138648333
eBook ISBN: 9780429056253
Adobe ISBN:


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Phonetics and language pedagogy have long been intertwined. While contemporary pronunciation instruction owes much to theory and research in phonetics, the speech sciences have benefited from the study of language teaching. Among the 20th-century luminaries who taught pronunciation, wrote about pedagogy, and developed materials for teachers and learners were Henry Sweet, Paul Passy, David Abercrombie, and Pierre Delattre. Their understanding of the challenges of second-language (L2) learning deeply influenced their ideas about speech. Moreover, their work shaped early views of teaching, emphasizing the application of phonetic principles and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to help learners develop accurate articulation and prosody. The mid-century appearance of empirical investigations of pronunciation learning and teaching opened the field to new insights into phonetic acquisition processes as well as the benefits of instruction. Cross-linguistic studies revealed much about the role of perception in the acquisition of new phonetic distinctions, while research on ultimate attainment pointed to limitations on adult learners’ capabilities. Pedagogical findings called into question the applicability of contrastive analysis in the classroom. Today, studies of the nature of L2 speech, along with experimental evaluations of teaching approaches, form part of an expanding research field targeting evidence-based pedagogy. Much of this work is guided by the “intelligibility principle” – the view that instruction must prioritize learners’ communicative effectiveness, rather than native-sounding pronunciation, “accent reduction,” or “accent elimination.” To that end, researchers now focus on both language learners and their interlocutors. They aim to identify aspects of L2 pronunciation that maximize speaker intelligibility and that are both teachable and learnable. Doing so engages several fields of inquiry, including psycholinguistics, education, applied linguistics, and sociophonetics.

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