The Significance Of Learning English Phonology For English as Foreign Language (EFL) Teachers

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Allvian Ika Fiki Susanto, M.Pd., – English Education Department, Teacher Training and Education Faculty

During English conversation in the English learning process or even among English teachers in the school, some cases may often be found where two or some English words have similar or even the same way of pronouncing. For example, let’s have a look at the words know and now which seem similar in the way of pronouncing them, although they do have different ways of pronunciation. The word know is pronounced /nəu/ while the word now is pronounced /nau/. In another case, it’s quite often to meet some English words that are the same way of pronouncing. For example, the words know and no are pronounced in the same way /nəu/.

Moreover, the level of expression, for example, good morning, is often found in English movies or even daily life of English native speakers where this expression is often pronounced with a change of sound. It’s often pronounced /gup m ɔːn ɪ ŋ/ by the native. Some cases mentioned above show that English has enough sound complexity. To investigate this complex sound system, there is a study called phonology dealing with those cases. In general, phonology is a study that explores the production of sounds and also the differences between sounds that connect the meaning of an utterance in a language. For example, the words know and no, though, both have the same way of pronunciation but they do have different meanings.

Phonology has its biggest effect on language teaching and learning both in second and foreign language learning in the era of 1950’s to 1960’s. Bray (1997: 112) comments that during 1950’s to 1960’s, proponents of Audiolingualism developed in US and Situational Language Teaching developed in Britain viewed linguistic competence as the primary goal of language instruction. Phonological accuracy was seen as a component of linguistic competence and was mainly viewed as the accurate production or reception of segmental features (individual sounds) and words. The emergence of the communicative approach in 1970’s gradually makes teachers’ and language users’ awareness of the importance of phonology decrease. This approach proposes that the goal or main focus of mastering or learning language is not only linguistics competence such as phonology but also all supporting aspects that support the communication such as discourse competence, strategic competence, etc.

This article is aimed to explain the importance of learning English Phonology for EFL teachers or in other words to answer the question “Why should an EFL teacher learn English Phonology?”. The importance of learning English phonology covers two main categories. The first category includes the importance of English phonology for EFL teachers as language users. Learning English phonology can build the awareness of being a consistent language user and avoiding misunderstanding in communication. The last two importances of phonology deal with the EFL learning process. They are giving a good model as a language user to the students and identifying the students’ difficulty dealing with sounds in English.

The first importance of learning phonology for EFL teachers is building an awareness of being a consistent language user in this case of course English. As we know that there are two major accents of English, British and American accent. Those two accents in some cases have different vocabulary and pronunciation of some English words. Most British English accents will pronounce certain sounds as silent sounds while American English accents will pronounce them. For example, words that are ended by /r/ sound like car British will pronounce/k ɑː(r)/ while the US will pronounce /k ɑː r/. Moreover, dealing with its pronunciation, British and US English accents also have differences in putting stress on some words. For example, the word ballet will get its stress in the beginning syllable for the British English accent while in US English accent will stress it on the second syllable. The point from some examples mentioned is that this knowledge related to silent sound, and stressing in both accents, British and US English will only be mastered if an EFL teacher studies phonology. Then this knowledge dealing with the differences between two accents will raise the teachers’ awareness as English users to decide which one of the accents they will choose. As we know to learn a foreign language is to learn how the native speaks the language and in this case, Americans and British are English native speakers.

The second importance of studying phonology for EFL teachers as English users is to avoid misunderstanding in communication. Brown in Bray (1997: 114) states that at a very basic level where communicative competence is the goal of language learning, then there will be one of its essential components of intelligible pronunciation. Brown’s statement shows that intelligible pronunciation in using language for communication is important and related to the clarity of the message being conveyed by the speaker. For illustration dealing with the importance of intelligible pronunciation, an example is mentioned then. The word thinks should be pronounced correctly / θ ɪ ŋ k/. And when one of the sounds changes, for example, the word thinkisincorrectly pronounced / s ɪ ŋ k/, it will also change the meaning of the utterance. As an effect of the lack of accuracy of pronunciation, the word think will not mean a mental process but mean a process of going down under the surface of the water “sink”. In addition, Brown (1977: 56) also supports the importance of learning phonology to avoid misunderstanding in communication. She states that from the point of view of comprehensive spoken English, the ability to identify stressed syllables and make intelligent guesses about the content of the message from this information is essential.  In short, it is clear that to study well about phonology will avoid the English user from being misunderstood by others. To avoid misunderstanding, one should master knowledge dealing with how to make a clear or intelligible sound and identify the sound accurately.

The third importance of learning Phonology relates to the role of an EFL teacher as a model of an English user for his or her students. A good model of language users should show how to use language appropriately in communication. Dealing to this point, let us pay attention to two topics being studied in phonology, namely, segmental and suprasegmental. Segmental features of phonology deal with the individual’s sounds and how they are produced in the accurate voice and they also deal with the clarity of the message being conveyed by the speaker. Next, about suprasegmental features, according to Crystal (1969: 22) suprasegmental phonology or English phonology refers to features that extend over a series of segmental groups, such as stress, rhythm, prosody, intonation, juncture, and voice quality. Moreover, he also adds that suprasegmental features of phonology have some functions in communication. Those functions are described below:

  1. Expressing interactional meaning
  2. Expressing how one feels about the topic or to the person in conversation
  3. Managing conversation

Therefore, from two topics being studied in phonology, an EFL teacher as a model of an English user can give students an appropriate or good model of being an English speaker. A good English speaker model refers to a person who can convey a clear message by producing clear utterances, maintaining and sequencing conversation properly.

The last importance of studying Phonology for EFL teachers discussed in this essay is that it will give teachers access to identify the students’ problems related to English sound production. In the EFL learning context, the students of course do not speak English as their second or mother language. The point is that there must be some difficulties dealing with the first language characteristic of English as a foreign language being learned. And one of the problems that emerge in this context is some English sounds are difficult to pronounce by the EFL students because of their first language influence. For example, in Indonesia, people from West Java or Sundanese will find it difficult to pronounce the sound /f/ correctly. It is because in their mother language, Sunda, this sound is rarely or never used. They will tend to change the sound /f/ with /p/. Sundanese probably will pronounce the word cough /k ɒp/. Moreover, this situation also happens to the Japanese. Bray (1997: 119) states that Japanese does not use stress as much as English speaker does to emphasize some important words. Instead, they use some particles, pauses, and topical fronting to achieve the same result. For example, in the sentence “what is your father like?” in English, the word father and like may get primarily stressed in pronouncing the sentence. On the other hand, Japanese may bring their language system to pronounce this sentence with incorrect stress where they will put the stress of the sentence into the words what and is. It happens because the Japanese have topical fronting in their language which may cause incorrect stressing when it applies to English. In short, from this description, phonology plays important role in identifying students’ problems in learning English. Phonology provides access to EFL teachers to compare English to the student’s first language to provide better material, learning activities, and test for their students. Based on the discussion about the importance of phonology for EFL teachers, it can be concluded that phonology has two important roles for EFL teachers. The first is because EFL teachers are English language users, phonology plays important role in raising teachers’ awareness of being consistent English speakers to choose one of the English accents which is appropriate for them and avoiding misunderstanding in communication by using or producing intelligible utterances in communication. The second is that EFL teachers by studying phonology will be a good English speaker model for their students, and also be able to identify students’ difficulty dealing with sounds in English which are caused by their first language influence and finally provide better material, learning activity, and test for their students.

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