Thomas Entwistle: Hello, Mark. Thank you for giving up your time for this interview. First of all, could you tell us a little about your teaching background, and how it is you came to focus on pronunciation?
Mark Hancock: I started teaching English fresh out of university at a secondary school in Sudan. The local Sudanese teachers were much better than me, but I guess the school authorities thought it would be motivating to import an “alien” from England. From this experience, I learnt that I had a lot to learn.
A few years later, having gained a few more practical qualifications and more experience teaching in Turkey, I ended up teaching at the Cultura Inglesa in Brazil. They awarded me some paid hours developing materials at the headquarters in Rio and requested fun activities for teaching pronunciation. This eventually led to my first book, Pronunciation Games (Hancock, 1995). Sometimes, you discover you like something by doing it, and so it was with pronunciation for me. I found that I enjoyed discovering the patterns hidden in the sound of the language—patterns that even the speakers of the language are unaware of. Over 30 years later, and I’m still discovering more and enjoying it.
Yes, I enjoy it too. However, why do you think it is that some teachers don’t enjoy teaching pronunciation and relegate it to a side activity in textbooks?
Well, for one thing, teacher trainees are often presented with a view of phonology which is unhelpfully precise and inflexible. In ELT, we’ve been long accustomed to seeing a version of grammar which is simplified and modified in such a way as to make it classroom-friendly—in other words, a pedagogical grammar. The same does not seem to be the case for phonology. It’s the opposite of classroom friendly. And to make matters worse, there seems to be an assumption that the objective of all good learners is to end up sounding like the Queen, or an American speaker of equivalent prestige. This is both unrealistic and undesirable in my view.
Regarding coursebooks, I think I know why they neglect pronunciation. Firstly, it’s difficult to integrate into a syllabus which is based on topics or grammar. Secondly, many coursebooks are global while many pronunciation problems are local. For example, a learner in Japan may find it difficult to distinguish /r/ and /l/, while this is rarely a problem for a European learner. Coursebooks usually need to be usable by both.
Interesting what you said about aiming for Queen-like pronunciation being both unrealistic and undesirable. What would you say would be a more realistic aim in a monolingual context like Japan, where most English teachers are, in fact, non-native speakers of English?
I assume that the aim is to be intelligible. It’s not to sound English or American; it’s to be able to communicate with the world. In that context, the accent doesn’t matter, because there’s no evidence that a “native” accent is more intelligible than a “non-native” one. For many students, their teacher’s accent is their best model—including teachers who have a Japanese accent.
But in any case, we don’t need to stress too much about choosing a model. A learner may aim at a British accent, but the chances are that in the end, they will come out with an accent of their own anyway. And that’s fine.
I suppose the idea of “mutual intelligibility” (Underhill, 2005) is key when it comes to, as you said, being able to communicate with the world. How do you imagine that the role of global communication and World Englishes is going to shape how we teach pronunciation in the future?
I guess pronunciation teaching will split in two ways: (a) For the majority, whose needs are purely practical, there will be a split between productive and receptive pronunciation. For spoken production, the focus will be mostly on aspects of pronunciation which affect intelligibility. Teachers will need to demonstrate how each of the pronunciation features that they focus on impact intelligibility. The syllabus may look something like what Jennifer Jenkins called the Lingua Franca Core. Other features not in the core, such as intonation and features of connected speech, will be focused on only for building awareness for receptive (listening) purposes. (b) There will be a split between the majority above and a minority whose needs are not simply to be understood but also to be accepted. These learners might, for example, be immigrants living in a country where English is spoken and who want to be accepted by the people they are living among. For them, it might be important to acquire “native-like” features, and so a more traditional pronunciation syllabus may be maintained.
Talking about teaching pronunciation, I recently watched your webinar for IATEFL PronSIG (2021) where you explained the four “Ms”. Could you tell us about those?
The four “Ms” was a mnemonic to help me—and hopefully others—to remember the diversity of what’s involved in pronunciation teaching. Pronunciation is unique in that it is both a system—along with lexis, grammar, and discourse—and a skill—part of both speaking and listening. The four “Ms” are muscle, mind, meaning, and memory. Muscle is the physical aspect—the articulation. Mind is the cognitive aspect—the patterns. Meaning is the interactive, communicative aspect—being understood. Memory is the listening aspect—the storing of acoustic patterns in the memory. Different aspects of pronunciation usually involve two or three of the Ms, occasionally all. The important thing is to keep in mind this diversity and not get into the habit of reducing it to one thing only—listen and repeat.
I find the first aspect interesting. The “muscle,” or physical aspect. In what ways is pronunciation a physical thing?
Uniquely among the language skills, pronunciation has this strong relationship to the anatomy of the human body. From the muscles of the chest walls that create the surges of air that make stress, through the control of the glottis that creates voicing, and finally to the control of the mouth cavity which creates vowels and consonants. A key part of pronunciation teaching involves training learners how to control these muscles in order to create the foreign sounds of the new language. This doesn’t necessarily have to involve explicit use of technical jargon, however. Teachers need to find ways of explaining these things more intuitively. I like to use little “experiments,” such as putting your finger on your nose and thumb on your chin. Then say the vowel sounds in hit and hat and notice how your finger and thumb move apart. Then you can ask the learners to say what this proves (that the mouth opens more for the “a” than the “i”).
It’s mentioned in the introduction of your book Authentic Listening Resource Pack (Hancock, 2018) that learners need exposure to authentic listening. Why do you think this is, and should teachers look to replace scripted audio in textbooks with authentic listening?
Most of us don’t realise how “messy” real speech is. Expert listeners learn to ignore the false starts and mangled syllables and just hear the meaning. If you record a natural conversation among friends for example, and then listen back to it later, you may be surprised about how messy it is. The trouble with a lot of the audio recordings in published materials is that they are neatly planned in the minds of the writers and performed by actors, and all of the mess of real speech is edited out. If learners have a diet of such recordings alone, with no unscripted ones, they will be unprepared for the real world. When they get out there, they won’t know what has hit them. I wouldn’t say that scripted audio has no place in learning, but it really needs to be supplemented by unscripted audio at some point.
Which would benefit learners in monolingual contexts like Japan should they be confronted with authentic speech in the future. Lastly Mark, what would you say to any readers who are reluctant to focus on pronunciation?
I think that a lot of teachers are reluctant to teach pronunciation for the wrong reason. They think that there is a single “correct” version of English pronunciation out there, and that if their own accent doesn’t match it, it’s better to stay away from the topic altogether. Let me give you a concrete example: On one of your videos, Tom, you point out that you yourself pronounce the vowel sound in words like “nose” in a way which differs from the “official” pronunciation (English With Tom, 2021). You explain that this is because you are from the North West of England, where this sound is not a diphthong as it would be in the standard British English accent. My point is that the terms “official,” “standard,” and even “correct” are not really appropriate in pronunciation teaching in the modern world. English is a global lingua franca, and all accents are welcome to join the party. You just need to understand and make yourself understood. Teachers who don’t have a “standard” accent should not be ashamed of that. They should not let it put them off teaching pronunciation and being a model for their students. And this is true not only for “native speakers” of English such as yourself. A clear speaker of English with, for example, a Japanese accent is just as good. There may even be an advantage, since for a Japanese learner, good Japanese-accented English would be a more realistic model to aim for. So, my final message is: If you are an intelligible speaker of English, then the language belongs to you, and you can teach pronunciation without fear.
Thank you for taking time to speak to us Mark. I found your insights and ideas very interesting, and I’m sure the readers will, too. I urge readers to check out your websites: http://hancockmcdonald.com/ and http://pronpack.com/.
English With Tom. (2021, February 26). Core pronunciation 1.1: Vowel sounds /eɪ/, /ɒ/, /ɪ/, & /ʌ/ + activity [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFOMmKJgLTo&t=291s
Hancock, M. (1995). Pronunciation Games. Cambridge University Press.
Hancock, M. (2018). Authentic Listening Resource Pack. Delta Publishing.
IATEFL PronSIG. (2021, March 18). [IATEFL PronSIG webinar] Ask the expert! PronSIG invite Mark Hancock [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuq8-JWKHZw&t=1750s
Underhill, A. (2005). Sound Foundations. Macmillan.