in touch with real speech
In touch with real speech

Listening Cherry 14 – Sex education and phonology in ELT

Image from here

Like all children, I asked my parents ‘Where did I come from?’ In my case they replied ‘Oh, we found you under a gooseberry bush.’ This answer was convenient for them, because it helped them avoid explaining what was for them an embarrassing aspect of human life (strong Catholic influence on their education) and for which they had no appropriate language to explain it to a child.

This answer satisfied me for a fairly long while, even though it was somewhat complicated by additional evidence that did not quite fit this picture – cards with images showing a flying stork carrying a baby in  a cloth suspended from its beak. However, I was quite good at putting two and two together, and I reasoned that it was the stork which had placed me under the gooseberry bush in order that parents could find me. My parents’ answer both satisfied me and put an end to further enquiry for a few years.

But eventually, it dawned on me that there was something about the relationship between males and females, and particularly the cooperative activities that they engaged in which led to the arrival of a baby after an interval of nine months.

And after a certain time, my parents just assumed that I knew the truth of the matter, without ever explaining it to me.

So what has this got to do with Phonology in ELT? Teachers undergoing training (like a young child gaining knowledge of the world from their parent) are told simple things about language which are fictions. For speech these fictions include: English is stress-timed; high falling tone means surprise; yes-no questions have rising intonation; the nuclear stress goes on the last lexical item. For the purpose of promoting intelligible pronunciation, the fictions are useful; but for the purposes of promoting listening skills in everyday speech they are a huge obstacle.  They are far too tidy, too non-messy, and far too dependant on a view that speech is regular, and rule-governed.

As we spend longer in the profession, and (big if) if we attend to the evidence of our ears and recordings of spontaneous speech we begin to realise that there is something about the particular activities of adults speaking outside the classroom which the fictions do not account for. It seems like anything can happen. So, as experienced teachers and nascent researchers into speech we go to phonologists and say ‘Oh er, excuse me, er – like you know, er we’ve kind of noticed that English doesn’t seem to be stress-timed’ and ‘Oh er, you know that rule about yes-no questions? Well er it seems like they can have any sort of intonation’.

And the answer we get? ‘Yeah, we know that.’

Like my parents, the phonologists/phoneticians know the truth, but they tell us something safe and non-embarrassing/non-awkward to satisfy our curiosity, puts an end to further enquiry. This needs to change if we want to improve the teaching of listening.

ELT needs the expert phoneticians/phonologists to come up with a grown-up account of how spontaneous speech actually sounds, how it works, and how L2 listeners can be helped to perceive and understand it. It is time to put aside embarrassment at the messiness, and to devise ways of explaining the exciting irregularities and the miraculous ways in which humans perceive and understand the language of everyday speech, so that we can teach it more effectively.

But actually, the phonologists/phoneticians will say ‘We did tell you, the grown up account is already there …’ (to be continued).

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Richard can be contacted at

Tel: 07790 629859