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The Phonology of English as an International Language

Jennifer Jenkins
Oxford University Press, 2000
pp. vi +258

Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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Rewriting the standard for pronunciation instruction
Most of us who have read about teaching English pronunciation are aware of the debate between emphasizing phoneme level (individual consonants and vowels and their combinations) or the supra-segmental level (phrases). In her outstanding work The Phonology of English as an International Language, Jennifer Jenkins combines extensive reporting of the scholarly literature with her own studies, and presents a sure to be hotly debated new phonological set for international English speech.

Since it is in their pronunciation that the existing and emerging 2nd language varieties of English diverge most, it is arguably this area that most threatens intelligibility.

Identifying "International" speakers
Several reviews ago, I criticized McKay's (2002) Teaching English as an International Language for focussing on "intra-national" use between non-native speakers of English who shared a cultural if not linguistic background, and I suggested that this was not really "international" use as it is most widely viewed. Jenkins makes it clear; she is looking at use of English where the speakers cannot rely on shared cultural or first language backgrounds to support comprehensibility.

The problems of English learners
Jenkins presents the issues through identifying different types of language users: the Monolingual English Speaker, Bilingual English Speaker, and Non-Bilingual English Speaker (NBES). It is argued that most English users in EFL lands will communicate with other NBESs, there will not be fluent English users to support comprehensibility through both clear speech and more-talented listening. Accommodation theory therefore becomes an important element in successful communication.

The logical outcome of this, Jenkins suggests, is revising the concept of EFL to ELF ­ English as a Lingua Franca. Consonant with this is her proposal to establish a set of "nuclear norms" for all L2 speakers. After all, as Jenkins observes in the Introduction, since it is in their pronunciation that the existing and emerging 2nd language varieties of English diverge most, it is arguably this area that most threatens intelligibility. She recognizes the validity of the concept of "Interlanguage Talk" (ILT), the simplified linguistic code NBESs use to communicate with each other, particularly those who don't share an L1.

A phonological focus
As do many, Jenkins attacks the concept of RP (or any other "standard" native speaker variety) as a pronunciation model, particularly as very few teachers speak RP, modern RP is changing, and RP is quite a challenging model. Jenkins also rejects the argument that supra-segmentals are the greatest problem for comprehensibility, though she does not ignore this area. She infers that much of the attention given to supra-segmentals is because they can be the most "offensive" pronunciation error for MESs, as intonation often conveys "social niceties."

An example of Pakistani workers in a cafeteria being seen as rude because of their failure to use fall-rise intonation makes her point. This fits in well with her observation that most pronunciation assessment, and in fact nearly all pronunciation research, is based on "native-speaker" models. Jenkins' concern is mutual intelligibility between speakers of English, whatever their first language may be.

The phonological "core"
The Lingua Franca Core is, as one might surmise, a reduced phonological set. There are several key reasons, perhaps most important are teachability and comprehensibility. One surely contested elimination is the voiced and unvoiced "th" (e.g., with, this). Research shows that these sounds are rare across languages, and among the last (most difficult) sounds mastered by NSE children. Furthermore, substitutions (such as "s", "f", or "d") have little impact on comprehension. The "th"s are not included in Jenkins' Phonological Core (for the rest, you've got to read the book!).

Implications for an EFL classroom
Fortunately, and unlike some books, The Phonology of English as an International Language does not ignore classroom impact. The basic assumption is that, by leaving many issues to later "outside the classroom" acquisition (based on both L2 development process concerns and recognition that some students are less motivated to overcome "errors" that do not impede comprehensibility), the reduced task list is more likely to meet with success. Jenkins also recognizes that some transfers from L1 are harmless, and that some sounds are critical and need be addressed. Furthermore, some "errors" are acceptable between NBESs.

Why I like it
One of the things I like about this book is the diversity of L1 learners discussed. Jenkins includes discussions of the pronunciation challenges of Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, European Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Swiss-German and Swiss-Italian, Indian (sub-continent), Nigerian, and Thai learners, among others. There are lots of examples.

The other big winner in this book is the solid scholarship and readability exhibited in the buildup to the Phonological Core. Even for those who don't accept the need or desirability of the reduced pronunciation aims, the first half of this book is just so darn good, you could tear out everything after page 122 and still have one of the best phonology guides available. But why would you, even if you choose to teach a phonological "full set;" that which is presented here is top-notch.

McKay, S.L. (2002). 'Teaching English as an International Language.' Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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