LINGUIST List 27.1634

Thu Apr 07 2016

Review: Applied Ling; Lang Acq; Phonetics: Derwing, Munro (2015)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 28-Dec-2015
From: Martin Gitterman <>
Subject: Pronunciation Fundamentals
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Tracey M. Derwing
AUTHOR: Murray J. Munro
TITLE: Pronunciation Fundamentals
SUBTITLE: Evidence-based perspectives for L2 teaching and research
SERIES TITLE: Language Learning & Language Teaching 42
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Martin R. Gitterman, City University of New York

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This volume, consisting of ten chapters on a wide range of issues related to second language (L2) pronunciation, is aimed at a broad readership, namely all those with an interest in the topic. Within that target audience, the authors recognize the particular interest the book should have for L2 teachers and researchers. The authors note that the chapters need not be read in a fixed order, although it is recommended that the initial chapter (dealing with terminology) be read first. The book also contains a useful glossary (pp. 175-182).

Chapter 1, “Key Concepts,” clarifies the definitions of a number of relevant terms, thus ensuring greater comprehension of the material covered in the chapters to follow. A useful table is included listing a number of terms along with their definitions and synonyms. The relationship between terms is addressed, as needed. Thus, one finds a table illustrating degrees (high or low) of intelligibility along with degrees (high or low) of comprehensibility. The results of the four possible combinations (high-high high-low. low-low, low-high) are spelled out. The same method is used to explain how intelligibility and accent are intertwined. The chapter also addresses issues related to the goals of L2 teaching, including mention of the need to focus on both production and perception.

Chapter 2, “Historical Overview of Pronunciation,” points out that there is not a long-standing history of research applying phonetics to pronunciation instruction. The chapter contains a section outlining some aspects of phonetics and the system of sounds of English, including mention of orthography. Driven by the historical context of the chapter, phenomena such as the Great Vowel Shift are incorporated in the discussion. A treatment of language varieties, including speech with a foreign accent, Is also contained here. Another section on materials used in teaching focuses on both textbooks and technology. The chapter also treats the growing research on production and perception. It is noted, for example, that, “Promising experimental research indicates that, through strategic manipulation of perceptual input, improvement in production can be effected” (p. 24). Critically, the chapter emphasizes the need for additional research on pedagogical aspects of pronunciation.

In Chapter 3, “A Pedagogical Perspective on L2 Phonetic Acquisition,” it is correctly pointed out, “L2 phonetic acquisition is a diverse area of study arising from the work of applied and theoretical linguists, experimental phoneticians, psychologists, pedagogical specialists, and speech-language pathologists” (p. 29). It is emphasized that while advances have been made in our understanding of pronunciation acquisition among L2 learners, many questions remain largely unanswered (see list of questions, p. 30). One area of general agreement, however, is that adult L2 learners tend to find the acquisition of pronunciation somewhat more challenging. A detailed analysis of the biologically-based concept of a critical period is presented, highlighting existing differences of opinion. A number of variables that have been addressed in the literature (e.g., motivation, aptitude) enter into the discussion. Of note, the authors argue that there is somewhat of a disconnect between much of the research on L2 pronunciation (which tends to focus on the degree of foreign accent present) and applications to teaching (where intelligibility is seen as the desired outcome of instruction).

Chapter 4, “Pronunciation Errors and Error Gravity,” addresses L2 pronunciation errors from multiple perspectives. The treatment of the classification of errors includes, but goes beyond, both segment-based errors and those rooted in prosody. The explanations are very thorough (see, for example, the table outlining segmental error-types, p. 58). Also addressed in the chapter are various models/proposals that have been suggested over the years to explain L2 pronunciation errors. More specifically, Contrastive Analysis, Error Analysis, The Perceptual Assimilation Model (linked to Best), and The Speech Learning Model (linked to Flege) are described, assessed and contrasted. Teachers are cautioned that it would be unwise to make hasty judgments about the application of theoretical proposals to pedagogical practices. It is also noted that not all errors affect speech communication equally. This matter (i.e., error gravity) is addressed in some detail.

Chapter 5, “Pronunciation Instruction Research,” notes that a review of time devoted to teaching L2 pronunciation in programs around the world reveals great differences (teaching described here as “somewhat hit and miss,” p. 78), with research also suggesting that many instructors lack appropriate training in methods of teaching L2 pronunciation. On another matter of interest, the advisability of having non-native speakers teaching L2 pronunciation, the authors are fully supportive of the practice (see more on this point in the EVALUATION section of this review below). A major portion of the chapter is devoted to describing numerous studies on the teaching of pronunciation, about which it is said, “Although the research is still somewhat limited, it seems clear that pronunciation-specific instruction can be effective” (p. 92). The chapter concludes with a number of useful curriculum-related matters.

In Chapter 6, “Assessment of L2 Pronunciation,” it is made clear that the assessment of pronunciation is an important component of any plan aimed at improving the communication skills of L2 students. The discussion focuses on describing three types of assessment (needs, formative and summative). Needs assessment is done initially, formative during the course of instruction and summative at the conclusion of a period of instruction. Materials to be used in pronunciation assessment are discussed, with reference made to some currently available published material. The notions of reliability and validity are also addressed. The chapter touches on the use of technology in the assessment of spoken language, cautioning, however, that more work is needed before one can feel confident about endorsing this practice.

Chapter 7, “Technology in L2 Pronunciation Instruction,” makes the case for a very balanced and objective assessment of the usefulness of technology in the classroom. On the one hand, educators should not reject the use of technology as it clearly can play a very constructive role in achieving educational goals. On the other hand, it is argued, one should not be too hasty in using technology that has not been sufficiently studied regarding its viability as a teaching instrument. It is stated, “….. language teaching specialists need to critically consider the merits and drawbacks of new products” (p. 122). The chapter provides examples of appropriate uses of technology as well as areas where its use is problematic (see, for example, the section on representing speech visually).

In Chapter 8, “Social Aspects of Accent,” numerous examples are provided to illustrate that a full understanding of the study of accent requires one to look beyond the purely linguistic dimension. That is, it is instructive to look at the human dimension encompassing the emotions/feelings of individuals about accent, a complex social phenomenon. It is reported, for example, that some research reveals judgments being made about individuals’ personal characteristics (e.g.,“unfriendly/friendly, lazy/hardworking,” p. 133) based only on their accents. The chapter also addresses the personal feelings of second language learners, with reference to both identity factors and context. Beyond that, it is argued that “willingness to communicate” (see pp. 147-148) is a major factor in fostering the development of oral communication skills. The relevance of the material presented in the chapter to teachers rounds out the chapter.

Chapter 9, “The Ethics of Second Language Accent Reduction,” notes that there are those who argue that any attempt to change a person’s speech is an unethical endeavor, as such a change may have a negative impact on a learner’s sense of identity. The authors, who advocate effective pronunciation instruction, are not in agreement. They assert (aptly, I would emphatically add), “It is our view….that if an individual is unable to communicate in the L2 in a way that interlocutors can understand, the expression of personal identity is threatened far more than by any changes pronunciation instruction may bring about” (p. 153). The chapter then raises concerns related to modifying accents in three contexts. The most serious concerns (and harshest criticisms) are leveled at businesses established to reduce accents. For example, some of these businesses, it is asserted, make absurd promises and, moreover, are not qualified to engage in such work. Suggestions for improvement in two other contexts (clinical and educational) are also discussed.

Chapter 10, “Future Directions,” although quite brief, lays out a rather detailed agenda to help guide future investigations and initiatives. Items specified fall within a range of areas (e.g., research, instruction, technology). The chapter, designed as a natural outgrowth of the preceding chapters (and containing numerous references to earlier chapters), serves as a very effective conclusion to the volume.


This book will undoubtedly be appreciated by its readers, especially those interested (or engaged) in teaching and/or research. The authors have, without question, been successful in achieving their goal. Those who read this book, regardless of their current knowledge of the topic, will gain a fuller understanding of the field, encompassing what has already been done and touching on what remains to be done in the years ahead. The extensive reference to previous research throughout the book in the context of the assertions and arguments contained therein heightens the appeal of the book. There are numerous aspects of the book worthy of praise.

Among the issues clarified in the book is the distinction between accent and intelligibility. Accent is a reference to “a particular pattern of pronunciation that is perceived to distinguish members of different speech communities” (Table 1.1, p. 5). Intelligibility, on the other hand is “the degree of match between a speaker’s intended message and the listener’s comprehension” (Table 1.1, p. 5). This distinction serving, in some measure, as a running theme throughout the book, is linked to the critical point that accented speech should not be equated with failed communication. By extension, it is argued, correctly, I believe, that instruction should be aimed at improving intelligibility, not at producing speech that parallels that of native speakers. This message, when heeded by instructors, will be of immeasurable benefit to students. It is also commendable that the concept of intelligibility is discussed in a broad context, touching, for example, on vocal factors (such as volume) and gestures.

The belief that L2 instructors of pronunciation should be native speakers of the language being taught is justifiably rejected. The viewpoint of the authors, while undoubtedly consistent with the thinking of the overwhelming majority of linguists today, needs to be more widely understood, particularly among educators and educational administrators . This volume helps meet that need and does so with supporting evidence from the research. Any attempt to limit the exposure of students to only a single language variety is illogical. As already noted, intelligibility is not restricted to speech produced by native speakers. It is also the case that an attempt to expose students to a single variety is not even achievable (more on this point below).

Among the many helpful recommendations made in this volume is the one suggesting that instructors should discuss the overall topic of pronunciation with students. It is asserted, “Distinctions among terms such as ‘intelligibility’ and ‘accent’ should be discussed, as well as matters such as accent discrimination, and the roles and expectations of interlocutors in conversations” (p. 100). The authors of this book recognize that it is important not only for instructors to have an understanding of the concept of accent as a linguistic and social phenomenon, but also to understand that their students should be so informed if one hopes to maximize the benefits of classroom instruction. This book highlights the importance of the feelings (i.e., mindset) of students as an important factor in effective instruction. The treatment of this topic should be of great interest and practical value to educators.

Additional features that add to the appeal of this book include the wide range of topics covered, the extensive reference to research, the analytical and insightful manner in which issues are examined, and the lucid style in which the book is written.

As with any work, even exceptional ones such as the book being reviewed here, suggestions come to mind. In this work, it might have been helpful to provide additional details on and discussion of dialect diversity, including examples of both regional and social dialect differences in pronunciation. By so doing, it would have been made clear that native speaker pronunciation and speech with a foreign accent are in one sense linguistically similar, namely, both are abstract concepts incorporating a range of varieties. An understanding of this reality would likely help strengthen the rationale behind establishing intelligibility, and not native-like speech, as the goal of L2 pronunciation instruction. There is no linguistically sound basis for establishing native-like speech as the goal. Put simply, a dialogue with two native speakers and another with one native speaker and one speaker with a foreign accent are both likely to have a speaker engaged in a conversation with a speaker of another variety. Of course, and on a somewhat independent point, most linguists agree (including the authors of this book) that intelligibility, unlike native-like speech, is a more realistic goal, particularly with adult learners.

It might have been instructive to include more detail (although not necessarily a complete lesson plan) of a sample suggested lesson aimed at pronunciation improvement. While the goal of the book was not to prescribe a particular methodology, some additional information on classroom methodology would not have been inconsistent with the overall aim of the authors.

In sum, this book should be read by aspiring and practicing L2 teachers as well as other interested individuals (e.g., applied linguists). It has much to offer. It is well researched, well written and conveys an important message.


Martin R. Gitterman is Professor Emeritus at Lehman College and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. He served for six years (2003-2009) as Executive Officer of the Ph.D. Program in Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at The Graduate Center. His areas of specialization include applied linguistics, neurolinguistics, second language acquisition and bilingualism.

Page Updated: 07-Apr-2016