Very recently, I was given a new learner. In order not to reveal anything about their identity, I cannot give you more details than that they needed to improve their Swedish pronunciation drastically, in order to save their career.
Pronunciation is a sensitive topic. I have noticed – after 9 years and 10 months of teaching, that this is what people feel the most offended about if I tell them they do not get things right. Tell someone their grammar is wrong, not complex enough or they do not use the right words, learners are keen on improving. Tell them their pronunciation is incorrect, they are sometimes offended.
Similarly, when discussing teaching questions related to pronunciation with fellow teachers, I very often encounter the attitude that pronunciation should not be corrected, and that a foreign accent is only something positive. I agree, a foreign accent – in any language – is a sign of hard work and bravery, and it means that you have actually bothered to learn another language than what you grew up with. However, sometimes, like in this case, pronunciation can come in your way and have great consequences. Therefore, I think it is a really important issue to address, for both teachers and learners.
So the learner I got to know the last week struggles heavily with Swedish vowel sounds, to the point where I have difficulty to understand what they are saying. They also pronounce their R very far back in their throat rather than using the tip of their tongue (like my own Stockholm accent). Initially, we agreed that there was no point trying to make them imitate my Stockholm R, but rather stick to their guttural R, as this is common in the south of Sweden. Instead, we worked on the vowels.
The first few days of training passed, with no improvement. Needless to say, I always question my competence in these situation. We continued working on the vowels. Despite our agreement, I got tired of listening to the guttural R, and perhaps mostly due to irritation asked my student to produce an English R (that is rather similar to my Stockholm accent). This took some time to integrate, but to our amazement something else happened. When the R sound moved closer to their lips, the vowels followed. And within minutes, that improvement, that had been lacking for days, came. Things are not yet perfect, but we have now found a way to solve their problem.
I found all of this very interesting from a language learning point of view. I often encounter prioritisation strategies of different kinds when getting to know my students. Learners who are perfectly confident they will never write in Swedish, so they refuse to take notes in class. Other learners who decide that a certain type of vocabulary is unnecessary for their kind of field, or that there is no point at all learning vocabulary until ‘all’ grammar has been fixed. Others – and this is very common – refuse to acknowledge the long vowel and consonant sounds in Swedish, as there is no equivalent in their first language. What they may not realise is that these different aspects of language are interlinked, and that by skipping what they consider unnecessary will actually stand in the way of mastering what they find essential. This applies also, or perhaps even more, to language teachers.