Dr. John Levis – Sinem Sonsaat
Dr. Stephanie Link – Taylor Anne Barriuso
Dr. John Levis is a professor of Applied Linguistics and TESL at Iowa State University, where he works with future teachers and graduate students. Currently, he teaches Methods of Teaching Pronunciation, Oral Language Technology and Phonetics/Phonology. He started the annual Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching conference, and is the founding editor for the new Journal of Second Language Pronunciation.
Sinem Sonsaat is a doctoral student in the Applied Linguistics & Technology program at Iowa State University. She has presented her work at various conferences and is the editorial assistant of the new Journal of Second Language Pronunciation. Her research interests include pronunciation instruction, materials evaluation & development, and CALL.
Dr. Stephanie Link is an assistant professor of TESL/Applied Linguistics at Oklahoma State University. Her primary research interests are in the development and evaluation of emerging technologies for computer assisted language learning with a special focus on L2 writing and second language pedagogy.
Taylor Anne Barriuso is a PhD student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Utah. Her primary area of interest is the acquisition of second language sound systems. Currently, she is investigating features of the input that support the learning of novel allophonic alternations.
Interviewed by Ana Wu
I would like to congratulate on your article “Native and Nonnative Teachers of L2 Pronunciation: Effects on Learner Performance” published by TESOL Quarterly and thank all of you for agreeing to be a guest on the NNEST of the Month blog. I first met Dr. John Levis and Dr. Sinem Sonsaat at Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching conferences (PSLLT), which was started by Dr. Levis in 2009. I have learned effective activities and pedagogical tools on the L2 teaching of pronunciation from the workshops, tips for teachers and poster sessions, but most of all, from the interaction with the 100-150 participants who come from all over the world.
I also invite our visitors to read the proceedings from each annual PSLLT conference on their website here.
Question 1: In your article, the goal of your study was to examine whether NESTs and NNESTs were different in the level of improvement achieved by students. A major finding was that there was no significant impact of teacher’s language background on students’ overall improvement of comprehensibility and accentedness (p.22-23).
In the EFL context, what do you think need further investigation on the topic of NNEST and NEST as pronunciation instructors?
Sinem Sonsaat: I’m thinking further investigation of the language awareness of EFL teachers. And also their confidence and how the relationship between those two things brings up results about their language teaching practices and their beliefs about themselves. Teachers’ priorities may change in different settings, especially in EFL since sometimes some people in EFL context may think that some suprasegmental features are not possible to teach, so that may affect their perceptions and beliefs.
John Levis: We did another study, Stephanie and Sinem and I, on Turkish instructors (Levis, J., Sonsaat, S., & Link, S., forthcoming, 2017). Actually finding out what nonnative instructors actually think and what they want was really helpful because we tend to pretend that they have the same needs as native instructors.
Stephanie Link: I also think it will be interesting to see what other teacher training programs are doing to train pronunciation teachers. I’d expect that the perception towards pronunciation instruction is going to trickle down; so if your teacher trainer has a certain preconception about pronunciation instruction, then it’s likely that you as a pronunciation teacher will also hold that.
And if the teacher trainer lacks experience in pronunciation training, then they’re not going to transfer experience to future educators. There has been some work in this (Foote, Holtby, & Derwing, 2011), but more would be great.
Taylor Anne Barriuso: Sometimes I feel there is more of an overlap between pronunciation instruction and phonology than most like phonologists like to think that there is.
Question 2: In the same article, you also said that when the interviewer asked about preference for a speaking class, students replied confidently that a native teacher would be better; however, they typically struggled to explain why (p.22).” I was puzzled that after your students had a positive experience with a non-native instructor, who was Sinem Sosaat, they were not able to explain the reason of their preference.
- Were you surprised? What were your impressions?
- What do you think teacher trainers and NNESTs can do to change the students’ perception?
Sinem: I was not surprised as a nonnative speaker. It sounds so funny because I am the nonnative speaking teacher in this study and I should be thinking the other way around, but still if you ask me when I am learning a language I kind of also go, if we have a native speaker why not. I mean you have the native speaker chance. I am not saying nonnative teacher cannot teach, I believe that they can, but I mean the native one who is not going to have the same difficulties or is going to have the intuitions, then why not? And I think learners are more strict with nonnative teachers when it comes to pronunciation, because suppose I am learning a foreign language now, and the nonnative teacher makes a mistake which I am aware of, I might say oh she doesn’t know that this is the way that she needs to pronounce it. But I won’t probably say that for a native teacher if they say something wrong. Or I won’t even think that there is something wrong.
John: I wasn’t surprised, actually. What I was surprised about was that they rated you two teachers really high; they saw you both as great teachers. I’ve seen this before but they’ll say, “Oh yeah you know, native, that would be better.”
Stephanie: I was definitely not surprised by the students’ response either because I feel like students are conditioned from a very early time in their language learning experience to strive for perfection, like the phrase “Practice makes perfect” has long been ingrained in the minds of students. Although many practitioners have moved away from this mentality, there are still many who promote it. And so the key issue is in how we define perfection.
Taylor Anne: I wasn’t surprised. For “What do you think teacher trainers and NS can do to change student’s perception?” I think that’s a way harder question of the whole idea of changing people’s perceptions when it comes to nonnative teachers. People’s perception of nonnative speech is just really varied.
Sinem: To change the perceptions of the students, I think if the teacher can show that she is confident teaching pronunciation and she is comfortable with it, it might change their perceptions. At least I would be convinced that my teacher is a good one if she seems confident and comfortable. She loves teaching pronunciation. She’s not there because she was the one who had to teach it. Then I would trust my teacher because sometimes this is what happens with pronunciation.
John: I think those perceptions are really deep and changing the perceptions means that you have to give them experience that allows them to see that this is not that big a deal. And I think students are looking for perfection off a model, like somehow that’s going to transfer over to them.
I wonder also if all teachers have this but nonnative teachers have a kind of an authority issue. If you don’t feel you have the authority yourself, students might start picking away at your authority on this. I suspect putting yourself in the position of a learner help students’ perceptions as well.
Stephanie: Besides that, the teacher being a co-learner, I think it’s easier for a native speaker to disguise that they are actually co-learning. I do that all the time. I’m co-learning with my students. We’re always learning and when I’m learning along with them, I still can be perceived as an expert. When I was first starting off with pronunciation instruction, I was also learning some concepts. When I was tutoring in that class, I was co-learning, but my tutee would never have guessed because I was able to disguise it, perhaps just by having this costume of being an all-knowing native speaker.
Question 3: Your study concludes that being an NNEST or NEST is not critical for being effective pronunciation teachers (p.25). In your professional opinion, what are the characteristics of an effective English pronunciation instructor? How important is “nativeness” (or the lack of it) for being a good teacher?
Taylor Anne: I would say a lot of the things that Sinem has already mentioned, like confidence.
Sinem: I think the first thing a teacher needs to know is to know what to teach, what the priorities are in your own context and also to have the ability to convince learners that what they are learning is something they need to learn. Because in different contexts, in my context, in the EFL context students might think they need to be able to say this specific sound, -th- sound, correctly so badly, that they need to learn that. But they may think they don’t need to learn intonation. So the teacher needs to be able to convince them whatever they are learning is important or tell them why it matters. Or if they don’t need to make the perfect –th- sounds, why it doesn’t matter. The teacher should be able to convince the students, show them why it’s important to learn things or why some of the other things may not make that big of difference.
Stephanie: There seems to be some sort of training in order to obtain this principle approach to pronunciation instruction. Awareness, which is our next paper, Language and Awareness, right?
John: Confidence makes a difference and there has to be some awareness building. How important is nativeness or lack of it for being a good teacher? It’s not. I have felt this for decades and it always frustrates me when nonnative teachers think “oh I’m not a native speaker therefore I can’t be a good pronunciation teacher.” It’s just insane to me. But I understand that there’s a confidence issue, that nonnative teachers feel a bit more exposed as not being quite good enough. And I think that this gets into other issues, because I don’t think all nonnative teachers should be teaching pronunciation, just as I don’t think all native teachers should be teaching pronunciation. Most can teach it, you know, there’s a huge number of nonnative teachers who are just fine, and you know that most native teachers are fine too. But they need to know what they are doing.
Sinem: I previously thought being a native speaker would be enough for being a good teacher, but during my class observations I have seen a couple of people who are native speakers, and I thought they should stop teaching like this because they are not really teaching, this is not teaching. And I was surprised, I thought they are a native speaker but they cannot teach this? I was really surprised and I thought that teachers really needed some help to teach. I was not expecting to see a native teacher not being able to teach.
John: Just because you’re a native speaker doesn’t mean that you can teach.
Question 4: I know you all have been very prolific, giving workshops, writing books and articles, and conducting research. Could you tell us your current projects?
John: Stephanie, Sinem and I have a chapter on native and nonnative pronunciation teachers in ESL and EFL context and it’s coming out in a book, by Juan Dios (Levis, J., Sonsaat, S., & Link, S., forthcoming, 2017). And then we have the language awareness one has to do with materials that we’re working on. Also, I’m doing a Critical Concepts in Pronunciation volume meant to be sold mostly in the Asian market (Levis, J., & Munro, M., forthcoming, 2017). Murray Munro and I are going to write an introduction to it. It’s going to be a four volume collection of key readings, mostly journal articles that deserve greater visibility. These readings are all published articles, one goes back into the 1920’s. Basically, it’s four volumes, each volume will have about 20 articles.
Sinem: I am working on my dissertation. I’ve sent out the survey for needs analysis. What I’m doing is pronunciation instruction materials, so I am trying to see if an online teacher’s manual would encourage teachers to teach pronunciation more compared to a printed teacher’s manual, whether it would increase teachers’ knowledge or confidence. So the survey will show me what teachers expect from a teacher’s manual in teaching, and then I have two online units ready, I mean online teacher’s manual on two pronunciation features, which need to be evaluated by native and non-native teachers. All of those will show me how to improve my online teacher’s manual for the materials whose content was created by John Levis and Greta Muller Levis.
Taylor Anne: Right now we are in the works of developing a study about acquisition, so perceptual acquisition of second language allophones.
Foote, J., Holtby, A., & Derwing, T. (2011). Survey of the teaching of pronunciation in adult ESL programs in Canada, 2010. TESL Canada Journal, 29(1), 1–22.
Levis, J., & Munro, M. (forthcoming, 2017). Critical Concepts in Linguistics: Pronunciation (Vol. 1-4). Taylor and Francis.
Levis, J., Sonsaat, S., Link, S. and Barriuso, T. A. (2016), Native and Nonnative Teachers of L2 Pronunciation: Effects on Learner Performance. TESOL Quarterly. doi: 10.1002/tesq.272
Levis, J., Sonsaat, S., & Link, S. (forthcoming, 2017). Students’ beliefs towards native and nonnative pronunciation teachers. In J. Dios (Ed.), Native and non-native teachers in English language teaching. DeGruyter.