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The Importance of Phonemes in ELF (English as a Lingua Franca)

The Importance of Phonemes in ELF (English as a Lingua Franca)


Back in graduate school, way back in graduate school, I learned of the importance of supra-segmentals. The idea was that supra-segmental features, things like stress, rhythm, and intonation, are more important for improved intelligibility than segmentals, the individual phonemes. It made sense and there was research to back up the claim. I grabbed onto the idea and held it for decades. Unfortunately, it was misleading.


There have been claims that the research supporting the importance of supra-segmentals is inconclusive. I won’t go there. For me, the most important point to be made about those studies is that they all included a native speaker. The ideas that guided the studies were from an ESL, not an EFL, context. These studies assumed that testing intelligibility necessarily meant the intelligibility of, or judged by, a native speaker. I never questioned these assumptions. Then, along came Jennifer Jenkins.


Jenkins (2000) reported that in a study conducted on pairs of non-native speakers, mistakes at the segmental level were the biggest source of communicative problems. Looking for the components of English pronunciation that are essential for successful interaction between “Non-bilingual English speakers” (NBESs), Jenkins discovered that phonemes, that is the segmentals, are as important as supra-segmentals – maybe more so. Errors with phonemes caused more communication problems than errors on levels higher than phonemes when both participants were NBESs. Jenkins claimed the focus on supra-segmentals is over-stated when teaching NBESs because the way words are blended, intonation, and other elements of native speech are less problematic when NBESs try to communicate with each other.


Other research has reported that Japanese learners of English have salient L1-L2 transfer problems at a segmental level. Riney and his colleagues (Riney, Takada, and Ota, 2000) documented the link between native Japanese speaker’s pronunciation of segmentals and foreign accent scores as judged by native English speakers. Their results showed the obvious: pronunciation errors influenced foreign accent ratings (the more errors, the worse rating scores). Accordingly, they claimed that native-Japanese speakers need segmental-level pronunciation instruction in order to “dilute their marked deviation from native English-speaking norms.” 


I was a graduate student a long time ago. English was the lingua franca, but the Internet hadn’t been invented. English was a global language, but we all still thought English was learned in order to communicate with natives. We are now in a different world. There are more non-native speakers using English than there are native speakers. Our students are just as likely – perhaps more likely – to use English with other nonnative speakers as they are to use it with natives. In these situations, when English is used as a lingua franca, hearing and pronouncing the individual sounds is critical. Those of us who are teaching people to become citizens of the world need to consider, or perhaps reconsider, the importance of training our students to hear the sounds that are most difficult them.


Jenkins J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Riney T, Takada M, Ota, M. (2000). Segmentals and global foreign accent: the Japanese flap
in EFL. TESOL Quarterly 34(4): 711-37.

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