Better pronunciation sounds like an objective good, and something every language learner should strive for. There are several reasons though that language teachers don’t always push it too hard, including:
- There is good reason to believe that a native-like accent is beyond the reach of almost everyone besides those who immigrate to the target language community sometime before puberty,
- Teachers in EFL contexts have to make something of an arbitrary choice when it comes to selecting a “standard” dialect for teaching (even if that choice is English as a lingua franca, which students generally dislike),
- Given that a native-like accent is out of reach for most students, enforcing that as a standard places them and all their compatriots in a permanently inferior position,
- Not all “foreign” accents are as socially disadvantageous as some assume, and
- Students sometimes take pride in their accents as part of their identities.
However, there is one context in Japan where teaching native-like pronunciation is practically dogma, and that is eikaiwa, my teaching home for the past 12 years, and sort of a Frankenstein’s monster of Japan’s cultural and linguistic phenomena.
Eikaiwa, or English teaching as practiced by privately-owned, usually oral communication-focused schools, frequently appeals to a strain of internationalism that seeks to make divisions clearer, borders starker, and differences more apparent. This form of internationalism is one of the more common interpretations of the concept in Japan and elsewhere, an essentializing ideology captured in the phrase “in order to understand others, one must first understand oneself”, where both others and oneself are taken to be homogeneous cultural and ethnic groups.
Nothing is more threatening to this ideology than hybridity. Individuals and the languages that they speak are supposed to be pure representations of their races, nationalities, and cultures, the three of which are often assumed to be coterminous. Hybridity, having some Japaneseness in your English or some Englishness in your Japanese, threatens the sanctity of racial/national/cultural categories and is taboo. A language is supposed to be a pure representation of the culture that uses it, and contamination by another language can only hurt its value as a token of internationalism.
(Katakana English loanwords are the exception that prove the rule: One can still be a pure Japanese if one uses English words that are shorn of pronunciation difficulties and are repurposed and domesticated for use in Japan)
Pronunciation is part of this. The Japanified internationalism on display at eikaiwa demands that all traces of residual Japanese language be erased and a completely separate identity be forged as part of the foreign language learning process. Hence pronunciation is treated as a first crippling deficiency to be overcome, a crucial foundation on which an “English brain” is to be built.
The necessity of an entirely different “brain” to speak English justifies the early start that many schools recommend – some going below even one year old as the suggested first age of enrolment.
The result of this emphasis on pronunciation is that kids are taught how to make sounds long before they attach any meaning to them. In some cases, this does indeed provide useful foundation for other linguistic knowledge, and these kids may have an advantage in differentiating words like berry and very, and even reduced forms such as the can in I can do it, which many learners struggle with. In other cases, it remains an isolated skill that is not explicitly or implicitly related to vocabulary or higher-level pronunciation skills, and a veteran of early-childhood eikaiwa may be left with fine-sounding Rs that are misapplied (“my name is Yutrr”) or good elocution which is turned off when the pronunciation lesson is over and the teacher switches to katakana for grammar and vocabulary teaching. In these cases pronunciation is also a skill that rapidly atrophies as it is no longer used in the majority of English classes from JHS onward. I once had an adult student with good pronunciation who only applied it after confirming the katakana pronunciation of new words (“Caution? Ko-shon? Ko-shon. Caution. OK.”), which I came to understand as symptomatic of the fact that pronunciation is a compartmentalized aesthetic skill in many people’s minds, like agility with a pastry bag in addition to knowing a cake recipe.
My worries about very early pronunciation teaching, aside from the troubling ideology underlying it, are mostly that 1) other skills are more important, and 2) better pronunciation doesn’t justify the cost in time and money of putting kids in classes at such early ages. That is, early pronunciation teaching is a case of misplaced priorities.
People often project qualities of their own societies onto others that they may not know. In Japan, it’s still very common for the bumbling foreigner stereotype to appear in TV shows, commercials, and anywhere else a stereotype can act as a shorthand (Indian Curry, anyone?)
People may then assume that non-native pronunciation is equally stigmatized everywhere in the world, and that to avoid being seen the way that foreigners are in Japan they must speak absolutely flawless, native-like English. Clearly, this is not true, speaking as a Californian whose last Governor was famous as much for his accent as anything else about him. I was watching an episode of the new Chelsea Handler show on Netflix, and both her guests were non-native speakers with notable accents (Wagner Moura and Arianna Huffington), all of which went more or less without comment.
Even fairly strong Japanese accents are not a crippling social handicap when coupled with a sense of humor.
So obsessive focus on pronunciation addresses a source of anxiety which is largely a result of projection of Japan’s image of itself as a nation of perfect monolinguals whose language springs from their common culture and ethnic stock, and hence doesn’t square with the reality that students are likely to encounter abroad, or even in Japan.
Other effects of the internationalism underlying pronunciation at eikaiwa appear in the common focus on translation rather than explanation on Japan-specific topics, e.g. teaching that お神輿 o-mikoshi equals “portable shrine” rather than working on a suite of skills for comparing similar objects, describing purposes of objects, or talking about traditions in a general way (a la Kelly explaining Diwali to Michael Scott: “I don’t know. It’s really old, I think.”). The assumption seems to be that because people are always representations of their ethnic and cultural groups, no amount of explanation can put a foreign idea into someone’s head, because that would mean that people can always just learn to become members of other groups. The reliance on translation obviates the need to explain, although it does ironically presume that all world cultures have the same object, and the correct word is all that’s needed for them to identify what is being talked about.
(Japanese culture, incidentally, is a topic in textbooks and student discussions much more often than is really necessary – a result of what I call Missionary Japanism, the subject of an article yet to come.)
Essentializing internationalism is responsible for the substitution of a lot of skills for what is really necessary – a willingness to speak, assumption that your interlocutor wants to understand you (is not poring over your output for errors to mark with a red X), and skills to conduct a conversation, not just represent your side well.