How important is pronunciation?
I have mixed feelings when someone asks me to correct their pronunciation.
Chinese speakers learning English seem to be very concerned about "proper" pronunciation, maybe because pronunciation, especially tone, is crucial in Chinese. But, which English accent represents "correct" pronunciation? Different English speaking countries, and different regions within those countries, all have different accents. Someone in New York speaks differently than someone in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Toronto, Vancouver, Cape Town, Sydney or Auckland. Who is right and who is wrong? Which pronunciation should be taught? Does it really matter?
Additionally, learners need to ask themselves if focusing on pronunciation is really the best use of their time and energy. Most often, the bigger challenges for learners that I work with is being able to understand what they hear (listening comprehension) or read (reading comprehension), or finding the words to express themselves either in speaking or writing. If you can't express your thoughts, then pronunciation isn't really an issue. Use your time effectively.
That doesn't mean that there is never any reason to work on pronunciation. If there is a pronunciation difference that causes problems with people understanding you, then it deserves attention. For example, a very common pronunciation challenge for Chinese speakers of English that can cause misunderstanding is the "th" sound. I wrote about this in "I'm Sinking!". Another pronunciation issue that might affect people understanding you is speaking speed. If you talk too fast, it's easier to make mistakes and listeners don't have time to "process" what you are saying. Even native English speakers have to "process" what other native speakers are saying, to make up for pronunciation differences or even unfamiliar vocabulary. Slow down!
If you already have good listening and reading comprehension and can speak fairly fluently, but pronunciation differences are still preventing others from understanding you, there is an excellent (but expensive) program that was introduced to me recently by one of my colleagues: Pronunciation for Success. The text not only introduces the different sounds of English, but also talks about the differences in how the muscles of your mouth (jaw, lips and tongue) are used, compared to other languages. The program helps you to retrain your mouth muscles to speak English more naturally. It is designed for self study, but working with a native English speaking coach can help.
Basically, in English, the mouth muscles are mostly relaxed and loose, whereas in languages such as Chinese they are more tense. For most vowel sounds, the jaw is usually open wider when speaking English than when speaking Chinese.
Pretend you are an English speaker speaking Chinese. Record yourself speaking Chinese as if you were an American. When you listen to the recording, you will likely notice that the accent sounds sort of loose and lazy. Well, that's how we speak English!
So, what are your thoughts? How important is pronunciation? Please share your comments.