Course on English Pronunciation for English Major in Chinese University: Is It Useful?

Is it useful to incorporate course on English pronunciation into the curriculum of English major?

Students like me majoring in English in my university (one of the elite universities in China) were required to take English pronunciation course in year 1. However, after completing the course my classmates and I questioned the meaning of it. Neither allowing for systematic knowledge of English phonetics nor improving students’ actual pronunciation, the course is doomed to be rendered as another “water course” (a Chinese idiom, meaning “useless and terribly boring class”) by us.

To start with, it is necessary to briefly summarize how the cause was organized. Basically, the teacher demonstrated the pronunciation of all English phonetics and required us to repeat after her. We were then asked to read out words or phrases containing the focused phonemes for practice. In addition, the teacher introduced some skills regarding reading a passage, such as when and how to omit some phonemes appropriately. The assessment was a final exam in which we read some words, phrases, and short articles while recording ourselves.

It was my friend Kristin who first prompted me to reflect upon what difference the course could make to students’ pronunciation. Kristin used to pronounce /θ/ as /s/, a typical error, or say a well-known example of Chinese accent of English in Chinese EFL learners. When the teacher was explaining the detailed steps in pronouncing this notoriously difficult phoneme for Chinese students, I said to her, “See, now you can pronounce it correctly!” She indeed practiced the correct pronunciation excitedly with me after class. Whereas some time after the final test of the course, it struck me that she still said “/ˈsæŋ kjuː/” to our foreign teacher, without even noticing her perennial “mistake.” Thus, later on I invited her to discuss whether the actual outcome of the course was in line with its original purpose purported by the teacher and the English Department. By far we have reached agreement on the following two ideas.

Firstly, age remains a confounding factor in the literature of acquisition of second/foreign language phonology. Yet I am inclined to believe children are easier to acquire “native-like” pronunciation than adults. Therefore, Kristin and I are doubtful about the presumption that the course could improve our pronunciation to be more “standard.” (Certainly, there is growing recognition that a single standard variety of English does not exist, so here I refer to BBC or VOA English pronunciation that we as EFL learners often imitate as the standard.) Piske (2007) observed that adults who keep making great use of L1 may end up having stronger accents in L2. Decontextualized pronunciation instruction has been proved inadequate for learners to change their way of speaking (Lightbown & Spada, 2013). However, most English learners in China are exposed to English in highly limited contexts outside classroom and most noticeably, oral English is far less important than reading, listening, and writing in all levels of significant, large-scale tests, including High School and University Entrance Examination. That is why our English is always jokingly labeled as “dumb English.”

Secondly, whether the goal of second language acquisition is to sound like a native is still under discussion (Lightbown & Spada 2013). As EFL learners, we have ambivalent attitudes towards our Chinese accent. On the one hand, teachers, parents, and even ourselves anticipate that English majors should sound native-like, and thus we have made great endeavors to imitate standard BBC or VOA pronunciation; on the other hand, some of our foreign teachers told us they did not see Chinese accent as absolutely negative because they as natives regard it as part of our learner identity. Given the increasingly highlighted role of English as a lingua franca, such tensions between these two conflicting attitudes have and will cast the goal of this course into doubt, and will continue to bring up the practical question that what we as students are supposed to benefit from the course.

This article may be the first of a series looking into the curriculum of English major in Chinese universities. Kristin and I once wrote down our suggestions on the overall design and pedagogy of the course, including integrating more varied activities in and outside classroom to encourage more use practice of the “correct” pronunciation emphasized in class. Whereas we eventually realized that the learning context as a whole sabotages possibilities of successful implementation of these activities (quite similar to the case of communication-based spoken English course). All in all, my belief has been further consolidated that it makes no sense to exclude students, the significant, if not the most significant stakeholders in education, from the design of the curriculum and organization of courses. Education is never a unidirectional process where students are reduced to passive followers.


Piske, T. 2007. ‘Implications of James E. Flege’s research for the foreign language classroom’ in O. John and M. Munro (eds.): Language Experience in Second Language Speech Learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 301-314.

Lightbown, P. M. and N. Spada. 2013. How Languages Are Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.