Phonetics and Phonology Between Theory and Practice: A Study of English Major Students in Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, an important rationale for the inclusion of phonetics and phonology in university degree courses for aspiring English language teachers is to improve their proficiency in second language pronunciation. This, in turn, contributes to their overall ability to use the language effectively in international communicative encounters. Many English major students in Saudi Arabia are aware of the basic terminology and theoretical underpinnings of the study of phonetics and phonology with specific reference to English at the completion of their degree. It has been noted, however, that they are often unable to apply this knowledge to improve their pronunciation. This practical problem was the motivation for undertaking the current study.
Using a mixed methods design, the present study set out to trial an innovative approach to the teaching of phonetics and phonology in the Saudi university context. Specifically, the emphasis was placed on enabling learners to apply their knowledge to optimise their pronunciation achievement. Thirty-two English major undergraduate students in Saudi Arabian university who were preparing to become English language teachers were divided in two equal-size groups: a control group comprising students enrolled in the standard phonetics and phonology course at their university; and an experimental group comprising students exposed (over the same period) to a series of practice-based classes which focused on the application of phonetics and phonological principles and concepts through structured reception and production activities. These data were complemented by interviews with phonetics and phonology course instructors and practicing English language teachers.
The oral production tests completed by the student participants in both groups were rated by independent native speakers of Australian English. Results revealed that the participants who completed the experimental practice-based course improved significantly in their production of English words containing sounds that do not exist in the Arabic language system. Their production was also rated as less accented than that of the control group participants. Data obtained from the interviews highlighted the general lack of confidence among the participants in regard to their own English pronunciation, and in their ability to teach pronunciation in their future careers. The participants expressed a general desire for more opportunities to practise speaking in English and responded well to such activities in the experimental course. The findings of this study suggest that measurable gains in pronunciation performance can be obtained through a one-semester course. This has important pedagogical implications for the way in which English language teachers are trained in the Saudi university context.