International intelligibility: a new standard in teaching pronunciation skills

Mindmap illustrating different speakers to communicate with various language backgrounds

In an increasingly globalised world, the most popular languages are becoming more and more widespread. In the case of English, for example, there are now more non-native English speakers globally than native speakers. Notably these speakers are confidently communicating using a wide variety of accents but are able to understand and be understood.

This phenomenon was recently highlighted in a report from Oxford University Press entitled “English Pronunciation for a Global World”. At the heart of the report was the clear conclusion that international intelligibility should be the aim for learners of all major global languages (e.g Arabic, Chinese, English and Spanish). This blog post explores the concept of international intelligibility, considers how it can best be taught and how it could transform how language educators teach pronunciation skills.


What is international intelligibility?

The concept of international intelligibility is simple. It is the capacity to make yourself understood in your target language (L2) when communicating with people from different first language (L1) backgrounds. For example, many English language learners do not need or want to communicate with native English speakers. More likely, they will predominantly use their English skills in situations (e.g an international business meeting) where nobody even shares a mutual native language.

The OUP report contends that the speakers who are “most likely to be successful in global communication are not necessarily those who have a native-speaker accent; rather, international intelligibility is the product of competence in the pronunciation features that are common to many accents.” As a result, effective pronunciation teaching should be focused on preparing learners to deal with multiple native and non-native speaker accents. 

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) also defines high-quality pronunciation skills in similar terms:

“In language teaching, the phonological control of an idealised native speaker has traditionally been seen as the target, with accent being seen as a marker of poor phonological control. The focus on accent and on accuracy instead of on intelligibility has been detrimental to the development of the teaching of pronunciation.”


A new language teaching approach for teaching pronunciation skills

Teaching international intelligibility clearly requires a shift in priority for teaching pronunciation skills. Achieving a native-speaker accent (e.g British Received Pronunciation (RP) or its US equivalent, General American (GA)) is no longer the priority, rather the target is to make the student’s speech understandable to people from a wide range of language backgrounds.

Of course, where possible, students should be given the opportunity to choose the type of accent they are taught. This should be guided by their language requirements and the types of audiences with whom they most frequently communicate.

As such pronunciation teaching should encourage students to emphasise (and not hide) their L1 background / identity through the accent of their target language. After all, even every L1 speaker has an accent depending on where they were born and live, so why wouldn’t non-native speakers of an international language be allowed to do the same?

Furthermore, students must also be encouraged to improve their accommodation skills as part of their language training. These skills are essential for effective communication – learners need to build both their receptive and productive accommodation skills to tailor their speech for their audience, as well as modifying their expectations as listeners. Both skills will ensure that L2 students from a variety of different language backgrounds can be easily understood.

Similarly, educators should ensure that students are given lots of exposure to non-native accents and voices during their classes, so that they can build exposure and real-life communication experience.


What are the benefits of international intelligibility?

In its report, OUP’s experts identify a number of significant additional benefits for those language educators who transform their pronunciation teaching in this way. In summary these are:

  • It gives students an achievable and realistic goal to aim for. Not everyone can achieve native speaker accuracy. 
  • The approach prepares students for the real world and helps them develop the skills that they need to communicate in real life business or social situations. 
  • Both of the above help students to understand that their accent / version of the L2 is valid and acceptable. This may in turn help boost their speaking confidence, engagement and motivation for learning. 

On the other hand OUP’s experts also conclude that there are a number of key challenges associated with adopting international intelligibility as a key focus. 

  • Differing learner goals can create a divide in the class which teachers will have to work hard to handle and to provide resources for.
  • Students with different L1s will find different elements of L2 pronunciation a challenge. Teachers should be aware of these and be prepared to respond accordingly.


Building international intelligibility in your classroom

In a 2020 blogpost on the topic, Pearson identified some interesting ways in which educators could help their students achieve intelligibility.

  1. Recording students’ speech is a great way to get a clear picture of how they speak and how their pronunciation could be improved. Educational technology tools such as Sanako’s automatic pronunciation grading can also be used to provide automated and quick feedback for students’ pronunciation.
  2. It’s also important that students develop strong listening skills and are able to accurately hear how words are pronounced before attempting to reproduce them. Listening and shadowing are really useful activities that can be easily delivered and which help students to “improve their own intonation, connected speech and overall fluency” by repeating back what they have heard.
  3. Students can make rapid progress when lesson activities are tailored to meet their specific needs. Focusing group and pair work on, for example, the words or sounds that students struggle to make can pay dividends. There is also a role for transcribing and drilling these elements through constant and frequent repetition. 

Based on the above ideas, there is a strong role for educational technology to play in supporting language teachers to build their students’ pronunciation skills. Technology is ideally suited to respond to the challenge as it:

  • Encourages self-conscious / critical learners to participate
  • Provides a wide range of voices for students to mirror and shadow
  • Facilitates easy recording of vocal content and can provide instant assessment / feedback on performance
  • Supports students to do their work where and when they want, building stronger independent learners
  • Enables easy distribution of lesson resources to students (and allows access outside the classroom)
  • Offers opportunities for collaboration and group working.


How do Sanako products help educators to teach pronunciation skills?

Sanako’s language teaching software helps educators to improve their students’ pronunciation and oral communication skills. In addition to addressing the use cases above, our products also enable educators to:

  • Provide authentic speech models for students, who then record their own voice for comparison and receive immediate feedback.
  • Create specific pronunciation tasks using a wide variety of media including sound files, text, presentations, videos and/or web pages.
  • Create groups of students to conduct conversation practice simultaneously. Teachers can listen in, give feedback in real-time and even record the individual group discussions for later review.
  • Provide detailed and time-coded feedback: A piece of audio feedback can be placed next to specific points of the student’s recorded oral submission where their pronunciation needs attention.


Interested to learn more about how Sanako’s dedicated language teaching software platform could transform your approach to teaching pronunciation skills? Please click here or the banner below to learn more and book your free demo!

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This blog post was last updated 25 May, 2023.