Computer Assisted Language Learning 1999, Vol. 12, No. 5, pp.


0958–8221/99/1205–0427$15.00 © Swets & Zeitlinger

Computer-Aided Pronunciation Pedagogy: Promise, Limitations, Directions*
Martha C. Pennington
The Spires Research Centre, University of Luton

An overview is presented of the promise and limitations of working on computer to improve pronunciation in a second language. It is maintained that the considerable promise of the computer as an instructional tool for developing language learners’ pronunciation has yet to be realized in practice, primarily because of lack of attention to pedagogical design rather than because of inherent limitations of the technology. On the basis of this overview, suggestions are made in the way of ten design principles.

1. THE NEED FOR CAP The sound pattern, or phonology, of a language or language variety (dialect) ‘is its surface form in spoken mode’ (Pennington, 1999, p.13). Phonological competence is therefore crucial for both production and reception (decoding and comprehension) of spoken language in every aspect—lexis, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. In addition to being the medium through which oral language is produced by speakers and received by listeners, phonology is ‘a main medium for presentation of self’ to others (Pennington, 1999, p.13), functioning as an indicator of such characteristics as gender, age, national or geographical origin, socio-cultural grouping(s) and other acquired or desired affiliations. A speaker’s pronunciation, both (i) the articulation of individual sounds (phonemes) or sound segments and (ii) prosody, including tone and intonation (patterns of pitch on words or longer utterances), stress (force of articulation) and rhythm (timing), is thus:

*This paper is revised from a presentation given under the title “Pronunciation work on computer: Promise, limitations, and directions” in the TCIS Colloquium on the Uses and Limitations of Pronunciation Technology at the 32nd Annual TESOL Convention, Seattle, Washington, 21 March 1998. Correspondence: Martha C. Pennington, The Spires Research Centre, University of Luton, 2 Adelaide St., Luton LU1 5DU, England. Tel: 01582 743790. Fax: 01582 743701. E-mail: Manuscript submitted: May, 1999 Accepted for publication: July, 1999



a primary indicator of a speaker’s national or cultural group as well as any other groups to which the speaker belongs, wishes to belong, or wishes to emulate. Those who can adapt their pronunciation to different groups and situations therefore have an advantage over those whose pronunciation is limited to one accent or style of speaking. (Pennington, 1999, p.13) During childhood, the sound pattern of one’s native language (and any other languages learned in childhood) will become ingrained in both a physiological (‘hard-wired’) sense and a psychological and socio-cultural (‘soft-wired’) sense (Pennington, 1999, forthcoming b). After the ‘critical period’ for childhood development—comprising phonological as well as general motor, psychological, social and cultural development—has been passed, it becomes difficult to alter a person’s pronunciation patterns and associated behaviours in any substantial way. Adolescent and adult language learners generally reach a point of ‘fossilization’ or ‘diminishing returns’ at a relatively early (intermediate) stage of learning a new language or variety. From this point onwards, most adult learners will hardly be able to improve their productive and receptive competence of a new sound system without explicit instruction (Pennington, 1998). Computer-aided pronunciation (CAP) offers a medium for increasing users’ access to their own and others’ pronunciation performance and underlying phonological systems, for focusing their attention on phonology, and for acquiring new pronunciation patterns. In so doing, it offers considerable promise for language pedagogy, as a medium for improving adolescent and adult language learners’ productive and receptive competence in pronunciation of a target language or variety (dialect).

2. TECHNOLOGY FOR CAP Systems for performing and displaying an acoustic analysis of speech in both segmental and prosodic aspects, using input from a microphone or recorded speech sample, are available commercially and may be used for improving pronunciation in a second language (L2) or variety. The majority of CAP systems run on a standard PC, though some require special hardware. Other sorts of computer capabilities such as graphics, animation, pictures, video and audio may be used as well to develop CAP pedagogy.



Straightforward accounts of CAP technology in relation to second language pedagogy, including sample screen displays, can be found in Anderson-Hsieh (1992), Chun (1989), Molholt (1988), Pennington (1989a), and Pennington and Esling (1996). Anderson-Hsieh (1998) offers an up-to-date breakdown of the capabilities and costs of a wide range of systems, and evaluates these in terms of their practicality and potential for pronunciation instruction. More detailed, technically oriented reviews of available systems are provided by Read et al. (1990, 1992).

3. PROMISE OF CAP CAP, in conjunction with the general capabilities of computer-aided instruction (CAI), has a range of advantages that give it special promise for language instruction (Anderson-Hsieh, 1992; Chun, 1989; Pennington, 1989a, 1996a; Pennington & Esling, 1996). It is, first of all, quick, performing an analysis and giving feedback to the user far faster than a human being can. The analysis of a user’s speech is also infinitely repeatable, precise and reliable in the sense of being the same every time. In all these senses, CAP is superior to the human pronunciation coach or phonetician. CAP, which does not suffer from limitations of hearing, judgement or patience, is in many ways more authoritative than ‘HAP’; that is, human-aided pronunciation instruction. CAP also provides a type of feedback which, because it comes from the machine, is not only authoritative but also highly salient. And this salience can easily be enhanced by utilizing computer capabilities for presenting information in visual and auditory modalities, including multi-modal presentation. The computer can also individualize pronunciation instruction in ways the pronunciation teacher cannot, based on a mechanical analysis of individual student problems and past trials and performance. The computer can moreover make available a much wider range of presentations, on demand and on the spot, than a human trainer. In this sense, the computer has the capacity to present both highly individual and highly variable training. Although most CAP systems are stand-alone individual machines, speech analysis capabilities have recently been incorporated in a language lab set-up where students work independently at their terminals and the teacher has access to every terminal from a master-control station, as in the SONY system described by Lambacher (1997, 1998). This access allows the teacher to set specific work for individuals, groups or the class as a whole; to review the



computer analysis of students’ speech and evaluate their performance; and to transfer analyses of speech from one terminal to another (e.g., for purposes of comparison across students). The potential guidance and feedback of the teacher, in the context of individualized CAP which also allows for comparison with the work of classmates, means that this type of system can be used in a range of modes combining whole-class, small-group or pair, teacher-tostudent and individual work. The capabilities of CAP just reviewed are shown in the middle column of Table 1. Because of these capabilities, which in some basic ways and in combination are unique to the electronic medium, CAP has a number of positive potentials for instruction, as shown in the first column of Table 1. CAP has the potential to increase language learners’ motivation and effort to work on their pronunciation. Because it increases the accessibility and quality of different kinds of pronunciation input, CAP can increase learners’ awareness and understanding of key features of the phonology of different languages or varieties, and of their own pronunciation. It thereby increases the learnability of phonology, an important point for learners past the critical period. By offering a medium within which to practice, CAP can help learners increase the precision of articulation in a language or variety, the automaticity of pronunciation mechanics, the prosodic aspects of speech and the overall fluency of utterance. In providing learners with a private and individual workspace and various tools, CAP can help build their confidence while developing skills in the pronunciation and discrimination of sounds and sound patterns of the target language/variety.
Table 1. Properties, Potentials and Limitations of Computer-Aided Pronunciation (CAP) Pedagogy.
Pros Motivating Stimulates effort Raises awareness Increases understanding Enhances learnability Increases automaticity Fosters precision Builds confidence Develops skills CAP is quick repeatable precise reliable authoritative highly salient multi-modal individual variable Cons Restricted to some features Limited for whole-class use Analysis must be adjusted for different voices No baseline for acceptable performance Weak curriculum Focus on decontextualized articulatory mechanics



4. LIMITATIONS OF CAP In spite of these substantial positive attributes, CAP remains more a set of exciting potentials for instruction than an exciting reality. Although there have been some interesting developments in instructional applications of CAP, especially in the last decade, this medium—to a greater extent than other computer applications for language pedagogy—has been slow to attract the attention of top-notch instructional developers. When compared with the innovative software developed in the last twenty years for teaching science and mathematics or the creative advances in computer arcade software during the same period, CAP is clearly lagging behind mainstream instructional and entertainment applications of computer technology. Thus, it could be said that CAP has yet to achieve a state-of-the-art status in language instruction. As a main limitation of the technology (see the third column of Table 1), certain aspects of pronunciation do not show up well in the visual representations of the speech analysis such as (simplified or modified) waveforms and so cannot generally be trained by such representations. Therefore, developers need to be aware of the limitations of pronunciation analysis and visualization and select areas for training with these restrictions in mind. Another main feature (which is both a strength and a weakness of CAP) is that, because they are designed for individual use, most pronunciation training systems have limited utility for whole-class instruction and may therefore be impractical under many conditions of instruction. In addition, much speech analysis software must be adjusted or ‘trained’ every time it is applied to a new voice and is in this sense also restricted for use by more than one student at a time. The most serious limitations of CAP, however, are pedagogical. First, most software is not based on any particular theory or model of pronunciation which differentiates variation from (true) error. Most software therefore has no baseline or standard for pronunciation targets nor for allowable deviations from these, other than whatever voice(s) may have been recorded as a model to imitate. In most cases, the learner must simply estimate by eye (e.g., from a simplified waveform) whether an acceptable match with the pre-recorded voice(s) has been achieved, though in some software pre-set targets have been built in to specific tasks. In the best software (e.g., some pedagogical software for modifying the user’s pitch which is available with Kay Elemetrics speech analysis systems), the degree of match with, or the achievement of, the target is shown in a motivating graphic (e.g., a giraffe whose neck grows as the pitch of the input utterance increases).



The lack of a model which differentiates (acceptable) variation from (unacceptable) deviation from norms or targets can lead to the problem of feedback in the way of ‘false negatives’ and ‘false positives’. False negatives are indications of failure to match a particular speaker’s performance or other pre-set target, where the learner has in fact achieved a target that would be the same as, or within the range of variation of, that for a (native) speaker of the language. This happens, for example, because the target is based on only one speaker or variety. False positives in CAP are indications that a learner has achieved a target when in fact he or she is not actually within the range of acceptable performance. This happens when the criterion for acceptable performance is set within parameters which are too broad, or which do not discriminate the right features of correct and incorrect, native and non-native, or central (unmarked) and peripheral (marked) performance. An equally important problem is that the overwhelming emphasis in computer-based work on pronunciation has been towards the decontextualized mechanics of articulation. Most of the available pronunciation software contains no curriculum or a limited curriculum, and few applications of the technology link mechanical and meaningful dimensions of phonology (Pennington, 1989a). This may be an important reason why pronunciation technology has enjoyed only modest success in the teaching of English as a second language, where a focus on meaning and the context of communication is primary. While some developers cite computer memory limitations as the main reason for any limitations or restrictions in scope of their software, clearly the amount of memory available is to some extent a design decision and is at any rate only one of the significant factors impacting decisions about pedagogical scope and content.

5. DIRECTIONS FOR CAP Given these limitations, the most significant of which are conceptual, resulting in a rather limited scope for CAP pedagogy, I propose ten principles for improving this area of CAI, as listed in Table 2. (1) The first of these principles is that the CAP developer should start from a well-articulated theoretical position. Most CAP appears to have been developed outside of any theory of pronunciation or second language phonology. The implicit theory seems in most cases to be one of pronunciation as a segmental or low-level performance phenomenon.1
1. G. Molholt (personal communication) claims that new software which he has developed, marketed by Kay Elemetrics Corp, is based on a prosodic rather than a segmental orientation to L2 phonology.



Table 2. Suggestions for Improving CAP Pedagogy.
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) Start from a theoretical position Establish a baseline for pronunciation Set an overall goal for performance Build in specific targets for performance Build skills in stages Link pronunciation to other learning and communicative goals Design on a principled curriculum Design based on creative use of properties of computer medium Raise awareness of contrast with L1 and range of targets for L2 Provide for exploration of database

Such a theory implies that the teaching of pronunciation should be oriented to the level of individual sound segments, or phonemes. An alternative to the segmental view of pronunciation is the perspective of prosodic phonology. From this perspective, teaching the prosodic aspects of phonology—intonation, rhythm, rules of linking words, etc.—will have a far greater pay-off than the teaching of individual sounds, as these inevitably vary greatly in context. An alternative view to the notion of phonology as a low-level performance phenomenon, as I have discussed above and elsewhere (Pennington, 1989b, 1996a, 1997, 1998, 1999), is that pronunciation is a key element of one’s selfimage and the image one projects to others. It is therefore as much a social as a purely mechanical phenomenon. Moreover, pronunciation is a central feature of pragmatic competence, and every type of phonological error or transfer has pragmatic consequences (Pennington & Zegarac, 1998). Such a social view of pronunciation suggests the desirability of linking the mechanics of articulation to communicative contexts or goals. (2) The second principle for CAP design is to establish a baseline for pronunciation in terms of one or more reference accents. There are issues here in terms of how a learner wishes to sound, where the learner will be living, who he or she will be communicating with, and the type of communication (its structure or genre and degree of formality) engaged in. In my view, a range of accents should be provided, as a way to aid the learner to develop an awareness of the range of variation that exists among speakers of the target language or variety. (3) The third point is that the developer should set an overall goal for performance. This goal should be determined by the learner’s characteristics, such as language proficiency and needs. The pronunciation goal may be global or



else focused on particular lexis, grammatical structures, conversational routines or patterns; or it may be focused on developing a certain type or types of skills, such as asking different types of questions, disambiguating information by pronunciation, etc. A different sort of goal is for learners to be able to accomplish certain tasks successfully, such as making various types of telephone calls (e.g., different types that would be relevant for someone working in an international firm). Another aspect of setting a goal for CAP is whether to focus on intelligibility, accuracy or fluency. Nearly all CAP is focused on accuracy, usually as an implicit goal with no specific theoretical or contextual underpinning. Moreover, the focus is usually on accuracy at the level of specific phonemes, though focusing a learner’s performance on the articulation of individual phonemes generally disrupts fluency and can even be counterproductive for intelligibility if the learner concentrates on phonemes to the exclusion of intonation, rhythm and the stress of individual words. For those who have achieved a degree of fluency but not intelligibility, accuracy is a defensible goal—assuming the problem with intelligibility is one involving the articulation of individual sounds rather than one of incorrect prosody. Intelligibility is of course a priority over accuracy per se and may lead to a different focus in instruction, such as on key words, stress, rhythm and intonation rather than on the articulation of individual sounds. For many speakers who are already focused on accuracy, CAP lessons which focus their attention away from accuracy and towards fluency may be useful. (4) The fourth point is to build in specific targets for performance; that is, as to what performance will count as having achieved or made progress towards a desired target. Thus, the developer needs to think about how far one may diverge from, say, a visual target and still be within an acceptable native speaker range, or within the parameters of one language or variety rather than another. The developer will also need to consider what items, structures, skills or tasks will be good indicators of the learner’s progress or achievement. (5) The fifth point is to build skills in stages; for example, move from easier to more challenging tasks and link pre-production with in-production and post-production training. Very little of the CAP available today even has the basic pedagogical design feature of building from easier to more challenging tasks in stages, and virtually none conceives of pronunciation training as consisting of pre-production, in-production and post-production phases. In fact, much of instructional CAP is in essence a form of decontextualized articulation practice, without any attempt to link from one learning stage to another.



Pre-production or pre-communication training helps to form targets and schemas in advance of actually producing speech or communicating in the target language. Such advance training may involve visual and listening activities as well as repetition to establish routines and patterns. In-production or in-process training in CAP is the sort that gives immediate feedback during production of connected speech so that the learner can continually adjust performance and develop automaticity and fluency. Post-production training in the form of cumulative analysis and records of speech helps the learner to develop what are generally referred to as ‘meta-analytical skills’ for selfcorrection and self-regulation of performance. (For further discussion and ideas for teaching, see Pennington, 1996b, Ch. 6; 1997; Pennington & Esling, 1996.) In-production training seems a particularly important type of CAP, as it provides a form of real-time feedback that cannot be obtained except by computer means and that makes possible progressive, self-managed improvement. As I suggested some time ago: A simple application could involve an indication on the screen of appropriate groupings of words in a running discourse, showing the places where linking and pausing would be likely to occur in native speech. As another element, text could be added to the screen with appropriate timing of clusters between potential pause-points. The student would try to match the timing and groupings indicated on the screen by speaking the text as it is appearing on the screen. An indication of rhythm and pitch could also be part of the display . . . (Pennington, 1989a, p.115) In addition to such automated aids to timing and ‘chunking’ of spoken discourse, perhaps given in parallel with indications of prosodic features such as the rhythm and the pitch of individual ‘chunks’ or longer stretches of speech: the program might offer running or user-accessed on-line feedback on production in the form of . . . comments based on a componential analysis of fluency . . . such as ‘Too Slow,’ ‘No Linking,’ ‘Too Many Pauses,’ ‘Insufficient Variation in Pitch,’ etc. This type of feedback can be seen as analogous to that provided by text analysis programs for written language. (Pennington, 1989a, p.119) Training in discourse intonation could be provided in an analogous way,



with the computer visual display indicating the changing patterns over time— for example, analysed in terms of a distinction between ‘proclaiming’ and ‘referring’ intonation (Brazil et al., 1980). Proclaiming (falling) intonation signals completion of discourse units, while referring (non-falling) intonation signals ongoing development of discourse units. If a discourse unit—e.g., the statement I’m going—is produced with proclaiming intonation, either the speaker’s overall communicative purpose or some subpart of it has been achieved. If, however, I’m going is spoken with referring intonation, this signals the speaker’s intention to continue the discourse or to have it continued by another speaker. This contrast is illustrated by the pair of examples below:
Proclaiming Intonation Referring Intonation I’m going. I’m going (and I won’t return) (Pennington, forthcoming a)

This distinction or others which are relevant to varieties of English can be trained by a simple in-progress display using arrows which appear above a text on the screen as a discourse unit is completed, as in the following continuous text:

That man over there is waving because I asked him to. Do you remember last week when I told you I had a man I wanted you to meet? Well, that’s him: that’s Greg. Come on over and I’ll introduce you. (Pennington, forthcoming a)

For in-production as well as pre- and post-production instruction, exercises should be developed on databases of real speech in different contexts; e.g., as described by Jones (1996). (6) The sixth point is to link pronunciation to other learning and communicative goals such as vocabulary, grammar, discourse and pragmatics. Many books have appeared on the teaching of phonology (e.g., Avery & Ehrlich,



1992; Bowen & Marks, 1992; Pennington, 1996b), providing examples of how such linkage can be accomplished in a non-electronic context. It should not take exceptional imagination to develop the wealth of published ideas for teaching second language phonology to make suitable use of computer technology. (7) The design of CAP pedagogy should be based on a curriculum linked to creative use of the properties of the computer medium in concert with, rather than in place of, the other considerations of this list. Unfortunately, designers of CAP have tended to opt for either (a) a curriculum-as-technology or ‘minimal technology’ approach, in which the technological application is matched to pre-existing curriculum and teaching ideas (thereby underutilizing the technology), or (b) a technology-as-curriculum or ‘minimal curriculum’ approach, in which the technology is seen as providing its own curriculum or teaching approach. (8) An essential point is that CAP should be based on a principled language learning curriculum such as a communicative or task-based syllabus. A framework for pronunciation design that is described in detail in Pennington (1996b, Ch. 6) is given in Table 3. In reproducing this scheme here, I do not mean to suggest that it is the only or best one to be used for CAP. The point is rather that there should be a curriculum behind the software and, whatever curriculum there is, should be a defensible one. Hiller et al. (1993) offer some advice and direction to those trying to develop a progressive curriculum for CAP. (9) CAP should raise learners’ awareness of the contrast of the L2 or target variety with the native language or variety and also of the range of acceptable or related targets and their social significance. Awareness of contrasts can be built by showing computer analyses side by side for parallel features in the
Table 3. Curriculum Scheme for Pronunciation (Pennington 1996b, p.226).
Unit structure Presentation Activity type Focus Practice level Mechanical Cognitive load Low inference Modality Participation Information




Contextualization Practice Controlled Structured Free

Contextualized Meaningful Realistic Real High inference Production Interaction Communicative



two languages or in different dialects of the target language—for example, two similar but not identical vowels, as in Rochet’s (1990) software for teaching French vowels to English speakers (see discussion below), or two types of intonation for declarative sentences, as in the essentially ‘mirror-image’ contrast of the typical English and Japanese declarative intonation contours sketched below:
Typical English declarative intonation Typical Japanese declarative intonation

Software could easily be developed that displays on one screen, for comparative purposes, the range of contours found in a sample of Japanese vs. English declarative sentences, with statistics as to the frequency of each type in the samples of speech used as the database. Such comparative information could be provided as pre-production input for exercises in which learners would try to match their contours to those on the screen, receiving inproduction (‘formative’) feedback as well as post-production (‘summative’) feedback on the contour they produced. This feedback could be in the form of an indication of the percentage of match to a given contour, e.g., as illustrated graphically by colour-highlighting of the overlapping section of the two contours laid out one on top of the other. Or it could be in terms of a numerical display of the percentage of overlap, or of the statistical frequency of the contour in one or both languages according to the database from which the contours were derived. (10) The final point is to provide opportunities for exploratory CAP, particularly for exploration of video or audio databases such as those of Esling (1994) and Jones (1996) that include software tools for browsing and compiling features of interest. As one of the most significant potentials of computer access for individualizing instruction and promoting learner control and independence, exploratory CALL should be a feature of CAP.

6. A PROTOTYPE FOR CAP Rochet’s (1990) software for teaching French vowels to native speakers of English is the only software I am aware of that begins to implement these ten



principles for CAP pedagogy. It might therefore be considered a prototype for future developments in CAP pedagogy. Rochet’s software has an explicit curriculum that is based on a detailed cross-linguistic comparison of the aspect of pronunciation to be taught in comparison to the learner’s native language. It is also based on a theoretical position, in this case, about how vowels are learned in terms of central and peripheral exemplars. Rochet’s CAP program includes early, mid-stage and late-stage targets, and it makes use of special features of the computer. Even this carefully designed software is, however, far from the ideal, as it is focused narrowly only on individual vowel contrasts between French and English and does not exploit computer capabilities—especially, those capabilities other than for speech analysis—to a very great extent.

7. CONCLUSION I believe that a major effort is needed in pronunciation software development, based on the many kinds of computer technology available. Given the very considerable potential and natural advantages of the computer as an instructional delivery system, there can be no excuse for instructional designers’ continued production of CAP in which the technology is based on indefensible pedagogy or a weak or non-existent curriculum. Although learners may be intrigued by the technology and may in fact improve their pronunciation by use of it, much more could be done to make optimal use of the considerable expertise of computer technicians, by marrying that expertise to the considerable expertise of language curriculum specialists and making a major commitment of time and effort to the development of CAP pedagogy.

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