Pronunciation as a Measure of Fluency

Among many people who learn languages, some are very committed to being faithful to the way a language is supposed to sound. They dedicate themselves to learning idiomatic expressions, learning the most natural way to say things, and also learning to pronounce things correctly. However, some people argue that the lattermost criterion is unimportant, that it doesn’t matter as long as you get the point across.

Personally, I am one of the former. I think you should do as much as you can to pronounce things properly. Native speakers of Spanish often remark that some learners speak like gringos, which is to say they speak clearly like a foreigner. In my experience, this is due primarily to their pronunciation. Due to my definition of fluency, this is unacceptable. However, this may seem trivial to Spanish as the pronunciation is not especially significant to the way they’re understood. The only case I know of where it might matter is between cazar and casar (and all their conjugated forms), which are distinguished in Spain using the ceceo, which does make the pronunciation significant.

In other languages, with variations on the same sound, such as and ḷ in Kannada or Tamil, the pronunciation is more important. Heladu (to shit) and heḷadu (to say) are two entirely different verbs in Kannada, and obviously, mispronunciation of these two sounds may cause serious misunderstandings. In this case, proper pronunciation is imperative to learn. The solution, in my opinion, is to use the IPA alphabet, to teach people how their mouth and tongue should be positioned in order to pronounce a certain sound.

However, the more apparent question here is whether pronunciation should be stressed or not. In some languages, it matters a lot, such as in tonal languages (Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese), and others, not so much. This calls definitions of fluency into question, because some languages don’t require you to have native-level pronunciation in order to be understood, whereas others do.

I know this is a relatively short piece, but I’ve been really busy lately. Please feel free to share this on Facebook and Tumblr, and discuss this with people.