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Earlier this year, the Council of Europe publsihed an update to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or CEFR, more specifically the CEFR's Companion Volume. There was even a launching conference in May.

What changed in the CEFR regarding pronunciation and how does this affect people learning the pronunciation of a foreign language?

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The 2001 version of the CEFR contained the following descriptors for the secition "phonological control" (bolding by me):

  • A1: Pronunciation of a very limited repertoire of learnt words and phrases can be understood with some effort by native speakers used to dealing with speakers of his/her language group.
  • A2: Pronunciation is generally clear enough to be understood despite a noticeable foreign accent, but conversational partners will need to ask for repetition from time to time.
  • B1: Pronunciation is clearly intelligible even if a foreign accent is sometimes evident and occasional mispronunciations occur.
  • B2: Has a clear, natural, pronunciation and intonation.
  • C1: Can vary intonation and place sentence stress correctly in order to express finer shades of meaning.

(Quoted from Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment. Structured overview of all CEFR scales by the Council of Europe.)

The document with new descriptors published in 2018 makes the following comment about the 2001 descriptors (bolding by me):

The 2001 scale has been replaced in this publication. The description of phonology in CEFR Section 5.2.1.4 is clear, thorough and sufficiently broad to encompass more recent reflections on aspects of phonology in second/foreign language education. However, the 2001 scale did not capture this conceptual apparatus and the progression appeared unrealistic, particularly in moving from B1 (Pronunciation is clearly intelligible even if a foreign accent is sometimes evident and occasional mispronunciations occur) to B2 (Has a clear, natural, pronunciation and intonation). In fact, the phonology scale was the least successful of those calibrated in the original research.

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. Idealised models that ignore the retention of accent lack consideration for context, sociolinguistic aspects and learners’ needs. The current scale seemed to reinforce such views and for this reason, the scale was redeveloped from scratch.

(Quote from Common European Framewok of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Compation Volume with New Descriptors by the Council of Europe.)

The section on phonological control of the 2018 version contains a table of descriptors instead of a simple list; the table has columns for the following aspects of phonologial control: "overall phonological control", "sound articulation" and "prosodic features". Unlike the 2011 version, it also defines descriptors for level C2.

For example, the descriptor for "overall phonological control" for level A1 now says (bolding by me),

Pronunciation of a very limited repertoire of learnt words and phrases can be understood with some effort by interlocutors used to dealing with speakers of the language group concerned. Can reproduce correctly a limited range of sounds as well as the stress on simple, familiar words and phrases.

Notice how the phrase "native speakers" has been replaced by "interlocutors used to dealing with speakers of the language group concerned".

The descriptor "sound articulation" for level C1 says,

Can articulate virtually all of the sounds of the target language with a high degree of control. He/she can usually self-correct if he/she noticeably mispronounces a sound.

The "high degree of control" is not based on the degree of control of a native speaker. As a consequence, people learning the pronunciation of a foreign language can focus on understandability instead of using the proncunciation of a native speaker as the gold standard.

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