As with any language, pronunciation is not the most important aspect. Frankly, fine-tuning one’s pronunciation ought to be every language learner’s final step. It is a step that should be pursued with passion and diligence, unquestionably, and patience. Patience is especially important because at this final step in your language-learning journey native speakers understand most everything that you say; you have finished 90% of the climb, and you want to tell your friends that you are “full bi-lingual”, but you are not at the mountaintop yet…and that last part is tricky.
Yet, I went against my old rule-of-thumb this past weekend when I picked up “Easy Pronunciation“, published by Living Language and written by Barbara Raifsnider, for my Japanese friend (Which I now use for private tutor sessions) Learning English as a second language–required in all public schools in Japan beginning in the third grade–is infamously plagued with so-called Katakana-Eigo where English is pronounced in ways that are friendly to native Japanese but quite difficult to understand for the untrained ear of a native English speaker. It’s safe to say that an untrained Japanese learning ESL will pronounce most if not all short “IH” (kiss, gym) sounds as long “ee” sounds (three, key) because Japanese has one and not the other. Katakana-Eigo also lends itself to L – R ambiguity (right-light are both pronounced and perceived similarly if not as the same sound entirely)
We can extrapolate based on context what the speaker wishes to say, naturally. “Go straight, then take a light at the second right” doesn’t make much sense as is but I will assume that most listeners could put two-and-two together and come to a logical explanation. For someone learning English who is capable of reproducing the sounds that English requires, hammering out undercurrents of your native tongue can come later once you have mastered everything else. What I wish to emphasize is that there are those who come from linguistic backgrounds where such sounds do not exist in the established vocal library, and therefore ought to be taught first.
To teachers and students alike, what strategies have you followed while learning a language? Do you take time to improve pronunciation? Is it your number one priority? What languages are especially difficult to learn without first learning pronunciation?
* I recommend “Easy Pronunciation” to intermediate to beginner Japanese ESL students to be used less with the included audio material and more with a private tutor that can explain the meaning of each word while actively giving feedback to the pupil.