How to teach pronunciation 3: Accent and Identity

There is a trend in language centres to teach ESOL

students how to speak ‘properly’, without an ‘accent’.

The rise in the number of ‘accent reduction’

programmes poses some controversial questions

about the role of learner identity and the appropriacy

of our aims as language educators.

Let’s be frank, anyone who says that they do not have an accent (a more common belief than you might think) has never considered how the people around them perceive them. In truth, every human on this planet has an accent which can be heard and identified as compared to others who speak the same language, who may have spent time in a different place, and have picked up nuances of pronunciation from their experiences and interactions. The way in which humans, as social beings, change how we speak to reflect our social experience is a beautiful thing, and is part of our ever-changing identity as life makes its marks upon us.

Learners of English should be proud to be understood in the language they work so hard to learn. This is, after all, the primary goal of learning: to ‘speak’ another language. As teachers, we should share this goal, and work to ensure that when our students speak, they can be understood as they say what they choose to put forth in the world. An accent in itself does not inhibit this level of basic understanding, though more specific issues in pronunciation can, and frequently do. If a learner incorrectly transfers sound patterns from their first language into their second language, for example, and this leads to a meaningful difference in the words that they speak, that learner has a problem: there is a risk that listeners may not understand any word which contains that sound pattern (think of the famous l/r distinction for Japanese and Korean learners of English). This is not in itself an ‘accent’ issue - it is a simple matter of being understood (or not) due to the transfer of features from the learner’s first language to their second.

This kind of ‘transfer error’ can impede meaning in ways that a simple difference in cadence, slight variation in the pronunciation of vowels, or difference in the rhythm of speaking, do not. When speakers use a second language with confidence, in their own voice, they are sharing an important part of their identity which is lost when these variations in English pronunciation are eliminated. Many nationalities are proud of their home-country accents (I have met many French students who steadfastly refuse to lose the ‘French-ness’ of their English - a conscious choice which should be respected, as long as it does not impede the messages they speak).

True, a learner may have been tasked with speaking in a particular way for their job, or may have the specific goal of blending in to an English-speaking society, but if that person walked into a room with 100 people in it anywhere in the UK or US, there is a good chance that they would be in the minority if they spoke with a so-called ‘received pronunciation’ or ‘American standard’ accent. One of the beauties of English as an international language is that it is spoken so widely, and by so many people from different cultures, and in so many different ways, that it has developed into a new set of varieties which can communicate messages in so many different culturally-specific ways. If in doubt, listen to Indian, Singapore, Hong Kong or Jamaican English being spoken at length. Think about the weight of cultural identity which accompanies the message, and what would be lost if these diverse sounds of the English language were ‘reduced’ or lost altogether.

Tom Garside is a teacher, trainer and staff developer with a specialism in phonology and pronunciation teaching. His resource pack for pronunciation teaching: Pronunciation Card Games, brings a game-based element to this important area of study by using phoneme cards to help students take hold of their own pronunciation and develop awareness of the sound changes in the English language as it is spoken authentically.

Contact tom.garside@languagepointtraining to organise a training event at your centre, or

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