The many faces of English pronunciation - Why does(n’t) accent matter in TESOL?
One of the things which makes the English language so diverse and fascinating is the variety of forms which it takes in today’s globalised world. Listen to any group of people speaking English anywhere in the world, and you will probably notice that each speaker uses the language in a different way, sounding different and using different word for the same ideas, depending on their experience and background with the language. This article focuses on the positive aspects of the different sounds that Englishes use: accents, and how this variety can be of benefit to language teachers and learners in the global field of TESOL.
Accent diversity is so important to the language we use - it tells us where someone is from, provides a huge amount of cultural information about the speaker and can represent thousands of years of history about the place where that accent was formed. Whether a British English speaker, for example, uses a short /æ/ or a long /a:/ sound in words like ‘bath’ and ‘grass’, for example, shows whether his or her region was populated by Vikings from as long ago as the 8th century. Similarly, the use of the rhotic /r/ sound in words like ‘waiter’ and birth’ in the UK is seen as a symbol of lower economic background, whereas in New York, the opposite is true: those who do not pronounce all their /r/s are historically viewed as being of a lower socio-economic class. Of course, in today’s society, neither of these assumptions is true; I am merely pointing out historical stereotypes about these specific features of accent.
Accent paranoia and native-speakerism
The link between accent, class and prejudice of this kind does, however, pervade today. When training new teachers on Trinity CertTESOL courses around the world, a common question comes up about accent. Trainee teachers show a kind of paranoia about having non-standard accents, especially those who do not come from native English speaking backgrounds. ‘Is it OK that I have an accent?’, they ask nervously when interviewing for a place on the course, without realising that everyone has an accent (despite what the ‘Standard English’ myth assumes), and that theirs is just different from some non-existent norm.
This leads in turn to an interesting paradox: many schools and education authorities insist that their teachers present ‘authentic’ or ‘native-speaker’ English. However, these same schools often also insist on recruiting teachers from ‘native speaker’ countries which don’t have ‘foreign accents’, such as the UK, Canada, Ireland, the US, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Take a moment to consider the enormous range of accents which exist in the UK alone (the country often held up as having the ‘true’ / ‘authentic’ / ‘desirable’… English accent), and this entire way of thinking falls apart. At interview for a school with this accent prejudice, out of a pool of teachers from Newcastle, Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool and Belfast, who would get the job, and why? NB - listen to all of these beautiful accents if you have never heard them before - All from the UK, and none perceived as ‘desirable’ by overseas education authorities.
There are even specific courses which aim to teach ‘accent reduction’, whatever that is. Don’t like the way you speak? Then reduce your accent to… to what? Presumably the accent of whoever is teaching you. This is doomed to failure before it even starts.
EIL, ELF and accents
If we wanted to define a ‘standard’ accent of English, we would start by looking at the most-spoken accent in the world, i.e. the accent you were statistically most likely to come across if you were speaking English to another human being. This is an easier thing to define than you might imagine. International industry grew fast and wild in the 20th century, with the end of the British Empire giving way to international trade and global industry. As English (E) became the Lingua Franca (LF) for many industries (medicine, banking, technology, engineering, travel and tourism, shipping, aviation…), the fact is that ‘standard’ English by our definition is far more likely to come from the mouth of a non-native speaker than someone from one of the so-called ‘native speaker’ countries listed above. Consider that there are more people learning English as a second language in China alone than there are ‘native speakers’ of English on the planet, and that shifts our definition of ‘standard’ radically. With India’s population set to push beyond China’s in the near future, and with English as one of its official languages, where does that leave so-called ‘standard’ English?
ELF has become somewhat of a buzzword in the language education industry recently, and with good reason. English is a Lingua Franca for billions of people in their workplaces, and is used by Finns doing trade deals with Germans, Austrians checking into hotels in China, and Nigerians selling goods to Mongolians. This is the global standard of English, and it exists to fulfil the functions that international communication requires.
English as an International Language (EIL), the forerunner of the concept of ELF, may not be standardised, but it does have some notable features. The absence of the notoriously tricky ‘th’ sounds, for example, a lack of articles ‘a’ and ‘an’ (do we really need them?) and a very flexible use of plurals and countability (again, with the use of numbers, isn’t it obvious what we mean without them?). In terms of how the language sounds, the few, tiny missing sounds that these features demonstrate are small potatoes compared to the function and efficiency of the message being delivered.
Another disclaimer: of course, countability and articles fulfil an important role in English - that’s why they are there, and to aim for precision in communication they are necessary. However, this level of precision is not necessary in much of the world where ELF is spoken or written, hence their disappearance from many speakers’ messages.
Accent and identity
The greater the diversity of Englishes in the world, the greater the range of expressive identities is made possible by speakers from different regions. Far from wanting to develop ‘native-like’ (whatever that means) accents, many students I have taught over the past 20 years have resisted the urge towards taking on a British (or European) name, forming precisely British vowel sounds and taking on a falsely ‘native’ identity in their speech. I commend this - in my classroom as long as everyone else can understand you and there aren’t too many word-level confusions about meaning, my students’ Englishes are doing the job they will be used for in their lives: international communication with other (probably) non-native speakers.
So all of this brings us back to the question: is accent important? Well, of course, in as far as any speaker needs to be understood by any other speaker when speaking the same language, but beyond that, the fervour to employ ‘native speaker teachers’ and teach ‘proper’ English pale into insignificance when we consider how the language is actually used.
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.
Language Point Teacher Education delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.