Accent, identity and intelligibility

Yesterday a colleague invited me to look at a video on the web site of the Guardian newspaper. We’ve been colleagues for a while now and she knows I’m really interested in everything to do with pronunciation, especially the non- standard pronunciation of non-native speakers.

The clip I was going to watch, she warned me, was of French economist Thomas Piketty speaking at the London School of Economics. The other information that she volunteered was that his French-accented English lay on the wrong side of intelligible, and that she’d really struggled to understand him.

Here’s the link to the Guardian. Listen and decide for yourself.

Welcome back. How did you find that? It can’t be denied – the guys got an accent. But did you find him

a) easy to understand throughout?
b) easy to understand most of the time?
c) hard to understand some of the time?
d) hard to understand throughout?

For me it was somewhere between b and c. There were times when I had no problem at all, others when I simply didn’t understand, and most of the time I felt that I had to concentrate. Overall, I think I could help him, and I’m sure most of you also feel that if he’d give you a couple of hours of your time (and the corresponding fee) you could do him a favour.

The question is, though, does he feel he needs that favour? He didn’t seem ashamed of his accent at any stage, which could be because he’s happy with it. But how can you be happy with an accent like that, you might ask? He sounds so very French. Then again, he is French, and I don’t imagine that he’s ashamed of that. In fact, perhaps deep down he’s genuinely proud of being French, and so is actually quite pleased that through his accent, people spot his identity.

It’s also possible that he equally deep down resents that he has to do this sort of thing in English. Not so long ago French was the language of world diplomacy. It must come quite  hard to discover that a language that ruled the world and oozed culture out its every pore, has been smothered by that bastard from across the Channel. History is peppered with delicate moments in Anglo-French relations, and Piketty could be subconsciously stating his claim to English, or to his accent in English, at least. “I might av to do zis in English, but at least zey will see I am French”.

This is largely supposition on my part, but then getting to bottom of people’s accent-identity issues is not easy. So I’d like to throw in one more reason why Piketty’s accent is non-standard – a purely pragmatic reason. Could it be that he’s never wanted/needed to do anything about his accent because the people he communicates with in his work actually understand his French-accented English? Presumably (more supposition, I know) if you give a talk in English and nobody understands you, then you do something about your accent. But if in the cicrles in which you move you discover that you are understood speaking in English, then perhpas as a leading economist you have other things to do with your time than go to accent reduction classes.

Reflecting on my own experience as a listener, I realised that some of the time it was my limited knowledge of economics that was the problem, and that the LSE public would have had a far less difficult time because they would have been on their home ground.

A the same time, I realised that because my colleague had warned me that he was French and wasn’t very intelligible, I’d quickly gone through my mental list of what French-accented English sounds like, and that had probably made Piketty less problematic for me than for my colleague, who’d simply come across the video clip while preparing a class.

For now, I’ll conclude by stating the obvious – that as a global language, English is spoken in a multitude of accents, some of which, like Piketty’s, seem to be a long way from anything we would consider acceptable in an English class. However, perhaps the problem lies not with these accents, but with what we think we should be doing in class. If we are trying to teach English for international communication, and if accents as ‘marked’ (i.e. different to what we are used to) as Piketty’s are functioning successfully within the speech community in which they are being used, then it could be that we need to change our mindset as to what is acceptable in the way of our students’ remarkable and multiple accents.


4 thoughts on “Accent, identity and intelligibility

  1. Hi,
    This whole language/identity thing is a very important issues, which (in my opinion) needs to be discussed a lot more by language teachers. English is being used so widely, and mostly by non-native speakers. If you can’t actually use your own language to communicate, using English in certain ways is another way of asserting your own identity.
    Teachers need to consider this in the models they provide – relatively few of us actually speak like Adrian Underhill, and his chart certainly contains sounds that I don’t use, and doesn’t contain sounds that I do use. We shouldn’t pretend to students that good and food must be pronounced differently if we don’t make that distinction ourselves (I’m Scottish, by the way).
    But the other thing for teachers to consider is that learners of English may actually want to retain a bit of an L1 accent, like you suggest Thomas Piketty might be doing. Perhaps we need to cut some slack in this respect as well.
    I wrote a couple of blog posts on this topic while I was in France last summer:

    And Chris Ozog did an interesting talk related to this as well – you’ve probably seen it already but others might not have:

    • Hi Steve
      Thanks for the comment and the links to your blog and to Chris Ozog’s webinar. I totally agree that the accent-identity issue needs talking about a lot more but I’d begun to reach the conclusion that very few of us felt this way. I was quite depressed to find that Derwing & Munro, whose research shows that there is no simple relationship between accent and intelligibility, were very disparaging of anything suggesting that people’s accents and their identities were linked.

      It’s also been said that it’s a fallacy to think that learners who speak with a ‘foreign’ accent are doing so in order to express their identity, when in fact they have no choice as they are still not competent in English. But what choice was there with a system that was governed by a single accent? And how do teachers who don’t have this accent stand up in class and do the job?

      Yes, there’s a lot that needs looking at still.

  2. hi

    2 things struck me here, the use of idiomatic language by the British guy in the taxi – “..who’s getting any slice of the growing pie, as it were”
    (an equivalent in French would be talking about who’s having the lion’s share)
    and the cultural dismissal of shaking hands with everyone at the Guardian meet and greet:
    “oh you can’t shake hands with everybody”
    (the tone that this was said in was bordering on the aggressive i thought)

    a small sample of challenges Piketty and other English users have to navigate that are arguably more difficult than the challenge English speakers have of understanding Piketty 🙂


    • Hi Mura
      The role of idiomatic language in international settings is something that ELF research as looked at in some detail. Seidlhofer called it unilateral idiomaticity, and it is, as you say just another of the challenges people like Piketty face when using English. Flying to Moscow a couple of years ago a German businessman sitting next to me complained that when he had to go to the companies UK base, he had the impression that his UK counterparts deliberately used idiomatic expressions they knew he’d struggle with in order to weaken his bargaining position.

Comments are closed.