Take a look at this photo. It’s the first letter of a four-letter word. I saw it in the street in Madrid so it’s in Spanish. However, the word in question is spelt the same way in English. The question is, which letter is it?
Now go to the bottom of this post and take a look at the complete word, which comes after each of the two white asterisks. Do you see what letter it is now?
What we are experiencing here is a question of ‘intelligibility’. The grapheme in the photo above, just a scrawl to many of us when see out in isolation, becomes a capital letter ‘m’ when we see it in a meaningful context.
There is a parallel here between hand-writing and speaking. Everyone who speaks has an accent, in much the same way that we all have ‘accents’ in our hand-writing. In other words, even though we all use the same underlying code (letters or sounds, as the case may be), we produce written and spoken texts in ways which are unique to each writer/speaker.
The danger of this infinite scope for variation is that if we are all producing different versions of the target letter or sound, intelligibility will be compromised. But, just as we are able to understand that the ‘non-standard’ letter in the photo at the top of the post is an ‘m’ once we see it in context, so we are able to adjust our expectations as listeners in order to deal with the variation we daily encounter in spoken English.
In reading someone’s handwriting or when listening to a person speaking, the context gives us clues that allow us to make vital adjustments, with intelligibility being the outcome of a complex interplay of the perceived grapheme/phoneme, our familiarity with the writer/speaker’s ‘accent’, the context of the text/utterance, and the receiver’s experience of similar texts/utterances and similar contexts.
Accent, then, is neither good nor bad. It is simply a fact of life. Of course, they could have used a machine to type out the menu board so as to reduce ‘accent’ in writing. And to the same end, we could use machines to speak for us in public. Or we could accept accent for what it is and stop trying to homogenize our learners’ speech in class to a single accent, concentrating on intelligibility, instead.