‘A’ is for accent (2)

I ended my first post on accent by raising the question as to which accent we should use for teaching the pronunciation of English, so I guess that now I have to offer you some sort of answer. Here goes. (Shame on you all, by the way, for not putting anything in the comment box by way of your answer, despite my invitation to do so).

Given the amount of prejudice surrounding accents in English, it would seem that our best option would be to get our students to aim for something neutral. This, at least, is what one participant seemed to be referring to in a survey done in Hong Kong in which she admitted that she would prefer to have a Canadian accent on the grounds that it was ‘neutral English – not too American or Aussie or British‘ (Li 2009: 90).

Unfortunately for our participant, there’s no such thing as a neutral accent. Accent is merely the difference between your pronunciation (or whatever you consider to be ‘correct’ pronunciation) and other speakers’ pronunciations, which to you, on being different, sound accented. I won’t ever forget the shock, for example, of my first trip abroad to another English-speaking country, which was to the US. I’m not going to say that I was put on bar stools in California and told to perform, but again and again my friend’s friends would comment on my ‘Briddish’ accent. ‘My accent’, I would say to myself. ‘You should hear yours!’

In the absence of neutral accents, then, perhaps what’s best for our learners is a standard accent. Surely people, or most people at least, will understand a standard accent. Good thinking, but, unfortunately, flawed. For the last few months a colleague and pronunciation expert based in the UK has repeatedly rapped my knuckles for talking about ‘standard’ accents when, as sociolinguist Peter Trudgill tells us, technically there is no such thing:

Standard English has nothing to do with pronunciation. From a British perspective, we have to acknowledge that there is in Britain a high status and widely described accent known as Received Pronunciation (RP) … It is widely agreed, though, that while all RP speakers also speak Standard English, the reverse is not the case. (Trudgill, 1999: 118)

The correct term for accents like RP and the US equivalent GA (General American), is ‘prestige’. But leaving aside the constant references in the ELT literature to ‘standard accents’, let’s play the game, and in class stick to the prestige accents that are on the recordings for pronunciation exercises in coursebooks. Hey presto! Job done.

Save that it isn’t quite that simple. In a small-scale study carried out by the Academic Director of the British Council in Tokyo (Hemmi, 2010), the Japanese participants in the study (all employees at the Council in Tokyo) were asked to listen to recordings of five speakers from the international Davos Economic Forum conferences. Their task was to choose who they found the easiest to understand amongst these internationally skilled speakers, all of whom regularly communicated through English about complex economic issues. Surprisingly (to me at least), the study found that the person deemed least intelligible was the only native speaker among the five. Receiving the accolade of being ‘easy to understand’ from only one out of the twelve participants, was the then UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, a prestige-accented speaker if ever there was one.

Hemmi’s study wasn’t the first one to reach the conclusion that native speakers, even with prestige accents, are not automatically easy to understand. A study carried out  at the University of Hawaii tested the intelligibility of NS and NNS accents in English. The study concluded that ‘native speakers (from Britain and the US) were not found to be the most easily understood’ (Smith 1982: 88).

Choosing an accent for our learners to model, then, is not as easy as it seems. And a clue to why this might be so, comes from the work of Canadian researchers, Tracy Derwing and Murray Munro. Some time ago, their work lead them to the robust finding that ‘accent and intelliglibilty are not the same thing. A speaker can have a very strong accent, yet be perfectly understood‘ (Derwing & Munro, 2008: 2).

This separation of accent from intelligibility is one of the most important but least widely disseminated findings of research into pronunciation over the last twenty years or so. It’s important because it’s telling us as teachers, to shift our attention away from the fruitless search for the perfect accent to use in our classes as a model for our learners, and to place it much more firmly on helping our learners to improve in those aspects of their accents in English that could make them difficult to understand.

It is to this separation of accent from intelligibility that the Council of Europe makes reference to in the 2018 Companion Volume with New Descriptors to the original 2001 Common European Framework of Reference. The COE starts by justifying the new descriptors for phonological control and the switch to intelligibility:

CEFR 2018 Companion Volume with New Descriptors, p47

 

and then goes on to offer full details of the thinking behind the new descriptors:

CEFR 2018 Companion Volume with New Descriptors, p134

 

Accent has given way to intelligibility as the main focus of pronunciation teaching in the 21st century, and since intelligibility isn’t directly related to any particular accent, as the research of Derwing and Munro has shown, we can now get to the answer to the question with which I ended the previous post, and with which I started this one. The question about which accent to use in class when teaching pronunciation.

The answer, thankfully, is quite simple. Use whichever accent you wish, provided that:

  1. the accent you opt for is known to be widely intelligible to other users of English (native speaker and non-native speaker).
  2. the accent you choose is acceptable to your students.
  3. you have easy access to that accent for teaching purposes.

‘Whichever’, I hope you’ve already spotted, includes not just prestige accents like RP and GA, but also the regional accents of native-speaker teachers (sometimes referred to as ‘non-standard’), and the countless L2 accents of their nonnative speaker colleagues. How many teachers have avoided teaching pronunciation in the past for fear of doing more harm than good with their non-standard/non-prestige/nonnative speaker accents? Too many. Far too many. As the COE points out, ‘the focus on accent and on accuracy instead of on intelligibility has been detrimental to the development of the teaching of pronunciation’, so as of now let’s start making up for lost time.

References

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment Companion Volume with New Descriptors. (2018). Council of Europe. Retrieved from https://rm.coe.int/cefr-companion-volume-with-new-descriptors-2018/1680787989

Derwing, T. M & Munro, M. J. (2008). Putting accent in its place: rethinking obstacles to communication. Tetrieved from http://www.sfu.ca/~mjmunro/D&MHandout.pdf

Hemmi, C. (2010). Perceptions of intelligibility in global Englishes used in a formal context. Speak Out! 43: 13–15.

Li, D. C. S. (2009). Researching non-native speakers’ views toward intelligibility and identity: Bridging the gap between moral high grounds and down-to-earth concerns. In F. Sharifian (Eds.), English as an international language: Perspectives and pedagogical issues (pp.81-118). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Smith, L. E. (1992).  ‘Spread of English and issues of intelligibility’ in B. B. Kachru (ed.) 1992.

Trudgill, P. (1999). ‘Standard English: what it isn’t’, in Tony Bex & Richard J. Watts (eds.) Standard English: the widening debate. London: Routledge, 1999, 117-128.

13 thoughts on “‘A’ is for accent (2)

  1. It’s Easter holiday Robin 😉
    Will get back to this later. Now where did I leave that ruddy chocolate egg?…

  2. I like this quote from John Wells (1982) ‘A standard accent is regarded as a standard not because of any intrinsic qualities it may possess, but because of an arbitrary attitude adopted towards it by society’. Wells seems to be using the term ‘standard’ to critique the idea of ‘standard’.

    • Thanks for this, Mark. It’s quite revealing – Wells always seemed to me to be a stickler when it came to RP. I remember when on SUPRAS he ticked off students at UCL who pronounced ‘Gower’ so as to rhyme with ‘power’ and ‘tower’, as opposed to ‘far’.

      I’d seen ‘arbitary’ associated with the idea of ‘standard’ elsewhere but there’s onlo so much that you can get into a blog post so I started chopping stuff out. Thanks for brining it back into the discussion.

  3. If “a language is a dialect with an army and navy”, is a standard accent an accent with money and power, too?
    Inherent in this discussion must be the politics of identity; accent is a determining factor in how a person is perceived, with all the prejudice that comes with perceptions of other. So are decisions about approaches in teaching pronunciation, then, political ones?
    Enjoying the blog, Robin – thank you 🙂

  4. Yes, from what I can see it is, Daniel. Certainly power and influence are associated with RP, and non-standard accents (oops!) in the US can lead to losing or not ever obtaining power and influence, which is what Rosina Lipp-Green’s book is about.
    And yes to your second question. Undoubtedly there is a political conponent to teaching pronunciation. But at least now, with the switch to a focus on intelligibility, we can give learners a choice as to where their pronunciation is going, which hopefully means that they will be at peace with themselves in terms of their personal politics and pronunciation goals.

    • I would say that the act of giving students that choice is itself a political act. It transforms the power dynamic of the teacher-student relationship and challenges learners to make decisions about their own language-learning goals. I’m sure there are writers out there who put it better than me. Paulo Freire mebbe?

      • Education is a political act from the very first day, I’d reckon, Daniel, and teaching English is an area ripe for politics. For me in terms of teaching pronunciation the idea of admitting variation and personal choice is clearly an outcome of my beliefs in other aspects of my life. But the same is true of someone who chooses to teach pronunciation using a prestige accent approach. Wouldn’t you agree?

  5. It always surprises me to read discussions about pronunciation as though it were something that works one way. As a follow up to your point, in Pronunciation Fundamentals: Evidence-based Perspectives for L2 Teaching (2015), it’s important to note that Derwing and Munro prioritize intelligibility and also comprehensibility, or the ease with which L2 speech is understood. Intelligibility and comprehensibilty go hand in hand for pronunciation instruction to work. Without the latter, Derwing and Munro discovered many cases where utterances were fully understood but great effort was needed led to a decline in motivation by the L1 listener to pay attention to the L2 speaker. As you know, this kind of disconnect occurs regularly in our bilingual or multilingual world, especially in global organizations where English (or any language) is the L2. As D and M recommend at the end of their book, pronunciation instruction, in future, will require a two-sided solution at the teacher level: ESL teachers trained to teach learners intelligibility but also trained to help native (and many non-native) speakers how to become better listeners of L2. From an organizational level, this kind of deliberate, “two-pronged” training may even help to tackle the ethno- and ego-centric attitudes regarding the topic of your discussion: accent.

  6. Hi Pat, I agree entirely about the two-pronged approach. It’s actually just a question of how much you can squeeze into a single post. But thanks for bringing this up as it’s a really important component of pronunciation teaching (or it should be, at least).

    For a while in my own training work I used to make a little joke to participants about teaching native speakers how to understand ‘accented’ speech. Then I came across D & M’s work with Vietnamese-L1 users of English in Canada and trainees from social services (sorry, I’m working from memory here). This was a ‘wow’ moment for me. My little quip was somebody else’s reality, and I needed to stop making it a half-serious, throw-away comment.

    Your comment goes wider than that, though, because you talk of the need to train NS and NNS listeners, and I think that’s really important. In my list of future blogs, I have this down as a post, but it’ll have to wait for a while as it’s a post about accommodation (which clearly you know about), and is under ‘A’. Tomorrow I’m going on to ‘B’ and a topic that is a little more prosaic.

    However, if you know anyone wants to read about accommodation, there’s always Jenny Jenkins’ excellent coverage of the topic in Chapter 7 of The Phonology of English as an International Language. Or, for a shorter, more practical version, there’s the article I published in Modern English Teacher, 26/4, and that’s downloadable off my web site at: https://englishglobalcom.wordpress.com/articles/.

    It’s called ‘The globalization of English: accent, accommodation and intelligibility in ELF.

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