It’s all in the accent: Being critical about how you teach pronunciation

voice

Whatever other speech you grow into….your dialect stays alive in a sort of inner freedom, a separate little self

Ted Hughes, Poet, cited in Corcoran 1993:114

*this blog post is based on an article submitted to TESOL Spain Newsletter in 2006.

Introduction
My interest in the topic of Accent Prejudice, or the idea that some accents are perceived to be better (or more appropriate) than others, was first inspired in my childhood when observing my parents, both from working class London backgrounds (my mother of Irish-Italian origin), in their endeavor to ‘cultivate’ their accents depending on whose company they were in. My father, for example, had a decidedly different voice when attending formal functions, to the one he seemed to have around the house. I never thought to question it at this stage, other than through the humour of referring to this as his ‘posh’ voice (which he also recognized had a slightly performative quality to it). That was, until I moved to Liverpool for four years, and realized how many negative stereotypes I had grown up with of the Liverpool (or Scouse as it is often referred to) accent, coming from the South-East of England, the region that gave birth to Standard English (both in terms of accent, mirrored through Received Pronunciation (RP), and what is considered ‘correct’ written English). When I moved to Greece, I saw the same set of characteristics being reproduced in ELT through the pursuit of the highly sought-after native-like pronunciation and, in terms of teaching, widespread incidents of uncomprimising attitudes towards students who could not produce this variety.

The Question
Why are some people (and some EL teachers) negatively disposed towards certain accents and voices? I ask this question primarily in the spirit of trying to understand how this might change, both at the level of individual views and in relation to the role the EL teacher plays in the classroom. I hope to explore how a more open-minded idea of practice can be encouraged that propels teachers towards using variety in the classroom, whilst questioning some of the unconscious prejudices they may be carrying around that make them fearful (or dismissive) of different accents. This discussion might prove helpful both to teacher educators who are responsible for providing training to EL teachers, and to teachers themselves, who are searching for ways of ensuring more ethical and socially-informed practice. Although this article focuses specifically on a Greek setting, the same discussion is relevant in other teaching/learning environments and I would be really happy to hear about your experiences of your own setting.

Is Native Speaker Best?
A good starting point when considering this issue might be the common assumption that Native Speakers of English provide the best model for pronunciation and accent, and are by default better teachers. To date, Greek ELT has primarily been controlled by external agencies deriving from the UK and USA and such agencies have had the majority market share in terms of publishing, language testing and, through teacher training certification, defining the parameters of what is considered right or wrong in terms of teaching methodology and classroom practice. This is demonstrated by the (sometimes unquestioning) view that external products are better quality and, I would argue, through the lingering attitude that they (the British or American agencies) know best, as it is their language. This includes the widespread belief that the model the students should be striving for is the norm-bound speaker of Standard English with an RP accent, also reflected in many published listening materials which, for the most part, contain a limited range of authentic accents. Both regional British and American accents (for example, Newcastle (UK) or Texas (US) respectively), as well as different varieties of international English (such as Greek, Spanish or Chinese English) are therefore in a marginalized position.

The Greek ELT Landscape
The ascribing of a different status is also evidenced by research carried out in Greece. Sifakis and Sougari (2003) found that 54% of Greek English teachers questioned felt their students should acquire a Standard British accent and 7% a Standard American accent, whilst only 6% felt that a Non-native Greek accent was appropriate. Carter’s research revealed that the students questioned felt pronunciation and speaking skills “are better taught by people speaking English as their mother tongue” (2004: 10). This is also reflected in the choice, particularly in the past, made by some Greek language schools/departments to put NEST teachers in charge of the oral component, sometimes at the expense of appropriate qualifications or experience. This has changed in more recent times due to the imposition of more eligibility criteria in terms of employment for NEST teachers, the rise in the cost of living coupled by falling wages which makes Greece a less attractive destination, and the opening up of more opportunities for non-NEST teachers which I fully support and hope to see continue into the future. For example Greek educators are now welcomed by most high profile international language testing bodies as oral examiners, demonstrating more openess to the non-NEST model. This was not the case even a decade ago. However, it is my supposition that the ideological strong hold of the ‘native speaker is best’ still exists, and is often reflected in pedagogical decision making.

Little research has been carried out into the reasons why these might be the prevailing attitudes in Greece. I would like to suggest that the native speaker of English is not automatically better equipped to teach or act as a model for pronunciation. I would also like to posit that this taken for granted view cannot be fully explained without questioning the ‘status’ still automatically ascribed to the NEST teacher of English which is part and parcel of the socio-historical relationship between Greece and the UK/US in relation to the teaching of the language. This has been described by some commentators as a form of intellectual colonialism (see Leontis 1995), and within this dynamic, it could be argued, no space has been allotted to allow for variety or difference. As we have now entered into what has become termed a ‘post-colonial’ phase of history, this relationship is clearly outdated and in need of urgent modification.

International Intelligibility: A More Realistic Goal?
Reflecting this shift, the field of ELT has started to take on board the fact that it is an unrealistic goal for an Non-native speaker to attain the pronunciation patterns of an Native speaker. It is neither necessary nor achievable and it is therefore time to reevaluate what we expect of our students in terms of their pronunciation output, which should be moving towards a model of international intelligibility. This is largely in recognition of the fact that most users of English do not speak the language as a mother tongue, but are speaking English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). In her work on ELF, Jennifer Jenkins suggests that pronunciation teaching should concentrate only on essential components that genuinely affect comprehension in ELF situations. Jenkins carried out extensive research with speakers of many different languages to assess what elements were essential for phonological intelligibility and developed the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) which signficantly cuts down the amount of areas that need addressing by the pronunciation teacher (see Jenkins 2000). For an excellent insight into how this research can be applied to Spanish learners of English, see Robin Walker’s 2001 article online.

However, Jenkins cautions that the only way the LFC will be of use is if the NEST teacher is prepared to fully take on board an ELF perspective by putting themselves in the position of their non-native students. In other words, unless teaching is readjusted to take into account ELF goals, teachers will continue to “base pronunciation decisions on intelligibility and appropriacy for themselves and their peers” (Jenkins 2000: 225). Paradoxically, some non-NEST teachers also lose sight of what they once felt like as learners and internalize and reproduce the dominant methodology in the belief that they must teach their students to ‘overcome’ their accent. Herein lies the contradiction. The theory outlined above which rightly directs us to embrace different pronunciation patterns among our learners positively has yet, in many cases, to meet the practice in the classroom which often dictates that we should be measuring our learners against the RP speaker of Native Standard English.

My Research

In an attempt to tease out some more precise data on the contradictory parameters highlighted above, I carried out a qualitative research project for my Master’s dissertation in 2004. Two groups of ELT practitioners were involved: one group lived and worked in the UK and other group lived and worked in Greece – each group was interviewed separately in the local environment. The research took part in two phases; firstly, the teacher participants were played the same samples of various Regional/Standard British English accents, as well as a Greek English accent (all collected by me for the project) and asked to comment on whether they would use them in the language classroom (or not) with a simple yes/no answer. The results were analyzed using a quantitative framework by counting the frequency of positive/negative responses to certain accents.

In the second phase of the research, which aimed more squarely to analyze the teacher participants’ perceptions, the same two groups were asked to discuss a range of issues pertaining to accent prejudice, the teaching of pronunciation and the pedagogical significance of ELF. The accent samples previously heard acted as a springboard for this dicussion which was organized in a semi-directed manner. I acted as a facilitator by providing a series of prompts to encourage the consideration of certain points, but I did not actively take part in the discussion to avoid distorting its development. I chose this method as it has been identified as suitable for the exploration of “different perspectives (that) operate in a social network” (Kitzinger and Barbour 1995:5) and is therefore likely to be successful when considering issues that might invite several different perspectives. The data were examined using a qualitative paradigm, the transcribed focus group interview scripts being subject to analysis using a series of thematic codes, enabling views to be grouped together in a meaningful way.

What did I find?

Bearing in mind that the same accent samples were played to both groups, the results of particular interest are as follows. In terms of the statistical findings, the majority of British teachers were very critical of stigmatized British accents such as Liverpool and Belfast. 85% of participants said they would not use either of these particular accents in the language classroom. However, almost all Greek teachers were positive about Regional British accents, with 100% saying they would use the Liverpool accent in the classroom and 75% the Belfast accent. Greek participants were much more critical of the Greek English accent, with only 50% saying they would be happy using this accent as a model. British participants were, however, 100% positive about using the Greek English accent as a model in the language classroom (it should be noted that all were resident in the UK and none had previous experience of teaching in Greece).

The focus group discussion brought up some interesting reasons reasons why the participants made the choices they did. For example, British participants expressed reluctance towards using the Liverpool or Belfast accent as many felt both would be unintelligible (and therefore unsuitable) for the non-native learner. The Greek participants, on the other hand, felt the Liverpool and Belfast accent would be good samples to use – reasons given included attractiveness, warmth and ease of understanding for the non-native learner. Conversely, some Greek participants felt that the recorded sample of their own accent was “too Greek” and that it required moderation and would not provide a suitable model. British participants were more positively disposed, including among the reasons for using this accent sample student need to understand a range of international accents. All participants in both groups agreed that RP is suitable and easier to use in the language classroom, partly due to the availability of pre-produced samples.

How did I analyse what I found?

What seemed to emerge was that some individuals in the focus group felt more confident criticizing pronunciation models that derived from their own immediate setting and culture. The RP model still appeared as dominant in both settings. The contradiction in NEST and non-NEST speakers’ perceptions about the intelligibility of the Liverpool and Belfast accents needs close attention – the Greek participants apparently found both accents clearer than NEST teachers from the UK! This suggests that the UK responses were about more than just intelligibility or clarity and that there was a direct engagement with social perception. This may have led to a negative appraisal of the Liverpool and Belfast accent by the NEST participants due to their knowledge of the status of those particular speech communities. Even in modern Britain, both carry the historical burden of being easily identified as the antithesis of RP in terms of the cultural value ascribed to them. Although many linguists would argue it is possible to measure intelligibility accurately, the point at which one begins measuring is inherently subjective. Individual reactions to pronunciation vary dramatically, and intelligibility is, at least to an extent, a relative concept.

The Social Content of Pronunciation

We need to be aware of the series of social messages contained in the way people speak which can give rise to what Lippi-Green terms “listening with an accent” (1994: 188). In other words, the will of the listener to understand plays a very important role in whether they can comprehend the speaker or not. It could be argued that the desire to try and understand has been partly shaped by continual over-exposure to a specific model, which in turn leads to unconscious intolerance of other varieties. Perhaps this explains why there is still a need to cultivate positive acceptance of the Greek English accent as equal to any other accent in the spectrum. The Greek participants who felt negative about this variety have grown up in the shadow of a profession that undervalues and penalizes them them for having features such as the post-vocalic /r/. This is despite the Greek accent sharing a number of features also found in different varieties of British English. The /r/ is present in the Dublin, Bristol and Liverpool accent. (Hughes and Trudgill 1996). These are features that some of their EL teacher, both NEST and non-NEST, have told them to eliminate, even though they rarely cause comprehension problems.

Accepting or Resisting Change?
Although the results of my research in the UK showed that the particular group of NEST teachers interviewed responded positively to Greek English pronunciation, there are obviously NEST practitioners working in Greece who do not share that view and see it as less ‘correct’ than RP or General American (GA). There are some, who might be in the role of test designer, teacher or oral examiner, who perceive themselves, as “custodians of the English language…(and) endeavour…to protect the English language from non-native infiltration by the regular undermining and denigrating of NNS Englishes” (Jenkins 2004: 37-8). Whether unconsciously or consciously, individuals who respond negatively to EL2 voices (characterized by EL2 pronunciation), are in part expressing anxiety towards a changing global landscape. The movement of native speakers of English into the minority (of those actually using the language) is a position some people involved in ELT, and in society as a whole, feel threatened by.

What do you think about this? Do you agree/disagree that pronunciation teaching should be socially informed? Of course I don’t argue that we should abandon teaching pronunciation as sometimes it is very much needed, but shouldn’t the target be more realistic?

References

Carter, J. 2004. Native or non-native speaker teacher: does it make a difference? TESOL Macedonia Thrace Bulletin, Dec, 10-11.

Cocoran, N. 1993. English Poetry Since 1940. London: Longman.

Hannam, S. 2004a. Models of correct pronunciation and the ELT classroom. In Pulverness, A. (Ed.). IATEFL 2004 Liverpool Conference Selections. IATEFL: UK, 56-57.

Hannam, S. 2004b. An investigation into ELT practitioners’ views regarding the use of regional British accents in the language classroom. M(Ed) dissertation. University of Sheffield, UK.

Hughes, A. and Trudgill, P. 1996. 3rd Edition. English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles. New York: Arnold.

Jenkins, J. 2004. ELF at the gate: the position of English as a lingua franca. In Pulverness, A. (Ed.). IATEFL 2004 Liverpool Conference Selections. IATEFL: UK, 33-42.

Jenkins, J. 2000. The Phonology of English as an International Language Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kitzinger, J. & Barbour, R. S. 1999. ‘The challenge and promise of focus groups’ in Barbour, R. S. & Kitzinger, J. (Eds) Developing Focus Group Research: Politics, Theory and Practice London: Sage.

Leontis, A. 1995. Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lippi-Green, R. 1997. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

Lippi-Green, R. 1994. Accent, standard language ideology and discriminatory pretext in the courts’, Language and Society, 23, 163-198.

Sifakis, N. C. & Sougari, A. M. 2003. Pronunciation issues in EFL teaching: the Greek teachers’ perspective. Paper presented at the 13th International Conference of the Greek Applied Linguistics Association, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

Walker, R. 2001. Pronunciation for international intelligibility, English Teaching Professional 21, available online from: http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/internationalintelligibility.html [downloaded February 2004]

15 thoughts on “It’s all in the accent: Being critical about how you teach pronunciation

  1. I think the idea of threat is what this is all about. It shouldn’t really be an argument – the majority of interactions in English, by most reckonings, and by most definitions, don’t involve ‘native speakers’. There is no such thing as ‘standard English’, and there never has been. Demographics suggest that the discussion is pointless – like it or not, accent matters far less than intelligibility and accommodation, and it doesn’t matter what the native speaker thinks.

    And yet, and yet…. something is holding back ELF. Is it fear, power, racism? Perhaps. But playing devils advocate I do have a few misgivings. One of the reasons that ‘standard English’ is such a resilient myth is that the absence of a standard makes language a bugger to teach! So confusing, in fact, that we had to create a standard just for the classroom. It’s something that we ought to be dealing with, as teachers and students, but it’s a challenge.

    The other problem is even more difficult in some respects… Jenkins research in her 2007 book indicates that many non-native speakers have negative attitudes towards their own accents, matching your own findings. Yes, I agree that this is largely down to pressure from societal influences and is a cycle that needs to be broken. I also agree that the ‘native speaker’ target is unessesary and largely unachievable. But not all students do….

    And this one is something I can’t get past. I want my Japanese teacher to be Japanese. What about that?

    (A great piece, thank you. I’d put links to my interview with Jennifer Jenkins and my piece on David Graddol, but I think I’ve done enough self promotion today ; P)

    • Darren thanks for your thoughtful reply. Yes this is by no means an easy topic and we all have to so some thinking about it in relation to how it affects both us as individuals and our teaching. I think the trick is trying to intergrate new forms of practice in with the old ones which demonstrate more variety (more on that in next post). Please feel free to link up your interview with Jenny here incase anyone’s interested in listening.

      I am not sure about the “standard” as necessary in the classroom to make teaching easier. I wonder if there is another model based on varieties of communication? A standard seems, but its nature, to always exclude people, and be based on a kind of mythical language which doesn’t reflect the way people use language? But I know this is a big issue. I find myself torn. And would be really interested to know what others think.

      Breaking the chain surely involved awareness raising. I wish this was much more part of teacher training. Along with the phonemic script, maybe teachers need to be given the chance to think through this, and other issues, that link into the invisible parts of our practice to avoid replicating the same inequalities? That seems to be largely absent from initial teacher training I am familiar with.

      Ultimately I think its about giving students choice and perhaps taking the time to work on confidence building about their voices.

  2. Pronounciation and intelligibility are important issues in language teaching, but we need to make sure that our goals are realistic. Research suggests that for people who learn a second language after the age of about 12, it is very difficult to have the same accent as a L1 speaker – and unless you want to be an actor, there is probably little need for that level.

    Also we need to think about the context that English is to be used in, I’m sure I’ve seen research suggesting that the vast majority of communication is between non-native speakers.

    That’s not just in an “international business” context either. A lot of materials produced for the ESOL sector in the UK feature audio tracks with speakers with relatively heavy South Asian accents. Many of my learners complain about having to learn from this, feeling that it is not as valid. My response is – you live in East London, you will need to understand people with South Asian accents at least every other day.

    The other extreme is using a French-accented recording in a business English class in Paraguay – thing was it was an Franco-German company and the corporate language was English – My student would have to understand french-accented english in his working day.

    I tend to think that the social aspect of UK accents, which effects most of us Brits to some degree is slightly removed from the English Teaching Field. By that I mean that I think teachers help their learners by teaching them to speak Englishes that will be widely understood – that means avoiding the extremes of regionality, just because they are likely to be restricted to particular areas. If learners reproduce a certain accent “too” well, they may well face the same prejudices that other speakers of that will face.

    For that reason, I steer clear of teaching my students Romford English “I done that yesterday, but he didn’t do nothing”, which is perfectly acceptable in the local area, but attracts prejudice further afield.

    However this doesn’t mean we need to use a bland RP in the classroom, we just need to make sure that our accents maintain wide intelligibility… and Scouse, Cockney, Geordie, Brummie or Glaswegian are all capable of this!

    • Thanks Phil. Its really interesting getting an insight into ESOL situations in the UK. I think you are totally right that teaching tolerance of variety amongst NNS’s also ends up being part of our job. I have to spend quite a bit of time talking to students at my college who are from across the Balkans and sometimes criticise other national groups for how they speak English (i.e. I don’t like the Greek English accent or I don’t like the Serbian English accent from students also speaking an international variety of English. I guess they come to me because they expect some sympathy due to my NEST status. I say what you say – this is an international college – adjust your antenna and get used to it. That is the pattern of the future! And I don’t ever buy into the aesthetic argument of the way accents sound (this is often the way people who don’t like an accent describe it – in terms of sounding harsh or whatever).

      I have mixed views on asking my students to change themselves to avoid wider prejudice. I guess I think that it is the society that should be changing to accommodate diversity, not the individual to adjust to an intolerant society. I would be inclined to give students a choice i.e. this is a language pattern you may see locally in Romford – prejudice may exist about this when compared to a standard model. The reasons why (which usually boil down to class, race and ethnicity) make for interesting discussions! What do you think? I would rather let my students choose for themselves rather than making the decision for them that its better not to talk a certain way.

      The issue of wide intelligibility is a tough one! And very hard to prove. It is often based on subjective criteria. My own research definitely showed that in terms of intelligibility, the RP accent was by no means the easiest for NNS’s! So I agree, variety is the key. In my next post I will talk about some ideas for how this can be achieved in the classroom. I hope you have time to visit again.

      • @sjhannam, since I posted I’ve read “Dead on the page’ no more! the case for authetic locally appropriate ESOL material” by James Simpson and Stephen Woulds in the latest issue of “Language Issues” from NATECLA (Volume 21 number 1 2010 p.4 – 20)

        Simpson and Woulds talk of the fact that ESOL students need to be able to integrate with their local community and so need to be exposed to the kind of English that they will face there.

        They highlight how “coursebook materials” often do not reflect the patterns of grammar and speech, and they also highlight the fact that “Standard English” is not what most students will be faced with. While some of the government-produced ESOL teaching material (available here:http://rwp.excellencegateway.org.uk/readwriteplus/LearningMaterialsESOL) does include regional accents, students should work with the regional accents they are most likely to come across.

        They have set up a Leeds ESOL materials group that produces resources that are relevant for students and tutors in Yorkshire – many of which are available here:

        http://www.esoluk.co.uk/

        • Thanks Phil, this is excellent!

          I will look into this more thoroughly as these kinds of developments are positive for ELT as a whole and can be used as an example of good practice. Good for these teachers for realising the gap between what is needed and what exists in the world of materials. There are many parallels in the call for materials to reflect ELF models of pronunciation and communication.

          Well spotted : )

  3. It’s a long post so I am going to be really selective about what I comment on. I don’t have any issues with the overall thrust of the article, just with a couple of details.

    Most of the research you mention in Greece is rather dated. Greek ELT has changed a fair bit since 2003/4, well at least in regard to the number of NESTs. There are a fraction of UK NESTs working here now, mainly because of poor pay and conditions and the requirement of a BA in English in order to work legally; this has partly been matched by a growth in the number of diaspora Greeks working in ELT. It would be very interesting to see some research based on the current situation; has the increase in the number of Australian Greeks or Canadian Greeks working in Greek ELT changed the way pronunciation is taught and valued?

    You refer to a “Greek English accent”; I am wondering what this is. After 20 years of living in Greece I can certainly identify some pronunciation features of Greek speakers of English – I would be, however, a bit challenged to identify an “accent”. A Bristol accent, for example, has a particular set of features and these features are common to speakers of “Bristol English”. These features are quite precise – there may be shared features with a Somerset accent or an Evesham accent, but the accents are distinguishable (at the very least to users of the accents). What is a Greek English accent?

    Pete

    • Hi Pete,

      Nice to see you here again. Thanks for your comments.

      I don’t think the research is out of date, and I think it would be negligent of me not to mention the few bits of research that have been carried out, particularly by Greek researchers, on this issue. But I agree that perhaps the patterns I described have shifted as would be expected. The reasons why would be a very interesting post, so thanks for the idea! I have amended the post to reflect the shift as I see it. But there is no shortage of NEST teachers still around in Greece, though I agree not as visible as they were a decade ago. The pay/conditions is a major factor I am sure. But there are plenty who are either still here from previous eras, or who end up teaching English because they marry or whatever and continue to come here anew. I meet them all the time in various settings. There are also plenty doing private lessons the length and bredth of Greece, and a large number of NESTs are in key positions in instituions and making pedagogical decisions which include discussion around appropriate models of English. So whilst I celebrate the opening up of more opportunities for non-NEST Greek teachers like you, I don’t think we have quite reached a level playing field yet, and still sense the presence, both ideologically and practically, of NEST teachers who have negative views about Greeks speaking English.

      I also think the changing trends don’t detract from the central message of the post – generally speaking, research is deemed “live” (i.e. relevant) for a period of 10 years. But to set your mind at rest, amongst the group of interviewees in Greece, I also had a control group (that were interviewed before the cycle I described) who were native speakers working in Greece. They were a mixture of British and Amercan teachers, and also those who are returnees i.e Greek Australians, Greek Americans and also two teachers who classified themselves as Greek South Africans. The patterns I found were very similar to those I found in the group I interviewed in the UK. I actually found that sometimes returnees had stronger views about correct pronunciation and talked of the effort they had made to assimilate in societies abroad which is something their parents could not do as their backgrounds were always evident in the English they spoke in those settings. But not in all cases. Returnees had less strong views about British regional accents for example and were more open to using them in teaching. Generally in the research, there were exceptions amongst people in all groups who had developed a deeper awareness of the social nature of accent/pronunciation and cast a more critical eye on the issue. Hence my interest in it I guess.

      I think you have answered your last point yourself regarding the ‘Greek English accent”. All accents (whether Bristol, Liverpool, London or Greek) share a central core of features and then vary very widely across geographical space and communities (class impacts here, for eg, in the UK). This is a constantly changing process and resists being pinned down. I would suggest that you are able to exercise a greater degree of awareness with UK accents as you are more familiar with them, therefore you can hear the shared features and separate them according to pre-existing knowledge. The same patterns can be seen in Thessaloniki accents (in Greek) for e.g. but this may be less evident to those who are not NS’s of the Greek language. There is not one unified Thessaloniki accent, if you actually sit down and separate out the sounds. There is massive variation, as is the idiosyncratic nature of spoken language – but to an outsider (both non-Thessalonikian and non-Greek) this might all sound the same.

      If you take the time to study Greeks speaking English (purely at the level of pronuciation), you will also find that there are a variety of often shared features (such as the common appearance of the rhotic /r/ I mentioned in my post or the pronounced /g/ at the end of singing or similar ways of expressing prosody), and then wide variation (which depends on factors like teaching, exposure, knowledge of other languages etc). There are a broad set of identifiable types in the different ways that Greeks might speak English that may lead the listener (teacher/layperson) to be able to conclude that the speaker is from Greece (and not Italy, or Spain, or wherever) even if they themselves are not living in Greece. However, no two people ever speak the language in exactly the same way, which is why measuring it is notoriously difficult and subjective. So I would say apply the same rule you have for varieties of British English to Greek English and this will help the process of identifying common features but also recognising the wide variety. If you think this a worthy thing to do – I am not convinced it is!! Thing is language testing, for example, often encourages a blindness to the variety which for me is a problem.

      OK, I hope that is a bit clearer!

      Thanks for visiting again Pete.

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  5. A very interesting post, Sara, that has kept me up past my bedtime 😉 So I hope what I write makes sense…

    Having grown up in Ireland, the accent I now speak with is Irish, although it is only at its most Irish when I’m with other Irish people or family. With everyone else, I tend to use a more neutral, intelligible accent. With learners, I try to neutralise it even more. By neutralising, I mean removing the regional features as much as I can.

    This is not because I believe the Irish accent carries negative associations (I don’t! I think it’s a great accent!) but only because the learners aren’t Irish, haven’t lived in Ireland, and this accent is not part of their identity.

    I have no desire to sound English or American, so why should learners of English? I sound Irish because I lived in Ireland. People speaking with a Greek English accent do so because they live / have lived in Greece. That shouldn’t be seen negatively. It should just be accepted as part of their identity. And above all, having a Greek, French, or any other accent when speaking English should not be seen in any way as not having mastered English. So many people speak perfect clear English but still have an accent that identifies them as being Greek speakers, French speakers or speakers of another language.

    So, my inclination with learners is to focus on clear pronuncation so that they can be understood by others but to allow their own accent to flavour their language. For this native speakers are not required as teachers, non native speakers can do just as well!

    It was interesting to note that it was the Greek participants in your research who reacted more negatively to the Greek English accent and that this might be related to their own parents’ need to be accepted into the societies they had moved to. I can understand this but I would really prefer to be moving towards greater tolerance and acceptance of a wider range of accents among speakers of English.

    Also, a lot of emphasis is put on learners of English being able to cope with different accents, but I think native English speakers should also be encouraged to improve their abilities to understand other accents. They’re not the ones having to learn a second language, so it’s the least they can do!! 😉

    • Thanks for your response Carol and sorry for having kept you up past your bedtime!

      I think what you do when you say you ‘neutralise’ your accent is to make yourself more intelligible to those you are teaching (or talking to). I think we all do this, and part of it is a natural response to the realisation that we are talking to people who might not come from the same area we do. This is perhaps most noticeable amongst teachers in English language classrooms, but is also noticeable when meeting with others from our own countries who are from different areas (hence the converse effect which you talk about – sounding most Irish when with friends and family and back in the place you grew up). This seems to prove the link between accent and identity! I would be interested in your thoughts as an Irish person on the findings regarding the negative views towards the Irish accent (from NEST teachers). This was much more pronounced in the Northern Irish than Southern Irish accent. I have some opinions, but am also interested in hearing what others think. What has your experience been there?

      I agree that what we should be aiming for as teachers in helping students achieve clear and comprehensible pronunciation, but not with the goal of eliminating the features which identify their background. This is why I think Jenkins’ LFC is so useful. It does help us as EL teachers to pin down what areas of pron cause real problems. Sometimes I get the feeling that pronunciation activities of a generic type don’t take this into account at all as they assume a uniform (and arguably unachievable) goal as well as little focus on the hurdles faced by different groups of learners. This is why I would recommend looking at some of the ways Jenkins’ LFC has been applied in different contexts.

      Just a quick clarification – the Greek returnees were a different group to the Greek teachers of English born and raised here. The first are those who have lived abroad all their lives i.e. in Australia, but were from Greek parentage, and then have returned to Greece as adults – and as bi-lingual speakers of English. In some cases there were strongly negative attitudes towards Greek English accents in terms of fitting in. But not in all cases. I totally agree with you that the goal shoul be tolerance and acceptance of many different varieties of English.

      And your last point is also key. This is perhaps what Lippi-Green meant by “listening with an accent”. NEST teachers (and native speakers in general) do need to become better at listening to different voices. Its funny because today I had to converse with a doctor in the UK (on behalf of a family member) who was I would guess of Jamaican heritage. Another member of my family in the UK said “Oh you’ll never understand him, he’s impossible” as they had had a conversation with the doctor last week. I found him clear, articulate and really easy to follow. So there is a subjective element as well as an element of exposure and practice! This should be taught as part of education IMHO.

      Thanks again for your contribution Carol 🙂

  6. Well, this is pretty thorny. One of my former grad school classmates, who was from East Asia, told me with resignation “You Americans just don’t get it…You don’t think accent is important and don’t want to focus on pronunciation, but everyone who isn’t in TESOL judges us negatively, both native speakers and other Asians. It’s a big deal for us, and it affects our jobs.” I’ve heard variations on this from some of my other former classmates and colleagues, many of whom viewed those with views similar to yours and mine as hopelessly out of touch and idealistic. Unless we can raise their bosses’ and entire societies’ consciousnesses, they don’t have any patience for this line of thought when their job security (and self-image) is on the line.

    Anyway, I’m on board with you, but their concerns are real, too…

    • Thanks Clarissa. I totally agree with you. There are real concerns. What students are talking about there is how power and privilege enters into the realm of speaking English as a second language and is used as a gatekeeping device. The desire to sound more ‘native’ is attached to opportunity and access. So no wonder it causes such strong reactions. I think my post attempted to deal with this to an extent, but your point is an important one.

      The thing is that no matter how a person sounds, this does not guarantee automatic access as using accent as a gatekeeping device is inherently unfair and there are no subjective criteria in its application. By this I mean that no matter how ‘native’ a person sounds, it may never be native enough as the cline that is being used is in the hands of the person or institution applying it. I would argue that this judgment is not really about language. It is about other factors like shortage of employment and limited resources and so-called competency in language is a factor in how these resources are allocated. I certainly have seen cases of complete and outright unfairness in how people’s language is judged (former students) by non-linguists in job interviews which beggers belief.

      Perhaps then what *is* idealistic is the belief that “If I change my voice to sound ‘right’ inequality won’t exist anymore and doors that were once closed will open”. This for me is the illusion, as there are thousands of people speaking very very good English in the world today who remain unemployed, and others in very influential and powerful positions who do not – so something is not right with the equation there. It clearly isn’t only about language. In a critical classroom, you might consider talking and discussing some of thse issues with your students. Where does that fear really come from?

      But…..what do we do about this very real fear amongst our students. I think first of all we help them as much as we can to achieve their goals of improving pronunciation as that is our duty of care as teachers. But in a realistic and pedogagically sound manner. We know that a native-speaker like accent (whatever that means!) is out of reach for most adult learners who are not going to spend extended periods of time in the target community, and even if they do, they will likely develop a variety of language that reflects the community they live in in the UK or US mixed with features of their own native language. Contrary to popular myth, most people don’t speak standard English or with Standard English accents! They are the myth of coursebooks and news presenters. So we assist and help whilst perhaps trying to offer a chance for our students to think about this at a deeper level.

      The balance that needs to be struck is a difficult one I grant you. It seems that accent prejudice is one of the areas where discrimination goes unchecked in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated in other areas like racism or sexism. I guess I believe it is time for a change, but I am under no illusion that the change is going to take time and effort to achieve. Discussion is a good start. So thanks for your contribution.

  7. Merci for your very thoughtful post, as ever.
    Three aspects come to mind when talking about accents : the different accents within the country, the accents of foreigners speaking the target language, and the prejudices attached to them speaking with their accent.
    About accents spoken within the UK, I must say I was at a loss when I first heard a Scottish man because during all my school days I only listened to “BBC standard English”cassettes, and my French teachers aimed at this kind of accent too. So your comprehension’s sake, I think we should expose our students to as many accents as we can, so that they are not flabbergasted when encountering a differnt kind of accent for the first time. As for the two other aspects, you have pretty much said it all, and I agree.
    Best,
    Alice

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