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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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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]