In this series, Dr Robbie Love will be tackling some of the trickiest questions faced by learners of English and offering tips to help teachers to answer these questions. Robbie is a Lecturer in English Language at the School of Languages and Social Sciences at Aston University, UK.
He conducts research and teaches in a range of topics in linguistics including corpus linguistics, discourse analysis and language education, and holds a PhD in linguistics from Lancaster University. Today’s post is all about language myths, in particular those around the British accent.
The English accent
For a small country, the UK is full to the brim with linguistic diversity. One example of this is the wide range of accents you will encounter on a journey around the British Isles. From ‘Geordie’ (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) to ‘Scouse’ (Liverpool) to ‘Cockney’ (London), English has a wide vocabulary of words to describe the variety of accents in the UK.
When we consider the rest of the world, English becomes even more complicated. In her blog post There’s no such thing as Standard English, Eline Laperre discusses the many world varieties of English, including American English and Australian English. There is no such thing as a single ‘English’. Rather, there are many different ‘versions’ of English, dotted around the world. There are so many distinct accents around the world, and so many chances for these accents to influence us (e.g. films, TV shows, online media, etc.). Because of this, learners may feel pressure to speak with a particular English accent. To them, the question is, “which accent do I choose?”
Beliefs and biases about having an accent
The history of English is riddled with value-judgements about what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English. This is discussed by David Crystal in his blog post Received Pronunciation, old and new. The post describes the history of a traditional ‘standard’ British English accent known as Received Pronunciation (RP). This was associated with the most wealthy and powerful in the country. It’s an example of language being used as a tool to divide society into different classes. Or, at least, to distinguish those who consider themselves at the ‘top’ of society’s hierarchy.
Then, of course, there are modern-day judgements and prejudices about accents. A poll of British adults revealed that the accents of Liverpool and Birmingham are considered the ‘least attractive’, while Irish and RP are considered the ‘most attractive’. Then there is the Accentism Project at Manchester Metropolitan University, which has collected many examples of speakers being discriminated against, apparently because of their accent. Often, discrimination about accent actually has nothing to do with accent and everything to do with class, race, gender and other demographic features.
Is it possible to not have an accent?
A third type of belief about accents is that only some people have an accent at all. In a recent addition to the Cambridge English Corpus, comprising hundreds of recordings of British English speakers having informal conversations, 13% of participants claimed they had no accent at all. This is a common phenomenon and is discussed further by Chris Ozark in his blog post “I don’t have an accent!” said Alison from Sussex. The reality is that everyone has an accent!
Furthermore, according to Laura Patsko in her blog post What really matters when teaching pronunciation, first-language speakers of English do not necessarily make the best accent experts. Patkso discusses research which suggests that first-language speaker English is usually the hardest for learners to understand.
It is clear that speakers hold a variety of opinions about what makes a ‘good’ accent. The truth is, their views are often influenced by other unrelated factors, as mentioned. And besides, if we think about accents from a scientific perspective, we are simply looking at the vowel and consonant sounds that speakers have at their disposal to produce speech sounds.
In the vast majority of words in English, there is more than one way to produce the word and still be understood. For example, you could compare how northern and southern British English speakers pronounce the vowel in words like bath, class and cast. Therefore, the sounds we use to communicate are arbitrary. There is nothing inherently better or worse about one accent compared to another.
So, it is not important for learners to select an accent ‘target’. Or worry if their own accent sounds different to those they see in mainstream English media. Instead, a better motivational tool for learning speaking is the use of near-peer role models. These are people who share certain characteristics with our learners (including accent). This ‘target’ is arguable more attainable for learning, as opposed to speakers in mainstream media. Niall Curry’s article provides a very useful overview of the near-peer approach.
So, which accent is best?
The answer is that there is no such thing as the ‘best’ English accent. People may have opinions about their favourite accent, but these are not based on fact. For example, the differences in sounds between different varieties of English are arbitrary, and first-language speakers are not reliable role models.
A much better question for learners to ask is “can I communicate effectively in my natural accent when speaking English?” If they can answer ‘yes’ to that question, then they have already achieved communicative competence. What is important is effective communication, regardless of accent. If you and those you are speaking with can understand each other, the sounds used to achieve this are not so important.
Tips for teachers
- Don’t worry about which variety you use as a model and don’t be afraid to use your own accent. But be aware of how your own accent compares to pedagogical models presented in dictionaries and course books.
- Teach students that there are different accents of English. The should know that none are ‘better’ than others, and similarly that there’s no such thing as having ‘no accent’.
- Exposing learners to diversity is a good thing. For example, try using authentic materials from speakers with different accents in listening/watching activities. In his blog post “I don’t have an accent!” said Alison from Sussex, (mentioned above). Chris Ozog suggests a simple activity for noticing differences between speakers’ accents.
In part two of this series, Robbie discusses why English has come to be one of the most widely used languages in the world. He dispels the myth that it is inherently ‘better’ than other lesser-used languages.
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