I was recently tagged in a discussion in a FB group for English teachers that was raging below a video that an English teacher had shared.
The teacher was showing some interesting ways of teaching young learners. My first thought was – this looks really cool. She’s really enthusiastic. I’m sure her students love lessons with her.
And well done for having the courage to put yourself in front of a camera and record a video. I know how stressful this can actually be.
However, this was not the first thought that many people in this thread had.
Because the teacher in the video had a foreign accent!
How dare she record this video?! I mean how dare she even teach English with this accent. Poor kids, they’ll speak with a foreign accent too. Call accent police!
What I saw there just reminded me again that as ‘non-native speaker’ teachers (everyone there as far as I could gather did not speak English as an L1) we can be our own worst enemies. You’d think that we’d be supportive of each other. But no, why give some positive feedback to the teacher for recording her video and sharing useful tips, when you can criticise and make fun of her for her accent?
It also reminded me how much accent prejudice there is in ELT (and beyond), which of course affects all English users, regardless of their L1. At some point the conversation also veered towards negative comments about Indian users of English, how they’re impossible to understand because of their ‘incorrect’ accent.
There was clearly a sense that quite a few English teachers in that thread thought that:
- there is a correct accent
- accent and pronunciation are the same
- any deviation from the correct accent is wrong.
I’ve seen so many similar interactions where English teachers make fun of another English teacher’s accent, poke fun at the mistakes they made, that I thought it might be time to address it more fully in a blog post (rather than just a FB comment).
Let’s look at the first assumption then.
Myth No. 1: There is a correct accent
From a purely linguistic perspective, there is nothing that makes one accent correct and another incorrect. In other words, there is no objective standard of a ‘correct’ accent.
After all, how could you objectively say that a New Yorker has a more correct accent than someone from Texas? You might have subjective positive or negative feelings one way or the other. But objectively, it’s not possible to say one is correct.
We could of course look at the issue of intelligibility or comprehensibility and check for example which accents are the most widely understood. If you’re instinctive reaction is that a standard ‘native speaker’ accent is easier to understand than a ‘non-native’ one, then read this article.
The problem is that the issue of intelligibility is a very complex one. It can depend on many factors, such as the listener’s attitude to the accent and their familiarity with it.
Now, I’ve seen some English teachers (in particular, many ‘non-native speakers’) argue that RP, the Queen’s English, is the ‘correct’ accent. But this of course would mean that over 90% of English users speak with an ‘incorrect’ accent.
And again, there is nothing intrinsically ‘correct’ about RP. There is certainly a lot of prestige attached to it, which just shows how deeply power, privilege and politics are intertwined with our perceptions of accents.
But then some English teachers will quickly point out that while perhaps we can’t define what ‘correct’ accent is, it’s surely ‘incorrect’ to say fumb instead of thumb, and tree instead of three. Well, is it?
There are thousands of English users around the world (‘native’ and ‘non-native’ alike) who happily and naturally say “I hurt my fumb” and “Tree beers, please”, without causing any miscommunication. So who are we to say that this is incorrect?
Pronunciation purists might exclaim in anger that this just means a lowering of standards. But again, what standards? Whose standards?
Any language norms or standards are subjective. And frequently they are set by those in power. Historically speaking, it’s no accident that RP (rather than Liverpudlian, Scots or any other accent in the UK for that matter) is subjectively seen as the most prestigious accent.
Objectively, however, none of these accents are more or less ‘correct’. But subjectively and due to important historical reasons of power, prestige and privilege, RP is seen as such. It’s important to bear in mind the adverb subjectively, though.
It’s also important to remember that these subjective standards also change. The Queen doesn’t speak the same RP as she did a few decades back. Is she speaking less correct then? Should she get pronunciation classes?
I’m not trying to be funny. It’s a serious question for those who think that there is a ‘correct’ accent.
The fact that standards change, that language itself changes, does not of course mean that anything goes, nor that your students can pronounce words however they please and still be understood.
But before we get there, let’s unpack the second myth.
Myth No.2: Accent is the same as pronunciation
When these discussions on social media about incorrect accent get heated, people seem to equate pronunciation with accent. But these two are clearly different.
First, pronunciation is in short your ability to produce sounds, words and sentences.
Your accent, on the other hand, frequently denotes either your geographical origins, your social class, etc.
Therefore, someone might have perfectly intelligible/clear pronunciation and speak with a Spanish, Chinese, Welsh or RP accent.
I highlighted the words intelligible/clear for a reason. While still to an extent subjective, are much less value-laden than correct, good, bad, wrong, nice, etc.; adjectives that are so commonly used to describe people’s pronunciation.
The distinction between accent and pronunciation is also vital for practical reasons.
There is honestly no point in trying to ‘improve’ your accent, or get rid of your ‘foreign’ accent. Unless of course, as David Crystal put it in this interview, you want to become a spy. Then sounding like the locals is a matter of life and death!
On a practical note, if a student would really want to speak with a particular ‘native speaker’ accent, they need a voice coach. A few hours of general English classes a week won’t do.
There is a point, however, in trying to improve your pronunciation. By this I mean being able to say sounds, words and sentences so that a wide variety of listeners can understand you.
You will probably note that before in this article I said that intelligibility is to an extent subjective. It can depend on the listener’s familiarity with the accent or their attitude towards it. However, through research, we can aim to identify which sounds, if mispronounced, can lead to problems in understanding.
This is precisely what some researchers (e.g. Jenkins, Deterding, O’Neal) have been looking at over the last two decades. By using recordings of interactions in English in international contexts, they have been able to identify which pronunciation features can lead to misunderstandings if mispronounced. These are:
- vowel length
- the vowel in word (especially if mispronounced as a long ‘a’)
- consonant sounds (excluding the ‘th’ – so yes, continue saying ‘Tree beers, please’ if you’re so inclined)
- consonant clusters (groups of consonants)
- nuclear stress (the most prominent stress in a given utterance).
If you want to learn more about this, check out this video.
Clear/intelligible pronunciation therefore means being able to say the above features correctly.
Myth No.3: Any deviation from the ‘correct’ accent is wrong
I hope by now I’ve convinced you that something such as ‘correct’ accent does not exist. Accents are not right or wrong. They are different. And to me these differences make them beautiful.
I’d also argue that pronunciation cannot be wrong either. It can be less clear or less intelligible. Using words such as correct, wrong, good or bad makes for rather value-laden and sometimes very emotional statements. It’s also easy to offend people by labeling their pronunciation as wrong or incorrect or bad.
On the other hand, pronunciation can be less clear. For example, if a Spanish student says ban instead of van, they are more likely to be misunderstood. As a result, we need to work on the distinction between b/v sound.
How do we know they might be more likely to be misunderstood?
There is quite a lot of research that suggests that mispronouncing consonant sounds can lead to misunderstandings.
I also feel that as a teacher (and a student) it gives me a more objective and achievable goal to work towards. Wrong pronunciation (i.e. not ‘native-like’) or a foreign accent isn’t something that anyone can improve, really (not that there is a good reason why you should aim to get rid of your foreign accent). Second Language Acquisition research clearly shows that for the vast majority of adult learners it is not possible to attain ‘native-like’ pronunciation, i.e. to pass off for a ‘native speaker’ in the ears of other ‘native speakers’.
On the other hand, focusing on developing a clear pronunciation seems more objective. We can attempt to define which pronunciation features are most important for clear pronunciation and focus on these. It’s also certainly more achievable. And according to some studies more effective. For example, Rahimi and Ruzrokh (2016) show that focusing on the pronunciation features outlined above improves students’ pronunciation more than a standard pronunciation syllabus based either on RP or General American.
You have an accent
And so does Salma Hayek, Brad Pitt or Hugh Grant.
The Queen also has an accent.
We all do.
And we need to really stop judging people by their accent. Accents aren’t better or worse.
Accents are different.
- Deterding, D. (2013). Misunderstandings in English as a Lingua Franca: An Analysis of ELF Interactions in South-East Asia. Mouton de Gruyter.
- Deterding, D., & Lewis, C. (2019). Pronunciation in English as Lingua Franca. In X. Gao (Ed.), Second Handbook of English Language Teaching (pp. 1–15). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-58542-0_41-1
- Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language : new models, new norms, new goals. Oxford University Press.
- O’Neal, G. (2015). Consonant clusters and intelligibility in English as a Lingua Franca in Japan: Phonological modifications to restore intelligibility in ELF. Pragmatics and Society, 6(4), 615–636. https://doi.org/10.1075/ps.6.4.07one
- Rahimi, M., & Ruzrokh, S. (2016). The impact of teaching Lingua Franca Core on English as a foreign language learners’ intelligibility and attitudes towards English pronunciation. Asian Englishes, 18(2), 141–156. https://doi.org/10.1080/13488678.2016.1173466