Accents: Native or Not
May10

Accents: Native or Not

Our friend Ultimate Attainment is back again. He’s someone we’re talking about a lot in my seminars lately and unfortunately, certain people do believe the falsehoods about sounding like “native” being the ultimate. It’s also a fundamental aspect of my dissertation (specifically dealing with English in Korea).. but that’s another story. When it comes to accentual perfection, I’m of the opinion that it is possible to sound like a native, but the issue is, is it necessary..and that is a no. It’s a no for several reasons, but one of the biggest is because many people these days have been exposed to others learning their language, so accentual perfection is not needed to be understood. I have met a few people with excellent accents in English (and other languages… if we are to use a native model as being “excellent”), but it’s not the norm and it’s not something that can make or break conversation. So I don’t believe it to all that important. Getting the message across is the key to successful communication, while sounding like a local doesn’t really mean all that much if what you’re saying is gibberish. On top of this, we also need to consider language pride/national identity. There are learners from certain countries that are proud to still be noticed of where they’re from. To generalise… many French English speakers like being recognised as being French, whereas many Arabic English speakers don’t like being recognised as being from that region of the world (generalisations of course, but ancedotal evidence to back that up 😉 So that’s the moral high-ground, but where am I in relation to my own learning? Well… I like to think I have a pretty good ear for accent replication. And I like to think my Korean accent in particular is quite good overall (with the exception of a few sounds that I’ve long been aware of)… but having recorded myself a lot lately I’ve come to realise that after just a year out of the country – and even though I have many Korean friends and a Korean wife – my accent has gone downhill a rather long way. Downhill, not in the sense of failed communication and gibberish, but downhill in the sense that my pronunciation isn’t anything like a native 😉 …Which is where I am right now; going through a lot of remedial pronunciation drills to pick my accent up again. All this is inspite of the fact that I will never pass as a Korean since I’m Caucasian… but alas… c’est la vie And that, my friends, is the dilemna… Even though we know it’s not necessary to sound like a native, nor...

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Accent Training for the Teacher?

Many that are involved in language – teachers and learners both – are hung up on the pronunciation aspects of things. Most of these people focus on the learner and how to improve their accent in their target language, and this is something that a lot of people are interested in. It’s the old ultimate attainment argument. Everyone dreams of sounding like a native! You can umm and arr all you want about this, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. And if asked candidly, many a learner (I focus on Asian Englishes remember) will tell you that they want to disguise their origins and sound like a native. No amount of persuasive debate can change their mind, even if we are to consider that English speakers from different countries are likely to have markers that identify them as being from there and not only that, but these markers are accepted in the English-speaking world… And shock-horror… even native speakers have these same markers… In any case, there’s been a long push in Communicative Language Teaching practice to move away from perfection to intelligibility… and this covers pronunciation as well as the other skills and components of language. But still, no matter how much we try to convince our students that sounding like a native isn’t needed nor is it necessarily the best thing, they’re just not interested. Anyway, this argument aside, what about the teacher and their pronunciation? If our students are still striving for the Standard English pronunciation, what are the odds of the teacher having this same Standard English pronunciation? Close to nil when you consider that less than 4% of the British population speak with RP… I’m unsure of the figures on General American English (GAE) speakers, but I would guess they’re also in the minority. A study I’m currently conducting looks at multiple Englishes from the perspective of the Korean learner of English, and the study is showing that the learners believe a BBC English speaker or an almost GAE speaker to be the “best”. This is the style they want to learn. The style they find easiest to understand. The style they want their teacher to have. But… these are people in the minority. So what of reality and their teacher with sub-standard English? Here’s a solution that will never take seed… perhaps the teacher should be the one working on their pronunciation and not the student. It’s a little wacky, yes… but we are teachers and we are here to facilitate our students, so why not? If we as teachers can standardise a little more and give our students something that they seem to want, then it’s kind...

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Which Pronunciation?

I’m sure as language teachers that this thought goes through our head a fair bit. It’s not a difficult decision for most languages since there is the standard. And yes, while there are varying dialects and accents, there is typically the one golden standard that we can revert to. Let our students fall back on if they want to work their new tongue in a familiar and intelligible style. The problem here is that English doesn’t have this golden standard. There are just too many standards to count. The powerhouses are British English (BE) and General American English (GAE), with some others gaining popularity and credibility – Canadian English, Australian English, Irish English, and so on. On top of these we also have the concept of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) that has some momentum thanks to linguists. I believe that in the international community with international communication being the main objective that ELF is a fantastic notion, but there are still problems with it in design and implementation. Basically, ELF looks at removing those phonological features that if omitted don’t hamper intelligibility. Great right? Well, here’s the catch… do the students really want to learn this reduced variety of English? In a recent study I conducted (with Koreans as my focus group), I tried to find out from a sample of learners just what they wanted… The result? Overwhelmingly GAE for pronunciation. Next challenge… ‘Native’ models of English are supposedly difficult to understand… hence ELF being a notion of importance. However, what happened in this study? GAE was found to be the most intelligible to this sample as well. So.. a unanimous decision from my Korean sample. Irish English was the biggest surprise for me since it received quite high ratings for pronunciation desirability. Intelligibility was on par with BE and Korean English, which wasn’t so bad considering the majority of participants informed me that it was a totally unfamiliar sound to them. Something they had not heard before (or too often). But this poses the question… Since GAE is what is most familiar to English learners in Korea, then did it only return the number one position due to this familiarity? If given more exposure, will Irish English be the global standard of...

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Pronunciation Models

What are the aims in the classroom when we teach pronunciation? Or more importantly, what should the aims be? Many a school policy is designed to teach the “native” model of pronunciation, but is this a realistic notion? Not only does research suggest that the so-called “native” models of English are amongst the least intelligible but the model itself is often unattainable. English itself has so many varieties around the globe that there is no one standard and that’s one of the reasons why the “native” model is typically unattainable. We have people from parts of USA that have difficulties communicating with people from parts of England… They are both L1 speakers and use a “native” model, but in an international setting it’s just unrealistic. There has been a push in recent years toward English as a Lingua Franca [ELF] (and English as an International Language [EIL]) where certain phonological features have been deemed redundant for successful communication. If this is the new thing and it actually assists communication as well as offering an attainable model of pronunciation for students, then why isn’t it being promoted in the ELT world more aggressively? There are a few possible reasons for this… Perhaps the biggest of these being the ELT industry itself would implode if the English “native” became redundant. Imagine the chaos if the acceptable model of pronunciation was a “non-native” variety. There would be a total uproar… I mean, afterall… which English is dominant? L2 speakers of English already outnumber L1 speakers by quite a way… But seriously, aren’t we as teachers supposed to be helping our students to communicate effectively? And if ELF is the way to do this, why isn’t it gaining recognition in the larger markets of North-East Asia (Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan)? …Are the institutions to blame? Is it we teachers? …And what do students really want – a “native” accent or communicative...

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