Accent in ELT: Setting a good example

Accent is a problem in ELT, particularly in pronunciation teaching. In the real world, accents are diverse, and yet we often seem to teach as if only one or two of them are valid. Why is that, and is there any way to make pronunciation teaching more accent-friendly? In this short article, we explore those questions, and I’ll suggest that the answer may be to set a good example.

You have an accent

You sometimes hear people say things like, ‘I don’t have an accent’. On the one hand, this seems like nonsense – like saying, ‘I don’t have an appearance’. On the other hand, I guess we know what they mean. They mean that they have a way of speaking which is felt to be ‘normal’ or ‘neutral’, not marked as being strongly regional or foreign. But whatever that is, it’s an accent too. If you speak a language, you have an accent. Alene Moyer writes, ‘In any language – native or not – everyone has an accent, yet the idea of a neutral accent standard persists in our collective consciousness’ (Moyer, 2013 p.89).

Accent reduction and elocution lessons

The idea of a neutral accent is exploited by courses which offer ‘accent reduction’. If we accept Moyer’s claim, then these courses could be better described as ‘accent training’, not so much losing an accent as replacing it with another – one which is more acceptable in the community where you are living. These kinds of courses are popular nowadays with immigrants in North America, but the idea is not new. They are like ‘elocution lessons’, which were popular in the past in the UK. These were in effect accent training for native speakers, with an emphasis on social climbing: learning to speak your own language in a way which is more acceptable in more upper class circles. In this context, the model accent was ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP), the word ‘received’ here is being used as a synonym for ‘accepted’. RP is an accent of English which is regarded as standard in the UK and elsewhere, but there is a strong evaluative element here too: the idea that this accent is not only ‘standard’ but a ‘higher standard’ than others.

‘Standard’ does not mean ‘better’

Pronunciation classes often set up a model for learners to aim at. This model is a native accent, and more specifically, a ‘standard’ native accent – RP or GA (General American). But it’s important to understand that being  ‘standard’ does not mean those accents are somehow better than other accents. John Wells points out, ‘A standard accent is regarded as a standard not because of any intrinsic qualities it may possess, but because of an arbitrary attitude adopted towards it by society’ (Wells, 1982 p34).

In the world today, English is an international language, with many more non-native than native speakers. If you want to understand and be understood by as many of those people as possible, having an RP or GA accent is no guarantee. As Wells says, those accents are not intrinsically superior – they are not, for example, more intelligible. Their usage as models is essentially random, relating more to local prejudices within the UK and US than to anything else.

Pronunciation teaching goals

Robin Walker and Gemma Archer outline two alternative pronunciation goals for learners of English – a. a native speaker accent, or b. comfortable intelligibility (Walker & Archer 2024). A native speaker accent was the goal of pronunciation teaching before the 1980s. The model chosen was overwhelmingly either RP, or GA.

The focus on comfortable intelligibility emerged when communicative approaches became more fashionable, with the idea was that we should help learners to understand and be understood. Speakers can be intelligible without necessarily speaking RP or GA.

Of course, the native speaker accent goal still exists alongside the comfortable intelligibility goal. Although the majority of learners around the world mainly need to be intelligible, some specifically want or need to sound like native speakers. To keep the two goals clear and separate, I think we could refer to them using different terms: accent training aims at a native speaker accent goal while pronunciation teaching aims at comfortable intelligibility.

Models or examples?

I’ve suggested that we keep pronunciation teaching separate from accent training, but in practice, the boundary between these two is very often blurred. A lot of teachers teach pronunciation as if they are doing accent training, correcting perfectly intelligible speech simply because it is not native-like. I think a part of the reason for this is to do with an insistence on models.

The strongest argument often given in favour of standard models (such as RP or GA) is that we need a fixed target to aim at, and why not choose one which is widely accepted? If anybody suggests abandoning a standard model, people ask, ‘But what can we replace it with?’ It’s a tough question, because no suggested replacement comes without problems. Yes, it’s a tough question, but maybe it’s not a question that needs an answer. Let me suggest that if we want to develop an accent-friendly approach to pronunciation teaching, perhaps we don’t need to attach so much importance to the question of models in the first place. Instead of models, we simply offer examples – starting with ourselves, and whatever accent we have as teachers.

Teaching by example

Let’s say standard accents such as RP, our own accents, and all other intelligible accents of English are all examples of successful English pronunciation. Any of them can serve as a model; none of them has to be the model. In talking about them this way there is no evaluative judgement going on; no assumption that one accent is superior to another.

We don’t need to protect learners from the reality of accent variation. As listeners, learners will inevitably encounter many different accents, not only the standard ones. Equally inevitably, as speakers, most learners will end up with accents different from the standards, and this is not a shameful fact we should hide away from them.

Nor do we need to create accent anxiety among teachers by implying that we should all have standard accents. If you are an intelligible speaker of English, you are a good example for your learners, whatever your accent.

Walker, R & Archer, G. (2024) Teaching English Pronunciation for a Global World Oxford: Oxford University Press

Moyer, A. (2013)  Foreign Accent: the Phenomenon of Non-Native Speech Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Wells, JC (1982) Accents of English 1: An Introduction Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wells, JC (1982) Accents of English 1: An Introduction Cambridge: Cambridge University Press