I’m an English Teacher: Should I Worry about my Accent?

A cruel mirror

Accent anxiety is a cruel mirror for those of us who are in the business of teaching English. Many of us feel a sense of inadequacy, and we are harsh in judging ourselves. Partly, this is the widely-reported phenomenon of simply hating the sound of your own voice on recordings. But for teachers, it is more serious, because we are a pronunciation model for our students, and in ELT there are some unfortunate preconceptions about what constitutes a ‘good’ model. Here are some examples of the kinds of things teachers say:

“I don’t speak like the people in the coursebook”

“With my accent, there’s no way I can teach pronunciation!”

“Students want someone who sounds like a native-speaker”

“I don’t teach pronunciation because I’m Scottish”

Impostor syndrome?

Even when we do take on the challenge of pronunciation teaching despite our anxieties, we often feel uncomfortable about doing so. You feel like an impostor, adopting, or trying to adopt, pronunciation features which are not natural to you. There may be nobody observing your class, making a critical note every time you pronounce something ‘wrong’, but it feels like there is!

What’s ‘wrong’?

I mentioned above some ‘unfortunate preconceptions’ about what is a good pronunciation model in ELT. These have a strong bearing on the question of what’s ‘wrong’. We have traditionally assumed that the model should be like a native speaker of English, with an accent which may be considered ‘standard’ in England or the USA. This assumption has failed to take account of the fact that English is now a global language, widely used as a Lingua Franca, and usually with no speaker from England or the USA present. It is no longer appropriate to judge correctness in relation to the norms of such speakers, and yet that preconception lives on.

It’s your language too

English doesn’t belong to just a small group of its speakers. It’s shared by all those who use it speak it intelligibly. We shouldn’t be fooled by the fact that the word English derives from the name England. The people of England have no special claim to the language. The people of the USA know this very well already, of course.  But people from other regions of the world should have similar confidence in claiming ownership of English. That includes Scotland and Canada obviously, but also Spain and Egypt, Bulgaria and Brazil. If you are an intelligible speaker of English, it’s your language too, and your accent is as valid as any other.

Accent prejudice is not for export

Sadly, it’s true that there may be prejudices about certain accents within a given national context. In Britain for example, a speaker of RP (‘Received Pronunciation’) may be viewed as ‘well-spoken’ and ‘educated’, while speakers of various regional accents may have to endure pejorative evaluations. The good news is that out in the big wide world, those same regional accents may not even be noticed, let alone stigmatised. British teachers may be astonished at how unconcerned learners are about such vexed questions as whether to use the long or short ‘a’ in ‘grass’, or how you should pronounce the word ‘scone’.  To a native speaker teacher, I would say you can safely leave accent prejudices at home, and to a non-native speaker teacher, I’d say ‘Don’t worry, you’re not missing anything. Let’s focus on intelligibility instead.’

‘Standard’ is not ‘intelligible’

Phonetics expert 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). A standard accent such as RP is not intrinsically more intelligible than a Manchester accent, for example. International listeners may find a Scottish accent easier to understand, or a Kenyan one, or a speaker with an accent from Argentina. The only thing I would say is that teachers should avoid using forms of pronunciation which they know are extremely local in their usage. An accent which is ‘broad’ is likely to be intelligible to fewer people. However, most people do this instinctively – we speak differently with people from our own neighbourhood and people from elsewhere in the country, or the world. Where I grew up, this accent for outsiders was called your ‘telephone voice’.

So should I worry?

The title of this post asks ‘Should I worry about my accent?’ My first answer is this: Don’t worry about your accent for the wrong reason. Don’t worry that it isn’t one of the reference accents so often found in published materials. Don’t worry that it might cause tea to spill in Buckingham Palace. Don’t worry that you might betray a ‘guilty’ secret such as your mother tongue or your regional heritage. If you’re going to worry, worry about not being able to make yourself understood in an international context. Nobody can afford to be complacent about intelligibility in intercultural communication settings.

Intercultural communication

Everybody who is engaged in intercultural communication – language teachers and learners included – needs to be alert to the possibility of communication breakdown, and be willing and able to adjust their own speech if it becomes necessary. And importantly, nobody is exempt from this duty. That includes speakers whose English accents are considered to be ‘standard’. Speaking RP, for example, doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to modify your accent if your interlocutor can’t follow. For example, you may need to strip out some of the features which make it less clear such as elision or vowel reduction or other features of connected speech. You may need to pronounce an /r/ where normally you wouldn’t. In short, you need to be flexible according to the circumstances. As far as possible, you should help your students achieve such flexibility too.

Goodbye to accent anxiety!

The status of English as a global Lingua Franca means that we need to break free of narrow preconceptions of what is and isn’t ‘correct’ in pronunciation teaching. While adopting a more flexible approach may be difficult at first, it can also be liberating. It particular, it should liberate a huge number of us English language teachers from anxiety about our accents.

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

(This article first appeared on the Cambridge ELT blog)

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