A is for Accommodation

6 01 2013

You may well have seen this YouTube clip a month or so ago: British footballer Joey Barton is interviewed in France not long after having debuted for the Marseille football club.  Much commented upon – and mocked – was his thick French accent, despite his being a native speaker of English and speaking little or no French. The Daily Mail, for example, described it as ‘an embarrassing display’ and ‘a comedy French accent’. Judge for yourself…

What Barton of course was doing (although neither he nor the Daily Mail named it as such) was accommodating his accent to that of his audience. Accommodation, as Robin Walker (2010: 97) reminds us, is ‘the ability to adjust your speech and aspects of spoken communication so that they become more (or less) like that of your interlocutors’.  David Crystal (2003: 6) adds that, ‘among the reasons why people converge towards the speech pattern of their listener are the desires to identify more closely with the listener, to win social approval, or simply to increase the communicative efficiency of the interaction’.

Winning social approval may well have motivated Barton, a newcomer to the region, to assume a French accent. But more important still was the need to be intelligible: in his defence he had said that ‘it is very difficult to do a press conference in Scouse for a room full of French journalists. The alternative is to speak like a ‘Allo Allo!’ character’.

Whatever the reason, Barton’s much-publicized accommodation is a good, if extreme, example of what most of us tend to do naturally and instinctively, and not just at the level of accent.  Jenny Jenkins (2000: 169) identifies a wide range of linguistic and prosodic features that are subject to convergence between speakers, ‘such as speech rate, pauses, utterance length, pronunciation and… non-vocal features such as smiling and gaze’.

Basic English 1 two figures01And, as Richardson et al., (2008: 75) note, ‘conversational partners do not limit their behavioural coordination to speech. They spontaneously move in synchrony with each other’s speech rhythms’, a finding which is likened to the ‘synchrony, swing, and coordination’ displayed by members of a jazz band. The researchers tracked the posture and gaze position of conversants to show that this coordination is not simply a byproduct of the interaction, but the physical embodiment of the speakers’ cognitive alignment – ‘an intimate temporal coupling between conversants’ (p. 88) or, (in T.S.Eliot’s words) ‘the whole consort dancing together’.

Arguably, accommodation occurs not only at the paralinguistic level, but at the linguistic one too. As we speak, for example, we are continuously monitoring our interlocutor’s degree of understanding, and adjusting our message accordingly. This is especially obvious in the way we talk to children and non-native speakers, forms of talk called  ‘caretaker talk’ and ‘foreigner talk’, respectively. Both varieties are characterized by considerable simplification, although there are significant differences. Caretaker talk is often pitched higher and is slower than talk used with adults, but, while simpler, is nearly always grammatically well-formed. Foreigner talk, on the other hand, tolerates greater use of non-grammatical, pidgin-like forms, as in ‘me wait you here’, or ‘you like drink much, no?’

Various theories have been proposed as to how speakers modify their talk like this. One is that they ‘regress’ to an early stage in their own language development. Another is that they negotiate a mutually-intelligible degree of communication. A third (and this is really a form of accommodation) is that they simply match their language to that of their interlocutor, imitating its simplifications, including its lack of grammatical accuracy. Rod Ellis (1994: 265), however, thinks that this explanation is unlikely, as ‘it is probably asking too much of learners’ interlocutors to measure simultaneously the learners’ phonology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse with sufficient accuracy to adjust their own language output’.

However, this was written before the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, and their key role in enabling imitative behavior.  As Iacoboni (2008: 91-92) observes, ‘the fact that the major language area of the human brain is also a critical area for imitation and contains mirror neurons offers a new view of language and cognition in general’.  According to Iacobini, it is because of these mirror neurons that ‘during conversations we imitate each other’s expressions, even each other’s syntactic constructions… If one person engaged in a dialogue uses the word “sofa” rather than the word “couch,” the other person engaged in the dialogue will do the same’ (op. cit. 97-98).

It seems, then, that as humans we are hard-wired to imitate one another.

Basic English 1 two figures02So, what are the implications for language teaching? In the interests both of intelligibility and establishing ‘comity’, Joey Barton’s adaptive accent strategy may be the way to go. For learners of English, whose interlocutors may not themselves be native speakers, this may mean learning to adapt to other non-native speaker accents. As Jenkins (2007: 238) argues, ‘in international communication, the ability to accommodate  to interlocutors with other first languages than one’s own… is a far more important skill than the ability to imitate the English of a native speaker.’

So, in the interests of mutual intelligibility, rather than teaching pronunciation per se, maybe we should be teaching accommodation skills. The question, of course, is how?

References:

Crystal, D. (2003) A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (5th edition) Oxford: Blackwell.

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Iacoboni, M. (2008) Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Basic English 1 two figures03Richardson, D.C., Dale, R., & Shockley, K., (2008) ‘Synchrony and swaying in conversation: coordination, temporal dynamics, and communication,’ in Wachsmuth, I., Lenzen, M., & Knoblich, G. (eds) Embodied Communication in Humans and Machines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Ogden, C.K. (ed.) (n.d.) The Basic Way to English, London: Evans Brothers.

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75 responses

6 01 2013
Chiew

Good to have you back, Scott! :)

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chiew – it’s good to be back!

6 01 2013
Mike

I live in Phuket, Thailand and daily I hear convergence from foreigners to Thais: “I go buy food”; “Him going to shop.” This pidginisation of English from native speakers is the only way that many can communicate throughout the day; therefore, in Mr Barton’s case, surrounded by French speaking reporters, it is very understandable why he converged in this way. His motive was mutual intelligibility and cultural acceptance. The same is true in Phuket.

Mike in Phuket

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, I remember hearing a British Council teacher (somewhere in the Gulf) telling her driver: ‘You wait here. We go to conference. We come back at five’ (or something similar) and I couldn’t help but wonder if she talked to her students like that!

6 01 2013
Derek

Interesting post.

This reminds me of Edward Hall’s Beyond Culture; he talks of para-linguistics and synchronicity.

The ability to converge with and accommodate others seem to be a basic part of the socialization process. Isn’t this something we learn very early through our interaction with parents, teaches, siblings, etc. So is it necessary or even possible to teach something so basic to the functioning of a social group?

Also, what happens when speakers do not converge? Perhaps divergence is necessary for creating a space for dialogue and critical discourse.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

“The ability to converge with and accommodate others seem to be a basic part of the socialization process. Isn’t this something we learn very early through our interaction with parents, teaches, siblings, etc. So is it necessary or even possible to teach something so basic to the functioning of a social group?”

Yes, almost from the moment they are born children co-ordinate gaze and engage in imitative behaviors at the level of rudimentary manual and facial gestures, while their parents imitate them back! And, even before they can speak, they ‘socialize’ with other children using imitation. Iacobini, in his book on mirror neurons, reports studies of children playing imitation games (e.g. one child puts on a hat, and the other child does the same) which suggests that ‘the more a toddler plays imitation games, the more the same child will be a fluent speaker a year or two later. Imitation seems like the prelude and a facilitator of verbal communication among young children’ (p.50).

Whether it’s necessary to ‘teach’ imitation, I don’t know, but there is some suggestion that techniques like ‘shadowing’ (sub-vocalizing a text you are listening to) is something that good language learners do. Maybe it’s a skill that can be trained in the classroom?

“Also, what happens when speakers do not converge? Perhaps divergence is necessary for creating a space for dialogue and critical discourse”.

Good question – and of course it would be wrong to suggest that all talk is purely ‘phatic’, i.e. motivated solely by the need to demonstrate empathy. There is also the question of the extent to which these ‘synchronizing’ behaviors are culturally embedded? Do speakers of other languages and/or from other cultural backgrounds accommodate in the same way? (Warning: there is a high risk, in attempting to answer this question, of ‘essentializing’ different cultures/ethnicities etc. Unsupported statements of the type ‘Italians wave their arms a lot’ will be viewed dimly!!)

6 01 2013
Adam Simpson (@yearinthelifeof)

While I’m loathe to quote Krashen’s work as some kind ultimate answer to language teaching and acquisition, there is nonetheless a lot to be said for ‘Comprehensible Input’, i.e. that students learn best when exposed to samples of the target language that are at or just above the student’s current level of acquisition of the language.

To be able to do this, teachers have the task of ensuring that the language used in the classroom is comprehensible by evaluating the learners and implementing activities that ensure input and output at an appropriate level for the learner. Deeply unscientific – at best ‘loose ethnographic’ – research that I’ve been conducting over the years suggests that the native speakers I’ve worked with are able to do this much better than those L2 teachers who share an L1 with the learners. Such teachers are more likely to take the option of switching to the shared L1 when times get tough. Like I said, my research on this is extremely ‘loose’, although I think it would make for an interesting study.

A second factor to consider is the lowering of the ‘Affective Filter’: Learners are best able to absorb and mentally process the language input they receive when they are in an environment where they are relaxed and their anxiety level is low. As teachers, we can provide this by making the classroom a warm, supportive place where students feel free to take risks with language. A big part of that, I’d say, would be having a clue what the teacher is on about.

Glad to have you back in the Blogosphere, Scott. Looking forward to seeing where this discussion goes.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Adam… it’s good to be engaging with you again!
Yes, along with ‘caretaker talk’ and ‘foreigner talk’, researchers have for some time been interested in ‘teacher talk’ – especially since, as you rightly note, Krashen foregrounded the formative role of input. To what extent, for example, does teacher talk replicate features of either caretaker talk or foreigner talk? Rod Ellis again: ‘The research indicates that teachers modify their speech when addressing L2 learners in the classroom in a number of ways and also that they are sensitive to the learners’ general proficiency level. Many of these modifications are the same as those found in foreigner talk, but some seem to reflect the special characteristics of classroom settings — – in particular the need to maintain orderly communication’ (1994: 583).

As a side note, it would be interesting to imagine if Joey Barton got tired of football and took up EFL, would he talk to his students using their L1 accents?? :-)

6 01 2013
Adam Simpson (@yearinthelifeof)

As another aside, it seems that the age and status of the native speaker may not matter. Here is another – again, football related – example; the famous case of Steve McLaren’s Dutch accent.

At the time McLaren was already a senior figure in the profession, having been coach of the England national team and several major club sides. Regardless of status and seniority, he adapted his speech greatly in this interview. Perhaps more intriguingly, he subsequently abandoned this approach when he coached the Wolfsburg team in Germany. Instead, he made efforts to learn German and conducted interviews in that language.

What would that suggest about *rising* to expectations?

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hehe, Adam – he even looks Dutch!

12 01 2013
Gisela

Interesting! Personally, as a EFL teacher from Argentina I’ve noticed I do accomodate to L1 accents. I’ve been talking about this phenomenon with other teachers and they’ve felt the same, especially when teaching adult learners.
By the beginning of 2012 I started teaching an Adults Elementary course. I used English all throughout the lesson and everything seems to be going fine. After some months I started noticing my pronunciation worsened (I started to adopt a Spanish-like accent) and resort to Spanish more often.
As I resent that, I wonder if it is possible and necessary to avoid accomodation.

12 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Gisela, thanks for the comment. Interesting (a) that you should have accommodated to your students’ accent (although perhaps not unusual, given the evidence from this discussion alone) and (b) that you should resent this. Is this because you feel that you should be a more ‘native-like’ model for your learners? And/or that code-switching into Spanish undermines your commitment to a monolingual approach? I’m assuming ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ to both questions, in which case it’s interesting the way our human propensity to ‘mirror’ our interlocutors tends to subvert our methodological principles. Which (the propensity or the principles) should be adapted to which, I wonder?

6 01 2013
David Deubelbeiss

Great to read more posts again!

Wonderful to see the notion that language is not an individual and isolated series of speech acts. So many teachers need to be reminded of this tenent that underlies our whole discipline. Reminds me of McCarthy’s articulation of “confluence” as a way to describe speech based on his corpus work.

I particularly appreciate the Iacaboni article – it seems that so much of what we do is imitation and that the bases for learning lies in deep on this level. Even metaphors which form the foundation of how we think (or so Lakoff argues), are also very imitative like-like behaviors.

David

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, David. Glad you mentioned McCarthy – I had originally wanted to include a mention of his (and Ron Carter’s) work on the way speakers ‘mirror’ one another at the level of lexical choices, including repetition and what McCarthy calls ‘relexicalization’. Here’s a cut and paste from my book (with Diana Slade) on conversation:

McCarthy (1988) identifies a further feature of lexical repetition across turns, which he calls relexicalization. This occurs when speakers do not repeat each other verbatim but instead use paraphrase or a (near-) synonym, as in the extract about the wedding arrangements quoted above:

Female 2 Jenny. She’s she’s awful. She’s the …
Male A pain.

McCarthy and Carter (1997) comment that “this taking up of one’s own and others’ lexis is the very stuff of conversational progression; it is one of the principal ways in which topics shade almost imperceptibly one into another, while interpersonal bonds are simultaneously created and reinforced by the ‘sharing’ of words” (p.35).

6 01 2013
Luan

I guess this is linked to code-switching, register and also accent. And I think the need for teaching sociolinguistic appropriateness of language is rather limited in ESL because I don’t think it is the teacher’s job is not to be a cultural authority. But at the same time, of course there is a balance to be had. The problem with the other extreme of ‘mimicking’ student pronunciation and errors, or not picking up on them at all, is that you are potentially providing a faulty model and in effect, encouraging non-standard speech while stinting their development. If you don’t have certain benchmarks for pronunciation and grammar, then when learners do interact with native speakers or take tests, they get judged and this can have quite adverse effects on their prospects.

Perhaps the middle ground is in the need to teach general people skills. Joey Barton was trying to do what he thought was appropriate, when he needn’t have bothered. He was trying too hard. Good communicators connect and create common ground by putting themselves in the listener’s position to build rapport. But if you compromise your own style too much people find you obsequious, which is obviously not in the teacher’s or the learner’s best interests.

As you pointed out, we do accommodate naturally and I think good communicators also do it consciously and assertively. It seems to be an important trait of good language teachers that they are able to moderate their language to the level of the people in the room but not overly simplify it and talk down to people. This crucial awareness of being able to talk at ‘i+1′ does not come easy to a lot of people. But it can be learnt and that is why I think Rod Ellis’s assertion is well off the mark and a little dismissive of people’s capacity to learn and communicate. If you live in the country of the people you teach and interact with every day, and especially if you read in that language, then surely there is nor reason why you would not be fully aware of and unconsciously absorb contrastive elements in all aspects of their language. It is simply a matter of time and influence.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Luan – your point about over-exaggerating or mimicking features of ‘learner talk’ is well made, and could have a number of negative consequences – and this is where there is a fine line between the need to be comprehensible and the need to provide a serviceable model of the target language. (If parents talked only baby talk to their children, how far – or fast – would their language develop?) Good teachers seem to be able to do this intuitively – and, as you suggest, this seems to have something to with their capacity to ‘put themselves in their learners’ shoes’ – a capacity that relates to the very human faculty called ‘intersubjectivity’ (more of that in another post, perhaps).

6 01 2013
Jonny Lewington

I understand the science and I’ve noticed the same thing many times. The Barton video reminds me of the cringeworthy French accent that my dear father puts on when we are in France.

However, I’d be worried about explicitly trying to teach these skills. This is obviously something that we do subconsciously, I think Ellis still has a point when he says that ‘asking too much of learners’ interlocutors’ – it would become almost impossible if you were consciously trying to do this.

It seems like something that we do naturally when we need to communicate. Perhaps if the researchers came into an English classroom, they’d find plenty of examples of accommodation happening in the classroom already.

I’d say this adds to the weight of the argument that classrooms need to involve real communication, and that there is no substitute for genuine conversations in the classroom. This would be one of the many features of language use which drills and controlled conversations lack.

The other way this might be useful – the more your learners accommodated you, perhaps, the more they might learn? Do accommodated language features (vocab, pron features etc) ever stick around or do they fade away as soon as they speak to the next person? I think that’s another question worth answering here!

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

“…the more your learners accommodated you, perhaps, the more they might learn? Do accommodated language features (vocab, pron features etc) ever stick around or do they fade away as soon as they speak to the next person?”

This is such an interesting question – and the basis for a possible research study: how durable are the effects of accommodation or are they (as I suspect) fairly fleeting?

6 01 2013
Karenne Sylvester

I’m not really sure that we need to teach this skill, in the way that we teach pronunciation per se, because it generally tends to happen naturally, especially for those who have high levels of empathy.

It’s probably more a question of learning how to not do this as a EL teacher, when in the classroom, because although it can be useful when teaching Beginner levels (I’ll get to why in a second), students at higher levels do resent it when teachers engage in this practice – generally because it comes across as patronizing parody (as we saw in the journalists reaction to Barton’s accommodated speech).

However, it is useful and I assume that’s why we developed the skill on a biological level, for evolutionary survival when meeting people from clans other than our own – to determine quickly if they were friend or foe.

Additionally, I do also think that this usefulness probably has something to do with an empathetic understanding of our communicative partner’s cognitive load. The questions “Could you possibly open the window, Juan?” to a low level learner or “I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling me where the bathroom is” to the random person we’ve met is simply too much to handle for the non-native speaker – too many words, too complex a structure for them to handle, thus a bit of a waste of energy on our part but more importantly also on their part. “Please, Juan, open the window” or “Bathroom, where” gets the communicative point across more efficiently.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Karenne – good point, i.e. that sensitivity to the interlocutor’s level of comprehension causes speakers to adjust the syntactic complexity (and lexical familiarity) of their talk, but it raises the interesting question as to why do some speakers exhibit greater sensitivity than others and/or why are some speakers able to make more accurate adjustments than others? And, finally, what implications might all this have for teacher training? (Maybe these are issues that should be dealt with in another post, since they are more to do with teacher talk than learner talk). But thanks for your comment and great to have you back on board.

6 01 2013
Daniel Martin

Another example of accommodation from an infamous ex-president.

6 01 2013
Wes

Great to have you back, Scott. Looking forward to purchasing the upcoming ebook.

I was very interested in the Joey Barton episode. Notwithstanding whether he was trying to accommodate or mock his hosts (I think the former, personally), what was wholly depressing was the reaction by the media and those on the ‘blogosphere’ in the UK. Barton, a working-class Liverpudlian, was severely mocked for his efforts. Here is a random snapshot of the responses in the internet:

“A Scouse Frenchman. How’s that gonna work la?”; “Barton is such a tool”; “Let’s laugh at him for the pseudointellectual ****** that he is “; “Barton really is a complete & utter Coq.” etc.

Now Barton himself is a problematic personality and is a convicted criminal, which may account for some of the hostility expressed. Yet I also think the reaction to this episode is symptomatic of something else. Accents matter a great deal in the UK, and the very idea that Barton, with his pronounced Scouse accent, might mimic a French accent was a source of hilarity and contempt for many people (as we can see above). This is worrying when you consider that social mobility in the UK is among the worst in the world. If you are born into a poor family in the UK, statistically the chances are that you will remain poor. Changing your accent and learning foreign languages are potentially a means of increasing your economic and professional success; yet in the UK – with its culture of snobbery and inverted-snobbery around accents – doing so is often greeted with suspicion and ridicule. Such a culture is hardly conducive to successful language learning (especially in terms of Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis) and indeed may partially explain why us English do not have a reputation for being successful linguists.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Wes, thanks for filling in some of the back story here. I had no idea who Joey Barton was, but I have to agree with you when you say ‘what was wholly depressing was the reaction by the media and those on the ‘blogosphere’ in the UK’.

There’s a bigger issue here, I think, and that is how we perceive accent adjustment in our peers – which seems to be influenced by gender, among other things. I.e. it is not unexpected that women will tend to adapt their accents ‘upward’ (in class terms) – maybe because, traditionally at least, the only way that women could better their economic position was to marry someone wealthier – while men have always tended to move in the opposite direction, especially when talking with other men (as in talking about football), assuming more proletarian accents. So, the idea of someone (like Joey G.) moving his accent right out of the ‘gene pool’ altogether, is tantamount to both class and national betrayal (and possibly gender betrayal as well – there was an interesting article in the Modern Language Journal recently showing how adolescent English-speaking boys resisted speaking French with a French accent because it sounded ‘gay’).

6 01 2013
tailormadeenglish

Great to have you back Scott!

You asked at the end what the implications of all this are for language teaching, and I think language teachers already include a lot of accommodation when they grade their language in the classroom. Not just by using gestures, simplified instructions, etc. depending on the level, but also looking for signs from learners as to whether they are following/how they feel about the activities – and I wonder how far this gauging of students’ reactions is a means of ‘gaining social acceptance’ in a classroom setting.

As a teacher in a monolingual environment, I find that in order to accommodate, I often code-switch when I’m trying to get a point across. An example of this happened in a private class the other other day, when I was with a student who loves discussing recipes. When it came to describing the names of herbs, I would use the English first, then dip into the learners’ L1 if I saw she wasn’t following. If the paralinguistic clues aren’t there (or simply to check in spite of the clues), we explicitly check understanding as teachers.

I think the issue of code-switching as a type of accommodation is interesting, too. When I code-switch, I do it for one of two reasons, either to assist communication/accommodate when I’m speaking English to Brazilians in a social setting, or with my wife at home, purely to save time and make communication more effective.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Code-switching – ah yes! There’s a whole thread to be had about that! But i think you’re right – that accommodation and code-switching are not unrelated in that they are both motivated by the need to maximize communicative effectiveness but also to strengthen rapport. And they both do this by a process of what Bakhtin called ‘double-voicing’, that is, assuming the voice of someone else, in this case, the interlocutor.

6 01 2013
Cecilia Lemos

Hi Scott,

Even though you haven’t been completely off the blogosphere (there were some posts in the iTDi blog), it’s a real pleasure to have you back on your own blog. I’ve been missing waking up on Sunday morning to read your posts and the comment thread / discussion they generate. So, however repetitive this will sound to you, I can’t help but join the chorus: welcome back, Scott! You’ve been missed :)

One thing that calls my attention after reading all the comments so far is how everyone recognizes that what Barton did in that press conference is not only acceptable (even if we also recognize he could have taken it a notch down), but also natural and desired to establish good rapport and communication. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, since we are all English teachers or work with ELT.

As I read, two things came to mind. The first is regarding parent talk and especially a question you asked in your reply to Luan’s comment: If parents talked only baby talk to their children, how far – or fast – would their language develop?

That’s a very good question. I have two kids and of course when they were very young I changed some of my language when talking to them, the grammatical structure, lexical sets I used, intonation, etc… But contrary to what happens in most cases (at least where I live) I did very little of that and I slowly stopped it as soon as I felt they had the linguistic/emotional maturity to have me speak naturally to them. The result is that my children may speak a bit like little adults at time. they may have better vocabulary than most children in their classes (Just this weekend a friend laughed at me for telling my daughter: “What have I said to you about antagonizing your brother?” She did know what I was complaining about, though ;-))

But is this a positive thing? Thinking back I know when among their friends or talking about being with them, they use the same language their friends do (5 out of 10 words is “tipo”, which would be the equivalent to “like”), but have I interfered in their natural language development? I’m wondering now…

The second thing that this post and comment thread has made me think about is whether it is possible to teach accommodation. More than if it’s possible (which in my mind would make it necessary for us teachers to explain to students what accommodation is) I wonder if it’s necessary. If it’s a natural strategy that we do when we learn – and later use – our first language, do we have to “re-learn” it when we study a second language?

So maybe the question should be whether students would benefit from learning there is something called accommodation, which entails social acceptance, more effective communication, etc… My initial answer would be that some students would, other would become even more nervous and start making more mistakes, others would become even more anxious about their language learning, thinking of it as “one more thing” I have to remember.

I remember a physical education class in school, when I was about 10, where the teacher told us to walk to the end of the court, but that we should make the right arm go forward when the left leg went forward, and the left arm when the right leg… This is what any human being does naturally, because its about balance. But what happened was that we all started having real difficulty to do it, we tripped on our own feet and stumbled. Maybe trying to teach someone something that we do naturally ends up backfiring.

Food for thought. Good food from you, as usual.

Cheers, Scott!

6 01 2013
Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

“Maybe trying to teach someone something that we do naturally ends up backfiring.” I like this. I believe there is truth to it.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ceci, for your generous ‘welcome back’ comment, and your interesting observations – first about caretaker talk, and then about teaching accommodation.

A number of posters have made the point that maybe teaching accommodation is redundant since we tend to do it naturally, and I would have to agree, but I feel the need to qualify the Jenkins quote in the latter part of my post, i.e.

…in international communication, the ability to accommodate to interlocutors with other first languages than one’s own… is a far more important skill than the ability to imitate the English of a native speaker.

I think the point that Jenkins is making is that – when teaching EIL/ELF at least – we can re-direct our efforts, not at teaching RP (or whatever), but at encouraging accommodation, which may simple mean rewarding it when it happens. But will it happen – in a class, say, of all Brazilian students – and if so – is accommodating to someone of your OWN accent a skill that will be generalizable to other accents? I suppose what I envisage is some kind of task where students are played accents of different speakers of English, and they have to attempt to mimic them. Does anyone think that that would be worth doing? (I have to confess, i have my doubts).

7 01 2013
Roberta King

I think playing accents of different speakers of English and having students attempt to mimic them is worthwhile. When learning another language, it would be wonderful to learn the standard language. For example, when I was taught French, I was taught standard French rather than a specific regional dialect, With English, what is a standard English pronunciation? Would that be considered RP? How about standard American, Australian or Canadian English? It would upon with what kind of native English speakers students will be interacting. Students need to be exposed to various accents to promote understanding. As for mimicking them, they could choose which accent they prefer.

6 01 2013
Andrew

This post brought to mind the Danish football player Jan Molby who came to England when he was twenty-one. Watch this clip and see if you can guess which team he joined (if you don’t know).

How about getting students to choose short audio/video clips of their favourite English-speaking stars, and then practise imitating them as a way of highlighting pronunciation features?

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Andrew – you anticipated the question that I asked Ceci immediately above. Do YOU think that an imitation exercise of the type you suggest would be worthwhile? (And thanks for that clip!)

6 01 2013
shaundowling

While most people laughed at Barton’s French accent in England, in France I think it was well received. I saw a later interview with Barton who said that the club’s French translator was so grateful and happy that he had spoken much slower and clearer for everyone. Also that he was the first player to ever think about the people and press. So for some it was seen taking the mickey but for others it was an mark of understanding.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Shaun – it’s very useful – and enlightening – to get the fuller picture of how Barton’s accent was received by different audiences – and says a lot about how issues of ‘voice’ and identity are mutually implicated. I’m particularly impressed by the fact that Barton used the translator’s approval as validation of his attempt to be ‘more communicative’.

6 01 2013
Karenne Sylvester

That is interesting! That would also move it from an unconscious accommodation to one where he was consciously trying to relate to his audience – especially re his “problematic” past, i.e. in terms, perhaps of turning over a new leaf and being a better “man” or footballer.

6 01 2013
Luiz Otávio Barros

Hi, Scott
I read this post much more as a life-long learner rather than teacher of English, I think, and, after each paragraph, I stopped and considered the extent to which the “desire to identify more closely with the target language community” has played a role in shaping what my English is / sounds like today. I’m not sure I have the answer to this question.

You see, my English has had “American leanings”, so to speak, for as long as I can remember. I have never, ever said “can’t” /ka:nt/ in my entire life, nor have I asked someone “Have you got a pen?”

This wouldn’t be noteworthy in itself, of course, expect that I spent more than fifteen years as a student, teacher and, subsequently, supervisor at the Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, which, as the name suggests, is a British institute. Then, in the late 90s, I did my MA, guess where, in England and remained relatively (and relatively is probably the key word here) impervious to “the British Accent” (whatever it is).

Now, if you ask me whether I tend to identify culturally / valueswise with Britain or the US, I’d say Britain in a heartbeat. But, somehow, that sort of cultural identification / admiration has never seeped into my English in any significant way. I think I have two pseudo- hypotheses that might explain this.

One, music. I was able to sing along to The Carpenter’s Mr. Postman and (wince alert) Barry Manilow’s Mandy when I was 5, long before I knew what the words meant. I spent my whole childhood / adolescence listening to (mostly American) pop music, much more often / enthusiastically than the average person, I think. So this must have had something to do with the gradual sinking in of a semi-American accent.

Two, I have never liked the way certain words are pronounced in “British English” (guess I’m talking RP here), so I could never bring myself to say “door” without the r or “fast” with the a: sound. As I grew up, I guess I made a number of conscious (and that’s the key word here) choices governing what kind of English I wanted to speak and what I wanted to sound like. And these choices have crystallized over the years, regardless, I think, of cultural identification – at least on a conscious level.

Scott, it’s great to have you back.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Fascinating comment, Luiz – and the first so far from ‘the other side’ as it were (I’m speaking facetiously, but you know what I mean!). In fact your post reminded me how – in many ways – I have adapted my own ‘idiolect’ (i.e. personal dialect) of English in the direction of a US variety, ever since I started working with US students, even if mostly online. For example, I always use American spellings in my posts and emails to them (if I can remember – and, if I can’t, my spell-check usually reminds me). If this isn’t accommodation, what is?!

6 01 2013
Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

Isn’t accommodation really just learning how to communicate in a particular context? You learn how others do it and then you adapt to accommodate them. One could argue it’s not more intentional than changing your speech for the listener.

Where I notice accommodation particularly relevant to me at the moment is with regards to a post I made a few days ago on copycatting. I often encourage students to emulate others, particular in writing (as that’s my focus right now) but come up with emulations that obviously don’t always fit the genre they’re writing for. It’s then our role to help students not only learn to accommodate, but who to accommodate for a particular purpose.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Interesting point, Tyson – about writing (and your point about ‘emulation’ slightly echoes the point I made to Luiz – above – about accommodating one’s spelling to one’s interlocutor). It also made me think: when does emulation stop being emulation and become plagiarism? I.e. isn’t there a fine line between imitation and outright copying?? (And how do we teach the difference? -But is this another post??)

7 01 2013
Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

Good point, though I by emulating I was less referring to copying exact phrases and more about noticing grammar patterns used, collocations and punctuation. Outright copying without attribution is the starting point for a discussion on plagiarism. After that, yep, it gets a little blurry, but you’re right; another post. :)

6 01 2013
Sarah Emsden-Bonfanti

Interesting blog to start to the new year off, Scott. Good to have you back.
Only yesterday I witnessed how natural accommodation skills are in children. An English couple and their two children were visiting. They have been living in Spain for five years now and – in their mother’s words – her two children (six and eight) speak “four languages: Spanish with a Spanish accent; English with an English accent; Spanish with an English accent; English with a Spanish accent.” It was intriguing to notice that the children adopted ‘English with a Spanish accent’ when talking to my Italian husband, but immediately switched back to ‘pure English’ when addressing us native English speakers.
And so to your question on the implications for language teaching. However natural/innate this skill may be, I don’t believe it merits a place in the language classroom. Accommodation is a natural part of our world, but not everything that exists outside the classroom justifies a place in it.
I suggest the question, therefore, is not how to teach it, but who would need to learn it? Everyone who needs to communicate with someone from a different linguistic background? Possibly. But if it is an innate ability, as opposed to a skill that needs to be taught/learned, then maybe accommodation lies outside of the remit of language teaching.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Sarah – wow! how observant of that mother to identify the four ‘languages’, or, rather, the four codes, perhaps, of her children – and how timely for this thread! I wonder if there have been studies of accent choice – and shift – in bilingual children. It might behoove your friend to do one!

Again, the point about teaching accommodation versus letting it take its natural course has been raised a number of times – see one of my more recent responses (above) which suggests that – even if we don’t teach it overtly, perhaps we should validate it when it does happen.

6 01 2013
Gabriella Hirthe

Hi Scott,
After reading your post, I felt compelled to post about my Dad. My Dad was a small business man in the US, running a successful dental lab in the midwest. Finding skilled workers was difficult for him in the late 70′s and 80′s and started hiring trained Vietnamese who had very poor English communication skills. I too worked at the dental lab after school and found it back then embarrassing how my Dad would speak to them, using broken English, pronouncing words with “w” instead of “r” or leaving the definite article out (he liked to encourage them by saying “weal good”). I also remember my Dad using a lot of hands, head nodding and eye contact.

Later I tried to apologise to Vin at work about my Dad’s poor English and he responded by only praising my Dad, saying that Dave (my Dad) was the best employer one could ever imagine since he was so easy to understand and they knew exactly how to get the work done. If you can imagine, crown and bridge work isn’t easy and a good dental technician, like my father, needed to communicate daily and clearly on how to get things done correctly. My Dad kept 2 Vietnamese employees for over 10 years and I know that he still is in contact with Vin, since Vin started his own dental lab.

No one taught my father accommodation back then – he just started doing it, figuring this is the best way to get the work out on time and keep good people.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Fascinating story, Gabrielle – and it made me wonder if pidgins develop because of some kind of mutual accommodation process. That is to say, had your father and his Vietnamese assistants been marooned on a desert island for ten years, would their language use have blended to the extent that, while maximally intelligible to them, it would have been unintelligible to an outsider? An interesting thought experiment (and not one I’m suggesting you should implement!!)

6 01 2013
Luiz Otávio Barros

“It was intriguing to notice that the children adopted ‘English with a Spanish accent’ when talking to my Italian husband, but immediately switched back to ‘pure English’ when addressing us native English speakers.”
Sarah, wonder if, during pair and group work, students switch into “interlanguage minus one”, so to speak, and how this sort of attempt at peer-peer symmetry affects long-term acquisition.

7 01 2013
Sarah Emsden-Bonfanti

Good questions, Luiz. One of the earlier commentators mentioned Krashen and his theory of comprehensible input plus one. Even though the empirical evidence to support his theory is lacking, it is still hermeneutic to think of language acquisition as such. And so to your suggestion of “interlangauge minus one”… Maybe that is the theoretical underpinning for teachers mixing stronger/weaker students when working in pairs. Does the stronger student accommodate the weaker? My hunch is that they probably do.
To address your second question on its effect on long-term language acquisition, if we were to stick with Krashen, then I suppose that these efforts to accommodate the less able would have a positive effect on the accommodator’s affective filter. (Doesn’t it always feel good to know that someone else is less able than you, and that you can help them by ‘adjusting down’ even if you are not ‘fully able’ yourself?) This might then motivate the learner/accommodator, and therefore aid long-term acquisition.
Or is something else going on? Comments??

7 01 2013
Luiz Otávio Barros

Interesting, Sarah. Hadn’t really thought along the lines of how the accommodation process might have a bearing on students’ affective filters – at both ends.
Guess I was thinking more in terms of how the weaker students’ faulty interlanguage might fail to provide their “more capable peers” with the sort of raw material for interlanguage restructuring that they need. I guess I share Rod Ellis’ fear that many “communicative” classrooms across the globe (where pair and group work often make up 60%/70% of classroom time) may not be the best places for acquisition to take place because of the amount of ongoing exposure to faulty interlanguage (often without corrective feedback).
And after reading this post / thread, it hit me that maybe students’ (still faulty) use of English during pair/group work is further affected by their (more or less conscious) desire to accommodate their peers. Some years ago I asked a student why she didn’t self-correct at all while working in pairs but used perfect English during the report-back phase and you know what she said to me? “I’d feel like Sheldon Cooper (the know-it-all nerd from Big Bang Theory) if I did that while talking to a friend. With you it’s a different story”

6 01 2013
Kathy

Ahh, so nice to have this meaty post and so many tasty comments for Sunday breakfast! Welcome back, Scott!

My family moved around a lot when I was growing up and I always thought my habit of accommodating was based on that experience. In fact, sometimes when I catch myself trying on a Yiddish-style tone of voice, or a Southern twang, I feel a little embarrassed and try to tamp it down. I guess there’s such a thing as being too accommodating.

So, maybe there’s also such a thing as not being accommodating enough. My learners are in an ESL context. Just two days ago, we had a conversation about the difference between what they learned at school in their home countries (“correct English”) and what one of them heard in everyday speech recently — perfectly natural spoken English that I would have used myself. I think that, while they are noticing such differences (excellent!), some learners may not be giving themselves permission to imitate what they’re hearing because they see it as incorrect. We did talk about having the ability to switch registers (not with the jargon, though!) and how it could be helpful. It may not be necessary to teach learners *how* to accommodate, but there’s benefit in “reminding them of what they already know” (thanks to John Fanselow for the phrase) and encouraging them to experiment with it.

6 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kathy – and so nice to be back in contact. Your point that ‘It may not be necessary to teach learners *how* to accommodate, but there’s benefit in “reminding them of what they already know”’ is elegantly made – and perhaps that’s what ‘teaching accommodation’ is really about – that, and giving them ‘permission’.

7 01 2013
mrchrisjwilson

You briefly mentioned ‘Mirror neurons’ I had just stumbled across them this week and what I read seemed to imply that they were active when observing something but made no mention to if they were active when listening. Could there perhaps be an implication then for a higher amount of video and face to face input rather than listening texts? (of course, the article I read may have just missed mentioning that ‘mirror neurons’ are active when listening as well as seeing.

To bemoan the British press, I suspect they wouldn’t have the same reaction if a foreign player came over and accommodated a regional accent.

7 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Chris – on mirror neurons (briefly, and my source is Iacoboni 2008, which I totally recommend if you want to pursue this line of inquiry) – yes, while the initial experiments on the ‘mirror system’ were exclusively with the effect that seeing an action had on the mind – e.g. seeing someone cracking a peanut activated the same brain cells in a monkey that were activated when the monkey cracked peanuts itself – subsequent experiments compared visual and aural stimuli: “The results were clear and definitive: the mirror neurons discharged to all three experimental conditions. some did seem to respond slightly more vigorously for the “vision and sound” condition, but the “vision only” and “sound only” conditions also yielded robust mirror neuron responses. These results are very important because they demonstrate that mirror neurons code the actions of other people in a fairly complex, multimodal, and rather abstract way’. (p.36)

Iacoboni goes on to add that ‘the response of mirror neurons to auditory input is critical evidence in support of the hypothesised evolutionary link between these brain cells and language… The argument for mirror neurons as language precursors also stems from the subtle consideration that these cells, by coding both for your action and your observance of that action in others, seem to create a sort of common code — – and therefore a sort of “parity” — – between you and the other individual’ (ibid). Without that parity — or intersubjectivity — it would be very difficult to have conversations because we would never be able to even guess what the other person was thinking, or whether the other person knew what we were thinking.

7 01 2013
mrchrisjwilson

Thanks Scott, really interesting and brilliantly timed. (for me)

7 01 2013
eflnotes

great post as usual but i would strike a note of caution regarding mirror neurons since they are up for dispute e.g. see this article for general critique http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-myths/201212/mirror-neurons-the-most-hyped-concept-in-neuroscience
ta
mura

8 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mura – a useful corrective. Maybe mirror neurons are of the same order of hype as the left-brain/right-brain distinction. Nevertheless, theories of intersubjectivity – i.e. of how we can ‘get inside’ the minds of those we are interacting with – don’t necessarily depend on the existence of a neurological ‘mirror system’, nor on abstract ‘theories of mind’ – but might derive simply from the lived experience of our own embodiment, and from observing how this is experienced by others. At least, that’s what I’m reading at the moment! (And it is perfectly consistent with the kinds of accommodation Joey Barton exemplifies).

7 01 2013
Jane Purrier

so very pleased you’re writing the blog again, I had missed it. Such a joy

7 01 2013
Avi Darkbloom

Interesting discussion.

The kind of accommodation I use in the classroom, I notice can be quite different from in the ‘outside world’, as it were – particularly because I usually have chance to get to know my students more, over a period of lessons, than perhaps more frequent ‘chance’ encounters when traveling etc.

The classroom, in my opinion, tends to be a far more controlled and contrived situation, which obviously makes things somewhat more predictable and less uncomfortable for both the students in general.

7 01 2013
dilano71

Reblogged this on TEFL in Spain and commented:
Well, if the football doesn’t work out for Joey Barton, he could always take a TEFL course!

9 01 2013
Robin Walker

Good to see you back, Scott. I think we all missed you.

Teach accommodation rather than teach pronunciation? I can’t really agree with this. I’d say that we need to teach accommodation as an integral part of teaching pronunciation. As you know, I go into this in some detail in Chapter 5 of ‘Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca’, and Mark Hancock has written two very practical pieces on accommodation skills for pronunciation in the last two issues of ‘Speak Out!’, which is the newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group.

What is also important, I think, is to differentiate between receptive and productive phonological accommodation skills. At first it’s simpler to work on receptive skills by giving learners guided exposure to the range of accents that they are most likely to encounter; knowing in advance that someone you’re speaking to is likely to pronounce certain features of English in certain ways makes understanding them much easier. Obviously the make-up of this range of accents changes from group to group, but exactly it is easy enough for teachers to work out which accents matter for a given group by applying their local knowledge and experience.

Productive phonological accommodation is more demanding as you can’t accommodate beyond the inventory of sounds and related pronunciation features that you are able to produce at any one moment in time. But as learners become more and more competent, they will find that they can actively modify their own pronunciation to facilitate understanding for less-competent interlcoutors.

There is also a part of accommodation that ‘comes naturally’, provided you are a ‘willing interlocutor’. When I first arrived in Spain, with virtually no Spanish, the person I most enjoyed talking to was my father-in-law. He’d been forced to leave school at the age of 14 and to start earning a living driving the local bus (yes, I did say 14). So no schooling, but an intuitive understanding of the need to accommodate to my limited Spanish, and the natural ability to do so. Wonderful.

Robin

9 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Robin, for bringing the insight of an expert into the discussion (not for nothing did I use your own definition of ‘accommodation’!).

The distinction between receptive and productive accommodation is something I hadn’t thought of before. I’m going to have to go back to your book.

In fact, I just did – and I think you’re referring to Chapter 4 (not 5) where there’s a section entitled ‘Improving accommodation skills’. Here is included the excellent idea of having students (ideally from different L1 backgrounds) ‘giving dictations’ to each other. Robin goes on to suggest how mobile phones could be enlisted for the same basic idea – for example, leaving messages for each other which they then have to decode.

In fact, any truly communicative activity, such as describe-and-draw, will require that students negotiate a degree of mutual intelligibility, which will in turn foster accommodation skills.
Thanks, Robin!

11 01 2013
Laura Patsko (@lauraahaha)

Hi Scott,

Interesting reading! I enjoy this blog and am really interested in accommodation – it narrowly missed out on being the research topic for my upcoming MA dissertation, though I’m staying in the ELF field. But I digress.

I wanted to second Robin’s recommendation to check out Speak Out! (the Pron SIG newsletter). Hancock’s article in issue 47 is really useful for teachers looking for practical ideas. I also adapted/created and tried out some different activities with my students in prep for an essay I wrote earlier in my MA about the practicalities of ELF and the Lingua Franca Core in a multilingual classroom. One that worked well was Battleships, adapted to include sounds in the LFC. (The two axes of the ‘ocean’ are made up of minimal pairs containing sounds in the LFC, which students have to carefully articulate in order to find and ‘sink’ each others’ ‘ships’.) There are also some activities in Dictation (Davis & Rinvolucri, 1988) that can easily be adapted for student-student dictation.

Anyway, thanks for opening this topic up for discussion – and to everyone else for adding all the comments that I’ve enjoyed reading!

Laura

11 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Laura, for those references. I love the idea of the Battleships variant, and thanks for reminding me of the excellent Dictation. (I hope you don’t regret not researching accommodation now!)

9 01 2013
Nati Gonz'alez Brandi

Welcome back Scott and what a great thread of comments!
I’m particulary interested in Luiz’s comment regarding the teaching of this and I’ve come to think that discussing effective communication among non-natives and people who speak different varieties of English is something to bring up in the classroom. If you advocate the teaching of strategies, as things people do to cope with issues or to compensate for what they lack, then accomodation could very well be a speaking strategy (I’m not sure, just guessing here) And like whenever you teach / raise awareness of strategies, some people already do it naturally but you’re aiming this at the people who don’t and you want those who do it naturally to be aware of it.
A good awareness raising activity could be watching any of the videos you’ve posted and see how students would ask these people something or respond to them, would they adapt an accent? would they do it naturally? Would they even notice that these people are accomodating?
. I’ve read a lot about ELF and how they’ve suggested picking things from different varieties to speak something that can be more or less globally understood, like use a rhotic accent, but don’t use glottal stops, etc etc, but I think this could be a fascinating thing to discuss in class because it could even be treated as a communication strategy
Thank you again
Nati

9 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nati – your comment in a sense anticipated Robin Walker’s comment (above) and my response, since we all three seem to agree that teaching accommodation as a ‘communication strategy’ might be a worthy aim, especially for learners who will exposed to a wide variety of different accents of English, and that part of this teaching process involves a degree of consciousness-raising (e.g. using videos) and even ear-training.

9 01 2013
Jeremy Harmer

My English DOS (when i was director of a language school in Guadalajara, Mexico) was talking about a student, and she said:

“Or we could put him into the next level or we could make him repeat the semester. What do you think?”

What’s happening there? Accommodation to the local language? But we were both English ‘natives’. Pidginised English – because of living in Mexico? Or evidence of the beginning of an emergence of a new variety of English? For example (and a very tiny example it is), does any Spanish speaker of English use ‘homework’ as an uncountable noun? And (to pick up on your ‘being tolerant of accommodation’ point) do teachers correct Spanish speakers when they say ‘homeworks’?

If Accommodation is what happens when two languages intermingle, then maybe they start to influence each other, and a new and potentially stable variety (of English, for example) begins to emerge. Mexican English anyone?

Jeremy

9 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Jeremy. I have to confess I had to read your ‘spanglish’ sentence twice before I got the point – which is testimony to the fact that my own grammar has accommodated to Spanish, perhaps (‘o + clause, o + clause’). The point was made earlier that code-switching, too, may be a form of accommodation, as is pidginization – it’s starting to look as if accommodation is a much bigger issue than simply accent-mimicry.

11 01 2013
antiqueensenglishsociety

I like Robin’s point – that accommodation strategies, in practice, are sometimes strategies (rarely in my humble view) and are often instinctive human tendencies, AKA behaviours… But I am very curious about the whole non-native / native dichotomy upheld here. As far as I’m aware, all skilled communicators accommodate. Much literature characterises the native speakers, of English especially, as jumping to ‘foreigner talk’, or as asking others to speak our way while maintaining our own identities normally. Considering the academic scholars who uphold that, I can’t think of a further reaching false-stereotype. Everybody accommodates – it’s human.

I also wonder how we could broaden the account of Barton’s linguistic behaviour if we reject the distinction between languages as a myth (as Roy Harris, Canagarajah and Makoni & Pennycook). Does Barton become seen as learning and adapting to systematic meaning making in a new ecology (to use van Lier’s terms RIP) – where integrated semiotic symbols and performances create AND HAVE social meaning. Why is there an assumption that some of the signifiers he articulates here don’t have signifiers in his ecological environment, even if he is speaking ‘English’. Essentially, the root of accommodation theory is the root of language itself.

11 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that fascinating comment. Yes, I think that I was trying to suggest that accommodation (whether a product of the brain’s neural mirror system or not) is a universal characteristic of human communication, and not just one between ‘natives’ and ‘non-natives’. The scare-quotes there defer to your next point about the questionable ‘unitary’ nature of languages – a point that I’m going to save for a future blog, if you can bear to wait! ;-)

11 01 2013
antiqueensenglishsociety

I am bearing… Thank you for your reply! I look forward to future posts.

And I wasn’t suggesting, by saying “upheld here”, that you were upholding the NS/NNS dichotomy in your post, but that it’s present in the accommodation literature in contradictory ways. As you mentioned ‘foreigner talk’, which gets a lot of uncritical acceptance, I thought it worth mentioning! What’s really interesting is that when reading the psycholinguistic accounts of accommodation, there is an assumption held that native speakers can accommodate but non-native speakers, with their fewer linguistic resources, will struggle to do so – which fundamentally contradicts the accounts of accommodation elsewhere.

11 01 2013
robinwalker53

I completely agree that we need to be careful with the NS/NNS dichotomy (and in that respect with any sort of polar opposition – why can’t we see what we have in common rather than how we differ?). But I also think it’s true that if you have limited linguistic resources then you are going to struggle to accommodate to your interlocutors on that front, even if you successfully accommodate on others, such as speed of speech or non-verbal behaviour.

In that respect the ‘communicative burden’ (Lippi-Green’s term from her excellent ‘English with an Accent’) should lie more with the NS than with the NNS in EFL/ESL interaction. However, I suspect that lot of NNSs would say that this doesn’t happen as much as it should, and that the burden seems to be too often thrust on their shoulders. Flying back to Moscow a while back, I was sat next to a East-German based, Russian businessman from the food industry. He was bilingual Russian-German and he complained that his English worked perfectly everywhere in Europe except for the company base in Leicester, where he had the feeling that his UK colleagues seemed to use the NS English to weaken his position in negotiations.

Of course, sometimes NSs simply don’t realise that they need to accommodate to NNS interlocutors, as was shown by the work of Derwing & Munro in Canada, who identified lack of awareness of the importance of accommodation as being part of the communication problem that social welfare staff had when dealing immigrant clients. Derwing & Munro’s research was in terms of accent variation, but I think there conclusions could be made extensive to what Barbara Seidlhofer (I think) called unilateral idiomaticity. This I suffer in my own flesh when I go back to the UK, as my idiomatic English is locked in a time-warp somewhere back in the early 80s. But it’s intimidating to hear words spoken, recognize them all, and accept that you don’t know what’s been said to you.

By the way, for a great account of accommodation in general, and phonological accommodation in particular, go to Chapter 7 of Jenny Jenkins’ book, ‘The Phonology of English as an International Language’.

11 01 2013
Rob

I was, this very hour, about to suggest to ELT Dogme list subscribers that they select a blog post from A-Z and discuss it with colleagues, online or off, as a professional development exercise. This of course led me to see you’re back, Scott! Synchronicity strikes again?

So instead I’ve read all 66 comments here, which has reminded me how much I enjoy this blog, in large measure, because of the contributions and questions each entry engenders.

For what it’s worth, this Accommodation thread reminds me of previous post on the “Bad Language Learner”: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/b-is-for-bad-language-learner/

As has been stated, one who, for whatever reason, does not accommodate, might be viewed as a “bad language learner” by some, while admired by others for not sounding too _____ (insert any language).

As for “the interesting question as to why do some speakers exhibit greater sensitivity than others and/or why are some speakers able to make more accurate adjustments than others?”, I’d like to share two personal experiences that might help answer the question:

1. In a college German class, my cousin was told by his professor that if one could imitate a German speaking English, then one had mastered German pronunciation. That is, “If you can do a German accent in English your German will sound convincing. I didn’t speak German at the time, but I could do a better German accent than my cousin.

2. My friend/neighbor almost immediately, unconsciously, accommodates accents, as on his recent trip to Britain. He is not only an empathetic fellow, he also has an ear for languages (ie, he can imitate them well with ease). His partner does not, and had the hardest time with Spanish when she walked part of the Camino de Santiago, though she is certainly no less empathetic than her husband.

So is an ability to accommodate a physiological phenomenon for some, and a choice about identity for others? If so, how much will a learner who just doesn’t have “an ear for it” benefit from awareness raising about accommodation? Will one feel like a “bad language learner”, aware of what do to but no more able to do it?

Sorry if these questions have been addressed somewhere in the thread. Reading the whole thread at once might have caused me to miss something.

Rob

12 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Rob… part of the joy of blogging is the continuous engagement with folk like yourself, whom I’ve never met but feel i know so well!! It’s so nice to be back in conversation again.

Anyway, yes, there is a connection with ‘accommodation’ and good/bad language learning – although, after however-many comments, I’m starting to feel that there is a connection between accommodation and almost EVERYTHING! And/or there are three or four words beginning with A (I feel a talk coming on) that capture just about everything that there is to say about second language acquisition (and not one of them is acquisition!) I.e accommodation, affordance, affect, alignment, and appropriation…

Discuss!

12 01 2013
davidlindelt

Affordance. If my understanding of the literature is correct, affordances are opportunities to actually use the L2 in some sort of purposeful way. In this sense, as a learner of Spanish I have infinitely more affordances going about my daily business here in Madrid than I ever did in the Spanish classroom back in my native New York.

The challenge for the ELT teacher who does not work in an English speaking environment is to create these affordances in as uncontrived way as posdible, both in the classrooom, and (the greater challenge) out of the classroom. Dogme meets this challenge more effectively than any coursebook or preset syllabus.

12 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi David, thanks for commenting. Regarding affordances, I actually blogged about them here: A is for Affordance. And I agree, dogme does meet that challenge more effectively – IMHO. ;-)

27 01 2013
tankonyves

A rather peculiar side of accommodation for learners of English is making a telephone call. When you are ripped off of all the usual props and visual aids of a face-to-face communication, not to speak of a real eye contact, and you are left alone to focus on your listening and speaking skills in order to understand and be understood what you or your partner would wish to express, then it is quite a challenge to accommodate.
In order to set the scene for the coming encounter is to observe who your partner is on the other end: a man or a woman, young or old, the right person to fill your information gap, the person next to your target audience or simply a wrong number. (Should you call somebody in the US or in Australia from Europe, you should be aware of the time zones not to greet him/her with a heartfelt „Good morning!” if it is the middle of the night in LA or a late afternoon in Adelaide.)
The second phase of the interaction is quite dependent of certain cultural traditions: how much time you should waste on the warm-up activities or introductory small talk, when to dash into the essence of what you planeed to ask, and finally, when to begin (and how to start) closing the communication.
And, finally, don’t forget about the third phase of the interaction. To sum up and assess what you have just heard: when and which platform does the train leave, exactly when does your partner arrive at which airport, have you managed to book the right number of beds at the proper hotel, etc.
Not an easy task. Worth trying.

13 02 2013
Mumtaz Ayub

Hi Scott,

Great to see the blog back again. Just got onto it today; stimulating stuff! First time comment from me.

Your post made me wonder whether the results of instinctive accommodation could become fossilised and a barrier to communication in one’s native tongue.

I say this because of a chap I met in a village in Pakistan. He was there on holiday from Italy, where he’s been living for many years. He spoke to me in clear Punjabi but his mannerisms (hand gestures, shoulder and eye movements) were pure Italian! In fact, they were so pronounced (no pun intended) that they put me off what he was saying. I presume he had instinctively adopted these mannerisms to fit into his new life in Italy but now they seem to have become fossilised and an impediment to communication in his native tongue. This seems to support the idea of making learners explicitly aware of accommodation rather than leaving it to instinct alone.

16 04 2013
RadaSiva (@RadaSiva)

Hi, loved the write up on ‘accommodating’.
As far as I understand, ‘accommodating’ doesn’t have to do just with the prosodics, but with using expressions in the native language translated into English. Works wonderfully well. Gets the message across and facilitates teaching the right expressions to use!!

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