A is for Accent

1 10 2017

vivir-es-facil-con-los-ojos-cerrados‘Living is easy with eyes closed’, David Trueba’s 2013 movie, which I watched again on TV this week, is interwoven with references to language and language teaching. It is based on the true story of a high-school English teacher in Spain who, in 1966, manages to infiltrate himself on to the set of ‘How I won the War’, which was being filmed in a remote part of Almería, and persuade John Lennon to include the printed lyrics of songs in subsequent Beatles albums.

Apart from the teacher’s inspired use of Beatles lyrics to imbue his students with a feel for English, the film touches on other language issues too. At one point the teacher comments on the broadness of the accent of an elderly villager, who retorts, ‘No, I don’t have an accent. It’s them from Málaga and Cádiz who have the really broad accents.’

The perception that only other people have accents is, of course, a common one. So, too, is the view that some accents are ‘neutral’ or ‘slight’ or ‘faint’ – whereas others are ‘thick’ or ‘broad’ or ‘strong’. What this really means is that any given speaker’s pronunciation displays features that are either nearer to, or further from, the accent that the interlocutor is most familiar with. This could be the local one (as in the case of the man from Almería), or, more typically these days, the ‘standard’, where ‘standard’ is defined as ‘the variety that is normally spoken by educated people and used in news broadcasts and other similar situations’ (Carter, 1995, p. 145).

Significantly, the adjectives that most commonly co-occur with accent (according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English [Davies 2008-], and excluding for the moment names of languages – like French, Russian etc) are: thick, heavy, foreign, slight, strong, soft, faint, fake, lilting, native, clipped, funny, strange, different, good, charming and sexy.  Notice how value-laden many of these adjectives are. This fact serves to remind us that – for the ‘person in the street’ at least – there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ accent, in the sense of an accent that is value-free.

This was driven home this week by the appearance of a video on the BBC Website in which  a young Polish woman living in the UK is reduced, literally, to tears by the negative reaction her accent supposedly evokes among Britons – an accent that is hardly thick, heavy or funny, incidentally. Accordingly, she enlists the services of an elocution teacher, who promises to rid her of her accent once and for all. (The teacher’s exaggerated RP vowels and her manner of drilling them is reminiscent of Professor Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion, and the way he successfully erases the Cockney accent of Eliza Doolittle, and, in so doing, effectively erases her identity).

my fair lady 02

Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in the film of the musical ‘My Fair Lady’

 

What the Polish woman is seeking is what is marketed as ‘accent reduction’, which, as Jennifer Jenkins (2000, p. 208) points out, is predicated on a misunderstanding of what second language acquisition means, i.e. not subtraction, but addition: ‘An L2 accent is not an accent reduced but an accent gained: a facility which increases learners’ choices by expanding their phonological repertoires.’ And she adds, ‘Interestingly, we never hear references to “grammar reduction” or “vocabulary reduction”. No writer of L2 pedagogic grammars or vocabulary courses would entertain the notion that learners need to reduce their L1 grammar or vocabulary in order to acquire the L2.’

Of course, such arguments will probably not appease the Polish woman who desperately wants to achieve a kind of social invisibility. Nevertheless, they serve to remind us that our choices – as teachers, curriculum designers and materials writers – have a strong ethical component, as Bill Johnston (2003, pp 39-40) argues:

It is commonly known in our field that the English language includes a bewildering diversity of varieties, especially accents… The problem in the field of ELT is to know which of these varieties to teach. My contention that this decision is moral in nature– that is, that it is grounded in values — stems from the fact that… language varieties themselves are not value neutral. Quite the opposite, in fact is true: the different varieties of English are highly value laden. Accents are closely linked to the identities of  individuals and groups of people; to value one accent over another is, rather directly, to value one group of people over another.

Accent and idenity are inextricably interconnected. I wonder if ‘accent reduction’ courses would be quite as popular if they were re-branded as ‘identity reduction’ courses?

References

Carter, R. (1995) Key Words in Language and Literacy. London: Routledge.

Davies, Mark. (2008-) The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): 520 million words, 1990-present. Available online at https://corpus.byu.edu/coca/

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

Johnston, B. (2003) Values in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

 


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34 responses

1 10 2017
Jędrek Stępień (@mentalspl)

This is surely more a psychological problem than linguistic one. I was not allowed to watch the whole program as I don’t live in the UK, but from what I noticed from the trailer – the lady moved to the UK almost 3 decades ago, and only recently her Central-European accent started to bother her. It is quite surprising, especially if you notice that she’s probably well educated and definitely not a social outcast (house ful of books, piano, private tutor, etc.). You can also hear in between the lines that she’s affraid of gettin old and fragile, and not having anyone to look after her. Hence the insecurity and the desire to become “invisible”.

It is still an extremely interesting case. I even made a youtube film about it 🙂

2 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jędrek… I haven’t seen the full documentary either, but I tend to share your impression that there is more going on here than simply a pronunciation issue – but, with language there is always something more going on, isn’t there?!

1 10 2017
Ahlam

Thank you so much Scott for this analysis of the importance of accents. In fact, how people perceive a language speaker determines to a large extent his/her linguistic identity, most importantly the accent. It is very visible to be left unnoticed. Perhaps, it is an ID card to language users worldwide since we can guess someone is from India, from the Gulf, or from France simply because of their accents.

2 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Ahlam. I like the analogy: accent = (audible) ID card!

1 10 2017
James Chamberlain

In Memory, Meaning and Method, Earl Stevick demonstrates the importance of accent (or pronunciation) for personal identity with this story:

“One of my daughters, doing rather well in eighth-grade French, explained to me that she could have spoken French so it would sound like the voices on the tape, but she didn’t want to sound unacceptable to her classmates. This is an oft-related story in junior high school, but adults sometimes react the same way. As we reach maturity, we become part of groups of all sizes, some very small and others numbering millions of people. We depend on these groups as we establish and maintain our images of ourselves, and as we establish routines which protect us from the ravages of “overchoice,” and as we provide for our physical and economic security.”
(Stevick, 1976, p. 52)

I find the phrase “the ravages of overchoice” an interesting counterargument to Jennifer Jenkins’ claim that “an L2 accent is not an accent reduced but an accent gained: a facility which increases learners’ choices by expanding their phonological repertoires.” Quantitatively, Jenkins is certainly right, but perhaps not every learner is affectively disposed to rejoice in even more choices (especially if they have a clear idea of how they would like to sound when speaking L2).

2 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the quote, James. Hedgecock & Lekkowitz (2000) report a study which showed that the need for peer acceptance among learners studying French at a US university caused them to ‘underperform’, accounting for poor oral production. Students produced ‘deviant forms’ of the language in order to achieve ‘covert prestige’. Another study (Kissau and Wierzalis 2008) confirmed that pronouncing French accurately is not considered ‘gender-appropriate’ behaviour by male adolescents.

Has anyone noticed a similar phenomenon in English learners?

Hedgecock, J, & Lekowiz, N. (2000) Overt and covert prestige in the French language classroom: When is it good to sound bad? Applied Language Learning 11/1.

Kissau, S. & Wierzalis, E. 2008. Gender Identity and Homophobia: The Impact on Adolescent Males Studying French. Modern Language Journal , 92/3.

1 10 2017
James Quartley

It is not inconceivable that someone speaks the ‘prestige’ accent form in their L1 (thinking of Labov’s description) and wishes to acquire the same sort of accent in the L2, which would be consistent with their notion of their identity. As far as reduction, doesn’t this happen in L1 grammar by suppressing L1 grammar interference in the L2 or false friends in L1-L2 vocabulary. Listening to the desires and goals of learners and adapting/revisiting them, as their proficiency increases, seems to be the best way to navigate the question of accent.

1 10 2017
roberttaylorefl

Hi, James,

You touch on an interesting point concerning perception of ‘prestige’ accent, or the notion of ‘prestige’ in language in general. The idea that each language or language variant has an acrolect is, of course, commonly known. Implications of this are, perhaps, less uncontroversial. Arguably, what is acrolect in one variant is basilect in another. In the case of the Polish woman, to maintain that she wants English prestige to go alongside her Polish prestige is to maintain that prestige in her native language is below acceptable standard in her L2 (assuming English is her L2). That is, basilect is in the eye of the beholder.

Approaching language this way, where acceptability and appropriacy are subjective and relative, gives power to the detractors, I feel, and the right to one’s language, one’s identity, becomes context-dependent: your Polish accent is acceptable in Polish linguistic communities, but now you’re in an English linguistic community, it needs reducing.

Perhaps another way to approach this would be to consider what is prestige for the speaker, and if this concept lacks validity, what makes the concept of ‘prestige for the listener’ any more valid? That is, what precedents are being set when the linguistic outsider is obligated to integrate, but the community itself isn’t expected to compensate or mediate? Maybe a staleness of languages, maybe segregation, maybe reduction of identity.

2 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, James – regarding your second point, yes, I have to admit that this occurred to me, reading Jenkins – although we don’t think of ‘suppressing L1 interference’ as ‘reduction’ so much, and, indeed, the negative connotations of ‘interference’ are avoided by substituting the term ‘transfer’ instead.

As regards your first point – about learners’ aspirations, Timmis (2002) surveyed a large number of learners in 14 different countries as to their attitudes to native-speaker norms and found that the majority preferred learning from native-speaker models, and that ‘this desire is not necessarily restricted to those students who use, or anticipate using English primarily with native speakers’. He concludes that ‘while it is clearly inappropriate to foist native-speaker norms on students who neither want nor need them, it is scarcely more appropriate to offer students a target which manifestly does not meet their aspirations’ (p. 249).

Of course, these aspirations may be unrealistic for other reasons such as a lack of time or aptitude, especially for adult learners studying non-intensively in their home country.

Timmis, I. (2002) ‘Native-speaker norms and International English: a classroom view. ELT Journal 56/3.

1 10 2017
jeremyharmer

Funny! I was thinking of just this topic a couple of days ago in Lima when a Peruvian teacher said to me (in Spanish, and about Spanish), roughly translated…well the thing about us Peruvians is that we don’t have an accent like those Argentineans and Chileans.’ I managed to refrain from giving him a lecture along the lines of your post! This was probably a good thing….or was it? How do we know when to engage with misconceptions like that? A taxi driver taking me to the airport engaged me with a ‘dicho’, ‘modismo’ which i won’t repeat here, but which was patently racist. So should I have taken issue with him – or, since he was driving somewhat erratically – was I right to retreat into my own thoughts on the topic. The accent thing – and the frequent comments about it – is difficult to know when to engage with…..

2 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jeremy. The temptation to lecture taxi drivers on matters of sociolinguistics (not to mention race) must be repressed at all costs!

1 10 2017
Justin Willoughby

I’m not sure if this is entirely about accent, but recently in class I have started using the “Dialogue build” activity mentioned a few months ago in one of Scott’s posts about speaking where the students and I develop a conversation together on paper. I kind of reformulate the utterances to make them sound more “native-like” and then the students practice reading the text aloud. I then get the students to identify and mark features of native speech like allophonic variation, stress, etc. in the text and they read aloud again , this time implementing those features in their own production and I tell you what, there Spanish accent does markedly fade and they do sound a lot more native. As a follow-up to this, I get the student to pull out useful phrases from the dialogue and use them in mini-conversations and unscripted role-plays, putting careful attention on the native-like pronunciation.

2 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Justin… and that’s exactly the kind of activity that can support pronunciation learning – where the learners’ attention on grammar and vocabulary is temporarily ‘parked’, and they can concentrate on fine-tuning their speech. Of course, as in all things, the challenge is in transferring what they have practised to spontaneous, real-time speaking, where – as often as not – their attention is redirected back to the ‘bigger’ issues of choosing the best syntax and lexis, and pronunciation ‘goes out the window’.

2 10 2017
Justin Willoughby

Thanks Scott. That’s true. The fine-tuning speech part goes very well and it’s very motivating, but the second part where I try to get the students to use some of the phrases from the dialogue in freer, unscripted kinds of mini-conversations is when the students get stuck, as they do have to focus on other things apart from articulation. I still believe it’s useful to learn ‘chunks’ though, it’s probably just slow going from presentation to appropriation. Practice makes perfect according to cogntive skills theory.

1 10 2017
Josephine

I feel for the Polish woman in the article. But if it is any consolation I as an English teacher having lived abroad for 50 yrs in many countries and myself as a native speaker have been corrected by English co-nationals about where the accent should be placed in certain words like “innovation” and “rhetoric”, and would question whether it is an issue.
Perhaps words that have either Latin or Greek origins should have more flexibility in their pronunciation given their provenance. Should we teachers not be concentrating more on CONTENT rather than standard pronunciation as Naom Chomsky ponted out in his Bronx analysis?

3 10 2017
James Quartley

Yes, I’ve given up dealing with /ˈɛksɪkjuːtɪv/ in place of /ɪɡˈzɛkjʊtɪv/…among other syllable stress variations. Worn done by years of hearing the former, I just accept it as acceptable variation.

1 10 2017
Heidi A. Karow

I sometimes played a clip from “Singing in the Rain” for my young, college-bound EAP students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3OkXi5osfU

It always got a good laugh.

I love accents, as long as I can understand the other person. People who sound “native” are usually excellent mimics. In everyday life, is that really so laudable? I love that someone very articulate like Fareed Zakaria (CNN) retains his accent.

Incidentally, there is variation in one’s ability to hear another’s accent. I am not referring to how these accents are evaluated… just their detection. There are too many reasons for this to be disccussed as a comment.

2 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Heidi, for that great clip! And you’re right, the ability to mimic (related to musicality, and ‘having a good ear’) is a real plus when it comes to language learning – although, as is pointed out elsewhere, there also needs to be a willingness to ‘make a fool of yourself’ by ‘going over to the other side’ – accent-wise.

7 10 2017
Adam Poludniak

Provided aiming at excellence can be equated with “making a fool of oneself”…

2 10 2017
Vera N

Scott, thank you! It’s very topical for me. I am Russian, and of course I have some accent. Though I have been trying to reduce it, like that Polish woman, since my Univeristy time. A lot of native speakers told me I had pretty neutral accent. However I just always try to imitate the speaker. After talking a couple of hours with someone I can imitate his accent.
Once I applied for a job as an online ESL teacher. It was Chinese company. I had an interview and was rejected. The reason was: “You have an accent”. But who doesn’t?

2 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Who doesn’t, indeed, Vera? We all have accents, and all accents are equal but some – like Orwell’s animals – are more equal than others!

3 10 2017
Jeff Buck

Hi, Vera. I’ve seen ads for EFL jobs in China indicating that they didn’t want teachers with strong accents, meaning native regional accents, e.g. Boston, Southern US, etc. So, this issue can affect both NTs and NNTs, unfortunately.
In my university EFL department here in Korea, I work with dozens of colleagues from all over the world. Yet, with very few exceptions, students speak with their L1 accent, meaning, in my experience, adults don’t seem to copy the accent of their teacher, at least in an EFL environment. I was helping one of my students after class the other day and noticed that she had a bit of a British accent. I didn’t say anything about it, but she told me that she had studied with British teacher when she was 5-6 years old.

6 10 2017
Vera N

Dear Jeff, thank you!
Truth! They don’t copy the accent even if we want them to. Maybe children, because it’s in their nature. They imitate different sounds, animals, people. So they can imitate an accent as well.
However my experience taught me that imitating someone’s speech is the best way to learn pronunciation, intonation and connected speech and to become fluent in English.

6 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Vera – this is what is sometimes called ‘the shortfall principle’, i.e. that in teaching pronunciation, the target is rarely attained and adult learners in particular fall short of it. Not just pronunciation, either, of course!

2 10 2017
patrick

Re my fair lady.

A former colleague, an ethic Russian lady from Crimea, studied the accents in My Fair Lady as part of her BA in English in Crimea. Now that’s rigour!

She went on to do a PhD in English (in English), and is fluent in 5 languages.

Although she’s UN interpreter level of fluency in several languages she prefers to teach children English in a village school.

By the way, I tend to see Eliza Doolittle as adding an identity, or expanding her identity, rather than losing one.

2 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Nice story, Patrick. And, yes, the post-modern view of identity is that it is not fixed and one-dimensional, but fluid, multiple and a site of struggle. Hence Eliza may well have been able to accommodate two (or more) identities, each one with its own accent, and indeed, in one memorable scene she inadvertently ‘identity-switches’ (by analogy with ‘code-switching’). However, I think part of the point of the play is that her real identity has been usurped, and she feels that – in the end – she is neither one thing or the other – a state called by psychologists ‘anomie’. But I don’t have the play to hand (or the movie of the musical) to check these intuitions!

2 10 2017
shahram

A great topic!
Identity formation within the social view has also been discussed in language acquisition and learning. It is believed that nonnative speakers in an ESL setting go through a convergence process which means that the individuals make an attempt to assimilate their behavior, ways of life, and language ( including accent) to identify with the target group. In contrast, some nonnative speakers may diverge from the norms of the target group to retain and defend their original identities by investing efforts to learn the language very well and use assertive discourses. In this sense, individuals are the “subject” of rather than the “subject” to discourse (Ellis, 1997).

2 10 2017
Svetlana

Hello Scott,
Thank you for your wonderful thought-provoking Sunday brunch reads. It might be difficult to believe but just last week I used exactly the same episode from ‘My Fair Lady’ for the workshop on phonology with my trainees. By the way, I was using some of the activities from the second edition “About Language”. My intention was to demonstrate different techniques on how to improve one’s pronunciation in order to sound more intelligible, more aligned with your interlocutor and just more polite towards them. That’s it. ‘My Fair Lady’ is one of the most romantic love stories on the screen. You can’t just ruin it by saying that Eliza was deprived of her identity after going through the training. It’s heart-breaking, seriously! 🙂 Does getting some schooling mean losing one’s genuine identity initially based on their spontaneous life experience (Vygotsky’s term)?

Yet, I completely agree with you that one’s accent is part of one’s identity. Roman Jakobson (thank you for the thrilling post on this Russian-born linguist and the Prague school) was said to have preserved a heavy accent after years of living in the States. One possible explanation is that upon his first arrival in the States in June 1941 he was given a very cold shoulder by some local linguists (Halle M. The Bloomfield-Jakobson Correspondence, 1944-1946). So his accent was meant to indicate his purposeful striving to dissimilate.

But the Polish woman you are referring to can’t be blamed for creating a demand for an accent-reduction course. She is striving to assimilate with the local community. And the latter can’t be blamed for rejecting her with her heavy foreign accent. She might be viewed as an intruder. So if there is a demand, there should be a supply. Wouldn’t it be a challenge to create some universal techniques enabling students to adjust their pronunciation to any accent for better mutual understanding? Not just the ear for receptive understanding but for their oral production, too?

3 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks once again, Svetlana, for your great comment. It’s clear I’m going to have to re-read Pygmalion/My Fair Lady!

As for this: ‘Wouldn’t it be a challenge to create some universal techniques enabling students to adjust their pronunciation to any accent for better mutual understanding?’ Let me quote Ian MacKenzie (English as a lingua franca: Theorizing and teaching English, Routledge 2014) to this effect:

‘It appears that there are, and will be for the foreseeable future, multilingual English learners and speakers… who believe… that ignoring inner circle standards means “narrowing one’s range of competitiveness.” Their identity as plurilingual subjects does not depend on retaining an L1 accent in their other languages, although of course they may do this unintentionally).… There are also English learners (though no one knows what percentage this is) who are uninterested in native norms and who despair at the linguistic behaviour of monolingual NES’s [native English speakers] in international communication, and who may indeed consider their L1-influenced accent to be an identity marker.… But with any luck (or if language teachers pay heed to ELF research), they may also have acquired pragmatic strategies that enable them to overcome any pronunciation deficit’ (p.135 – 6).

2 10 2017
roberttaylorefl

I’ve been thinking about the idea of identity and typed up a blog post about it (though I’m not the best at maintaining my train of thought)

https://roberttaylorblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/can-we-identify/

6 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Robert – a nice read.

7 10 2017
patrick

As a matter of interest Scott, I’m assuming your accent must have undergone some change or changes. From your own personal experience how did you feel about that with regard to your own identity?

8 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Interesting question, Patrick. Without being able to compare recordings of my accent then and now (all other variables such as field and tenor being controlled for) it’s difficult to say. One thing I do notice now is that when I go back to New Zealand I have to work hard to accommodate my accent in the direction that the NZ English accent has changed since I lived there, if I am going to be accepted as a bona fide NZer. I was at a conference in Christchurch a few years ago and during the initial meet-and-greet, a woman asked me where I was from. I said ‘Rotorua’, truthfully. ‘Not with an accent like that, you’re not’ she retorted.

16 10 2017
Nick Roberts

I always reasure my students that in a globalised world accents are something to be proud of.

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