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.