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?


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.


P is for Personalization

12 02 2012

Childhood tragedy?

In his novel, The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst (1994) recounts how the protagonist, a young Englishman recently arrived in a Belgian town, sets himself up as a private English tutor. One of his pupils suffers from asthma, and our hero idly asks him if he knows how he got it.

“I didn’t quite make the story out at first, I was chivvying him and making him repeat words without knowing I was taking him back, like some kinder and wiser analyst, to the scene of a childhood tragedy” (p. 20)

Inadvertently uncovering childhood tragedies is one of the risks of what has come to be known as personalization: “When you personalise language you use it to talk about your knowledge, experience and feelings” (An A-Z of ELT). Personalization has connotations of self-disclosure, even confession. But it hasn’t always been so.

Long ago...

When I first encountered personalization it was of the type: “Write 5 or more true sentences about yourself, friends or relations, using the word ago“.

This is taken verbatim from Kernel Lessons (O’Neill et al. 1971), one of the first coursebooks I taught from. The fact that the sentences had to be ‘true’ was regularly ignored or overlooked by both teacher and students. The point was not to be ‘truthful’ but creative. Creative and accurate.

This little personalization task invariably came at the tail end of a sequence of activities whose rationale was the learning and practice of a pre-selected item of grammar. The personalization was really just a pretext for a little bit of creative practice, as well as serving as a first, tentative step towards translating the language of the classroom into the language of ‘real life’. I don’t recall ever having used these carefully contrived sentences as a conversation starter, and certainly never uncovered any childhood tragedies (that I was aware of). In fact, in Kernel Lessons this ‘transfer exercise’ was relegated to the Homework section of the book, thereby obviating any potentially awkward moments in the classroom.

But very soon personalization was re-invented, not as a form of language practice, but as the context and stimulus for language learning.  Within the humanist paradigm, where the ultimate aim of education is self-actualization, teachers were urged to ground their lessons in the lives, experiences, and feelings of their learners:

In foreign language teaching, we customarily begin with the lives of others, with whom students may not easily identify, and then expect students to transfer the material to their own lives.  However, transfer to the textbook is easier when the content starts with the student himself and then leads into the materials to be learned… Let the students first discover what they can generate on the subject from their own personal thoughts and feelings.  By drawing on their own experiences and reactions, the transfer to the textbook will be more relevant and more apparent.

(Moscowitz, 1978, p. 197)

Personalization, as we have seen, is not without its risks, and it’s arguable whether assuming the role of analyst – wittingly or unwittingly –  isn’t exceeding one’s brief as language instructor.  Yet there is a general acceptance in the profession that these risks are worth taking, and even teachers who don’t susbcribe one hundred percent to a humanist philosophy tend to think that personalization is ‘a good thing’. And, of course, basing the content of the lesson on the experiences, interests, desires and even fears of the people in the room also happens to be a core principle of the Dogme approach.

But, irrespective of whether we think it’s good for them, do learners actually like it? Do they like being quizzed about what they or their relatives were doing 10 days/months/years ago? Do they expect it? Do they see the value of it?

...and far away.

All the more reason, therefore, to ask whether or not the theoretical underpinnings for personalization are well grounded. Hence, I’ve been looking outside the (arguably too narrowly focused) domain of humanistic pedagogy for other sources of validation. Recently, research into the way second language learners are ‘socialized’ into communities of practice has shed new light on the notion of personalization, even if it’s not named as such. Bonny Norton (2000, p. 142), for instance, concluded her study of immigrant women in Canada thus:

Whether or not the identities of the learner are recognised as part of the formal language curriculum, the pedagogy that the teacher adopts in the classroom will nevertheless engage the identities of learners in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways.  It is only by understanding the histories and lived experiences of language learners that the language teacher can create conditions that will facilitate social interaction both in the classroom and in the wider community, and help learners claim the right to speak.

From a related but more ecological perspective, Dwight Atkinson (2010) argues that language learning is a process of adapting to a social-cultural-linguistic environment, in which meaning is distributed throughout the system rather than being locked into individual minds, and that what learners pay attention to – what they notice – is that which is potentially important to their integration and survival:  “What really matters to a person – what is adaptive – is what gets attended” (p. 35). Arguably, by foregrounding ‘what really matters to a person’, personalization both motivates and scaffolds these adaptive processes.

So, how do we accommodate the need for personalization into our classes? And – more importantly – how do we deal with learner resistance to it?


Atkinson, D. (2010) Sociocognition: what it can mean for second language acquisition. In Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollinghurst, A. (1994). The Folding Star. London: Chatto & Windus.

Moskowitz, G. (1978). Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: gender, ethnicity and educational change.  London: Longman.

O’Neill, R., Kingsbury, R., & Yeadon, T. (1971). Kernel Lessons Intermediate. London: Longman.

I is for Identity

13 06 2010

In one of a series of moving articles in the New York Review of Books, the historian Tony Judt, terminally ill with motor-neuron disease and reflecting on his life and work, admits to a feeling of never having had a narrowly defined sense of identity —  whether geographical, political or religious.  There is no single social grouping that he strongly identifies with. But this is not a source of anxiety. On the contrary:  “I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another”.

Having myself lived most of my life “on the edge”, one way or another, I share something of Judt’s preference for  rootlessness. I’ve lived twice as many years away from my country of birth as I ever lived in it. And, despite having been granted Spanish citizenship, I don’t feel a strong affinity for my elective new ‘home’. (The test may come if New Zealand and Spain face one another in the World Cup!)  On the downside, however, this reluctance to forge an alternative Spanish identity probably accounts, in part at least, for my less than native-like fluency in Spanish.

Because, as I point out in An A-Z, the notion of identity has now moved to the very heart of second language learning theory.  As Norton and Toohey (2002) argue: “Language learning engages the identities of learners because language itself is not only a linguistic system of signs and symbols; it is also a complex social practice in which the value and meaning ascribed to an utterance are determined in part by the value and meaning ascribed to the person who speaks” (p. 115).  Becoming a member of what Lave and Wenger (1991) term ‘a community of practice’ assumes the capacity – and willingness – to identify, and be identified, with the  members of the target group (and, by extension, to relinquish membership, even temporarily, of one’s own group).

In fact, a post-modern gloss of Tony Judt’s condition (and of mine) is not that we have no identity but that we have multiple – and often contesting – identities, and it’s the business of the second language acquisition project to find a match between an existing identity and the target one.  This at least is the thinking that underlies the concept of ‘the ideal L2 self’ as promoted by Zoltan Dörnyei in his compelling new theory of motivation: “If the person we would like to become speaks an L2, the ‘ideal L2 self‘ is a powerful motivator to learn the L2 because of the desire to reduce the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves” (2009, p.  29). But being an ‘edge person’ means that this ideal L2 self is elusive.

In the absence of having the identity of a real or potential L2 user, one possibility might simply be to manufacture one. This strategy, at least, seems to underlie the practice, in Suggestopedia, of assigning learners new, L2 speaking, identities, including giving them new names and biographies.  Larsen-Freeman (2000) comments that this is based on the assumption “that a new identity makes students feel more secure and thus more open to learning” (p.82).

Olivetti Oh, my Second Life avatar

More recently, the construction of an idealised identity is at the heart of computer gaming and of virtual environments such as Second Life (SL). My avatar in SL (see picture), for example, allows me to interact there in ways that  – arguably – out-perform my ‘real life’ personality.  Does online identity creation offer advantages to language learners, then?

James Paul Gee would argue most emphatically that it does. In his book What Video Games have to Teach us about Language and Literacy (2007) he suggests that, by allowing gamers to customise their virtual identities, video games “encourage identity work and reflection on identities in clear and powerful ways” (p. 46). Such identity work is crucial, he claims, since “all learning in all semiotic domains requires taking on a new identity and forming bridges from one’s old identities to the new one” (p. 45). Video games and virtual environments would seem to offer learners the opportunity to design ‘ideal language-using selves’.  The question remains, of course, as to whether these games and these environments provide the kind of language-using opportunities that these ideal selves can usefully exploit.


Dörnyei, Z., and Ushioda, E. (eds.) 2009. Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self. Multilingual Matters.

Gee, J.P. 2007. What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2000. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2nd ed.) OUP.

Lave, J., and Wenger, E. 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. CUP.

Norton, B., and Toohey, K.  2002.  ‘Identity and language learning’.  In Kaplan , R.  (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics.  OUP.