mercoledì 21 maggio 2008

Which accent and why bother?

Since the staff development session I've found another interesting pronunciation blog (there really aren't that many). It was a link that John Wells left on his blog (Monday 19 May 2008). It is a response of sorts to a very common question from some uncommon teachers working outside of the Anglosphere. The question of which English accent will be most useful was posed to John Wells and the discussions that follow are great and do a lot to inform future staff discussions as to which accent to focus on teaching and why bother with any specific accent. Mr. Wells gives the answer that I believe holds the most water in any student's life experience in English: all accents. That is of course putting too fine a point on it. Check out his blog for the first time on this entry 19-05-08; you won't be disappointed. He recommended this as well. I do whatever he says. He Is the great He Is. Enjoy.

A link for PhonetiBlog is listed to the right. Watch out for the wacky spelling; the guy says he writes as HE pleases, but I've come across all HIS reduced spellings before. I think he should be proud of conformism on a level that minute. Not everyone's got it. Power to the pedant.

giovedì 8 maggio 2008

For Clear Communication

For a person with limited exposure to English or to those with plenty of exposure but who have plateaued, the study of pronunciation is an excellent choice to improve both speaking and listening skills which is where students usually disappoint on skills testing and real life.

There are many understandable ways of expressing yourself in English. Ones that aren’t understandable aren’t English. They don't need native accents but they don't need errors either. But when it comes to listening they do need native like skill. A real understanding of pronunciation is all that can help them. Some have years of experience and some have a good ear the rest have teachers.

I would love to see students comfortably talking with their teachers about accents and assimilation, but the first step is knowing what all that stuff following the entry in their dictionary is... and someone has to tell them why it's there BEFORE the definition is. That's us. The teachers.

To do this I think wee we need to know more about the following:

The vowel sounds

Places of articulation

What an allophone is

What assimilation is and why it happens

More about Accents

Some essential sources

What to look at next

Interesting stuff for students


I'll keep updating this blog as I find more check back occasionally and send a comment to if you find a good source or interesting video for my students and me. I'll post them and put up your picture and give you a mention and make you famous and everything. Enjoy the weekend. I'll see you on Monday.


There is no specified target accent, the target is awareness.

Speech can be analyzed in many ways and phonetics is one of them. The International Phonetics Association is active though well over 100 years old. The Alphabet which it maintains, like the load of dictionaries it has been used in, changes.

It can describe languages in minute detail. It can be used in a more general way like a script for an actor or a page of music for a flautist. In those dictionaries it can only provide a valid blueprint for ONE native accent at a time. That accent is not mine. Nor is it yours. Nor is it perfectly described. By useing an IPA description of a British accent we are not using a perfect model. Nor should we expect to find a dictionary that describes our accent. Language is personal and pronunciation is more so. Telling someone they speak badly can often be the same as saying they are too poor to be understood or that perhaps they and their family are not acceptable.

There is no wrong accent or right one. Oxford and Cambridge take different views on the pronunciation of many words. Ambiguity exists and our students should not point this out to us. We should show it to them first and use this fact to encourage a real study of how English is spoken. To do this we must be able to describe what we hear too.

The goal is being more aware, not expertise... not yet

A solid knowledge of English grammar and structures may not be necessary for a child, but we all agree it is often an immense help to a thinking, adult student. The adult learner's ability to analyse and incorporate language patterns is a great advantage we must use while helping them improve. Instilling an awareness of pronunciation patterns is just giving them another skill, and it will be a process.

Pronunciation awareness, like an awareness of grammar, is a helpful, transferable body of knowledge
for an adult which can only benefit an analyst and user of a spoken language. They will be scared at first since grammar is often taught while pronunciation is taken for granted in elementary schools round the world. You may be their first teacher.

But there is a benefit in not knowing everything about it: your discoveries in this area will occur at the same time as theirs. It is just like when you started teaching new materials: at the beginning you didn't feel like you knew it all, but the classes still learned. And if you really enjoy languages it provides years full of discovery.

You must expect loads of suprises as you encourage students to trust their ears not your instructions. They will find flaws or "characteristics" in your accent which you may be unaware of. This will fill them with that revolutionary pleasure that comes from truely learning something... and besting the teacher. Let them soak it up. But when they start making those observations remember you played a small part. And the students next months will start making them even faster.

What studying pronunciation does

The symbol set we see in the dictionary is useful because:

  • It provides a vocabulary for students and teachers to discuss pronunciation phenomenon
  • It promotes a knowledge of the physical visual side of sound production so that students can construct the skills to make a new sound even if they are not natural mimics
  • It provides a level playing field between students from mixed language groups and abilities- a person’s awareness of pronunciation can always improve
  • It provides a structured way of finding, analyzing and resolving repeated pronunciation problems
  • It provides the basis for an acceptance of real, natural speech on a rational basis instead of a dictatorial basis
  • It can open students minds up to beauties of the ambiguity in song lyrics and poetry
  • It promotes an appreciation the validity of all accents including yours and mine
  • It will aid them in their study of a language as well as giving them insight into their own native accent and/or dialect
  • It shows the necessity of patience, acceptance when listening and involves them in a 100-year-old search for an international common ground.

This is a code used by linguists, actors, phoneticians, interpreters, anthropologists, singers, speech therapists, and us.

Our relationship with with this body of terminology helps determine our students’ level of comfort with it. I believe it is as necessary as the any other specialized vocabulary necessary for our work, be it grammar terminology, didactic terminology, TEFL terminology, IT terminology.

You can avoid it. But it is hard to improve as a teacher of listening and speaking skills without it. And it's harder for the student as well.

(Do you feel that shadow of guilt? Ah, my mother would be proud.)

Whose accent can we teach then?

Teach them their accent first if possible. I believe we need to be aware of how they speak first. But I have too many languages to learn to do that for Monday. Let's start with mine and yours: valid, current, understandable accents. You wouldn't and shouldn't be teaching English if you didn't get through an interview. If you did that you communicate clearly. Keep up the good work.

Each native accent is valid as long as it can be understood. Any accent at all is valid as long as ut is understood. A student really can approach a native speaker’s level of listening comprehension and confidence of new accents with exposure and training. For exposure the student needs travel and time and that's money. You and I should be able to provide a better alternative with training.

This blog is here to
help you find the tools which you and your students will need to start that training. I believe that one of many basic abilities needed in listening to any new language or dialect is the ability to differentiate sounds. To hear the difference between bear and beer. Maybe a student can't say them but if they hear them they really are more than halfway there. A phonetic alphabet is a tool used to note the sound differences by their means of production.

With training some aspects of the International Phonetic Alphabet become instinctive, but we all learn best with an interested teacher. I’m interested. And if you're reading this then obviously I'm in good company.

On RP and how I think it probably doesn't matter anymore

If we are going to deal with using "phonetics" in the language classroom we are going to have to put to rest a few things about the International Phonetic Alphabet(IPA, don't worry) always bothered me like:
  • Reason for the ambiguity between vowel sounds: the organic nature of the mouth.
  • Reason why the dictionary’s pronunciation is never going to be like yours: it describes someone else’s accent.
  • Reason why the owner of that voice probably doesn’t like that description of their pronunciation: it has been unsuccessfully “dumbed-down” so that we- non-experts- can appreciate it.
  • Reason why it is so complex: it was intended to describe every sound possibly made by the human mouth and can clearly show how accents physically come about
  • Reason why RP -received pronunciation- was chosen as the international model accent: it wasn't.
100 years ago RP, or something like RP, was described and studied first. It may have been the best English accent for clear communication then... according to now-dead people... who were technically amatuers... who lived in England... and who could afford to study languages... and travel... 100 years ago... But that is not an altogether great reason for my 9 o'clock on Monday.

RP is a "makey-uppey" accent and it IS dying out. It doesn’t threaten you. It doesn’t threaten me. It is DYING OUT. The accent is described (here in this school) in loads of dictionaries, but it needn't be prescribed to your students any more than my accent should. Yours and mine are not international standard accents. I don't think there will be an actual European/international standard in the future, but I don’t believe there is one right now.

There are clear accents and difficult ones. There are ones where most all English speakers can understand you without asking for repetition and one which require lots of tolerance and smiling and nodding.

Your average native English speaker can make themselves understood to other English speakers if they want to wherever they are from. RP is an accent which is fairly understandable, let's not quibble.

The sounds needed to make a good approximation of RP, an understandable English accent, have been passed down, adjusted and come described most learners’ dictionaries. I want us to enable the learner to approach the dictionary confidently for meaning and use of a word but for its pronunciation as well. This creates more competent learners and gives them the full value for the price of that fun colourful little book.