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Pronunciation skills: What accent should I teach?

Type: Article, Reference material

ELT Pronunciation expert Adrian Underhill addresses your practical concerns on accents, RP and student identity.

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Practical concerns


What accent should I teach?
I suggest you teach your own accent. Whether you are a native or non-native speaker, teach the accent that you speak. Tell your students there are many English accents around the world, and that you will expose them to some through the course materials, the internet and movies, and they can try them out too. Having fun with accents means having fun with pronunciation and gaining confidence.

What about Received Pronunciation (RP)?
Although RP is a minority English pronunciation, spoken in the South East of England, it was for historical reasons selected as a prescriptive model of English in teaching materials. Those historical reasons are changing, and it is now better to treat RP as a point of reference and not as a preferred pronunciation target. Certainly RP has widespread intelligibility, but so do many other accents. The American English ‘equivalent’ is known as General American (GA).

So, what is the best pronunciation target for my students?
The aim is not that they should sound like a native speaker, nor that they should adopt a specific accent such as RP. Rather, the aim for your students should be comfortable without difficulty or distraction, and when they listen they can comfortably follow what different speakers are saying.

Map of world

This means two separate pronunciation targets: a speaking/productive one and a listening/receptive one. The speaking target can be slower and perhaps more careful and the listening target requires the student to follow more rapid speakers with different accents and differing clarity. For example, a student can say What’s the time? but needs to understand others saying wostime?.

Should students keep their own accent?
We don’t need to tell students to lose their own accent because we all have an accent. We should help our students to speak and listen with comfort and confidence and enable them to discover that they have the capacity to develop and change their pronunciation in the direction of any accent, if they have the interest and will. The important thing is that they discover that they can learn new pronunciations, be understood, and enjoy it.

Won’t changing my students’ accents change their identity?
We do not want to undermine a student’s sense of identity if that is connected with their pronunciation. But, nor do we want to hide behind identity as an excuse not to show students how to change their pronunciation and adopt the accent of their choice. I don’t think I have ever had a student in my class who was not excited by the discovery that they could change their pronunciation and then change it back if they wished!

Practical ideas for the classroom

1. Teach your own pronunciation, and be upfront about it.
Tell the class about your own pronunciation of English (whether you are native or non native speaker) and get students to demonstrate different accents of their first language. You can do this with monolingual and multilingual groups. Make it clear that you give no greater value to one variety or another and that different accents exist in English throughout the world and within single countries. Invite them to name and imitate some major English accents.

2. Expose your students to other accents of English whenever possible.
Constantly expose your students to short clips of different accents through course materials, online resources and accents of other teachers in the school. Expose them both to well-known global varieties of English for example accents from the United States, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, etc and to local accents of English from anywhere in the world for example in the UK this could be a Devon accent or an accent of someone from Liverpool or Edinburgh.

Invite them to notice and play with the differences between accents. The more they do this with their voice the more they will educate their ear to hear the distinctions when listening to different accents outside the class. Here are some YouTube videos you might like to use.

Twenty one accents https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UgpfSp2t6k

One woman, 17 British accents https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyyT2jmVPAk

Fun tour of American accents https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NriDTxseog

3. Be playful with different accents
The best way to notice different accents is to try saying the different pronunciations. Get your students and yourself to do this playfully, and with pleasure. Encourage students to listen to the differences and above all enjoy it. If you the teacher joins in and experiments, you can relieve the anxiety and grow an atmosphere of creative exploration and fun in which there is laughter with each other, not at each other.

David and Ben Crystal have a website at http://www.panmacmillan.com/book/bencrystal/yousaypotato which consists of people round the world saying the sentence “This is how I say potato and I come from …” Your class could listen to the differences, and add their own. 

4. Practise sounds and words, but then immediately join them up
Help your students to practise individual sounds, but then ensure they join the sounds up into words, and join the words up into connected pieces of speech. A good tip is this: The right words in the right order is not the same as correct. When doing grammar and vocabulary exercises in class it is easy for the teacher to say good when you hear the right words in the right order. But it is not actually ‘good’ until it has the best connected up flow and clarity that they can manage at that moment. Students notice how it brings the language alive when you require this and you will quickly raise the standard in your class. Using a smart phone you can get students to practice recording and listening to their own versions of a connected up sentences that you are practising in class.

5. Aiming for comfortable intelligibility
Tell your students that a core aim in learning English is ‘comfortable intelligibility’ when speaking or listening. This is important as it gives an overall standard for progress. To develop the ability to listen to rapid speech, get your students to imitate, and practice bits of rapid production. Not because they need to speak quickly themselves, but because this helps them to listen quickly. The mouth educates the ear. I tell my students “I don’t expect you to speak rapidly, but you still have to listen rapidly”.

 For more practical ideas see my blog www.adrianpronchart.wordpress.com

Accents and the L1 grip

The interactive phonemic chart

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Hi bartonim,

    Thanks for the feedback. That's a very good point - being understood and comfortable are key, as is setting realistic objectives for students (aiming for their own level of excellence rather than striving to mimic native speakers at all times).

    We do have authentic audio and visual examples of native and non-native speakers in our Live from... series (see below) and students can focus on specific areas of pronunciation with our series of videos by pronunciation expert Adrian Underhill:

    http://www.onestopenglish.com/skills/listening/live-from-authentic-interviews/

    http://www.onestopenglish.com/skills/pronunciation/pronunciation-skills-with-adrian-underhill/pronunciation-skills-accents-and-the-l1-grip/

    Hope these help and let us know what your students say in relation to the point about identity.

    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • Good article! I've always tried to encourage students simply to be understood and comfortable, but if they are good at and enjoy pronunciation in a variety of accents, they are free to do so.

    One thing I tell them is that they are not, nor will they ever really be, native speakers of English as I am, but they can be excellent English speakers nonetheless. There are very good speakers of English around the world who grew up with a different language, and often put some native speakers to shame with their English! It's probably useful to use audio and video examples of such speakers, particularly not from the students' cultures. This will demonstrate how 'world English' can be interesting and encouraging for students!

    The point about identity is very important; I will emphasize that more in my lessons, definitely!

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