In this article, Ed Pegg talks about how to help your students understand different accents in a business context.


How can I help learners understand different accents?

As most business English students are learning English to take part in commercial conversations, it’s not surprising that they experience wide varieties of English and have to deal with many different accents. If you’re not familiar with accented speech, understanding it can be tough, but how can we help our learners better understand the different accents they face at work?

Here are some tips to help your learners understand different accents:

1 The more you listen, the easier it is

It’s common for learners to complain about a particular accent, but there’s little evidence that any one accent is more difficult to comprehend than any other. Although the language ability of the individual you’re talking to will have a major effect on intelligibility, the accent itself need not cause problems. The more familiar learners are with an accent, the easier it will be to understand. Therefore, the best thing you can do to help your learners is to ensure they’re regularly exposed to the accents they need to understand at work.

2 Do it yourself

It’s critical that learners listen to challenging accents frequently, but it can be difficult to find ELT material with accents. Most coursebooks focus on native speakers or have actors imitate other accents. These are unlikely to help learners, as they lack authenticity. As a result, you will have to do a lot of the work yourself in finding video and audio featuring accents and preparing worksheets.

To do this, first find out the specific accent(s) your learners most commonly listen to and think about sources you could look for.

General websites that are suitable for business, where you can find many speakers with accents, include and the World Economic Forum site. If you’re looking for more specific accents, ask your learners for the names of companies they deal with and search them on the video page of google. You’ll be amazed at what you can find.

In order to keep motivation high, make sure you choose achievable clips. You may want to start with celebrities or politicians, who often have an Anglified version of the target accent. Although this won’t necessarily help learners deal with the accents of their counterparts, it will ensure they can complete the task and gain confidence.

Sports stars, particularly Formula 1 for people in the auto industry, are great. You have competitors from all over the world, and they all speak excellent English but also retain many features of their native accent. Most of the clips are about two minutes too, which is a great length.

3 Practise listening first

Once you’ve got the clip, you’ll need to prepare the worksheet. Focus on listening and understanding the speaker. The initial part of any lesson on accents will not differ greatly from a typical listening lesson.

First, set a gist listening task to allow learners to gain a general understanding of the clip. Then set a more detailed listening task using comprehension, true or false questions or another suitable task.

Don’t forget vocabulary. Think about the words learners may struggle with and either teach these before listening for lower ability groups or concept check them afterwards for higher groups.

Once you’ve used the clip to develop general listening skills, you can go on to exploit it specifically for accents.

4 Raise awareness of differences in pronunciation

When focusing on the accent, listen carefully to the clip and note any pronunciation of specific words or sounds that are representative of speakers from the specific country. If you’re not sure what to look for, consult Learner English by Michael Swan, where you can find pronunciation issues for most nationalities.

For example, if you’re focusing on Brazilian speech, you could look for the tendency to pronounce /d/ as /ʤ/ or of adding /i:/ on to the end of plosive sounds like /k/ so that ‘bank’ becomes /bænki:/.

Once you have found between four and ten features of the accent, write these items on a worksheet and ask learners to listen to the items and say what they hear. Then ask learners how they would say these items. Finally, ask them to identify the difference between their pronunciation and the pronunciation of the target accent.

Be careful to make sure that the features you select are generic to speakers of that country and not unique to the speaker you’ve chosen.

5 Encourage patience

If you repeat this activity regularly, learners will begin to recognize the words being said and will become able to compensate for any variation in pronunciation. However, this is not a quick process, and it will take several months before learners feel any noticeable difference in understanding.

But the process does work, and if they keep at it the accents will get easier to understand. Keep reminding learners that it takes time, praise any improvement, however small, and make sure you keep tasks achievable.

If you do that, your learners will soon be conversing with people they thought were impossible to understand just a few months earlier.