Pronunciation versus Accent: Why it Matters for ESL Teachers

Picture this: You and your friend meet someone for the first time and have a conversation with her. She speaks a little differently from you and your friend.

Now imagine scenario 1: When you finish the conversation and the woman leaves, your friend says this to you:

Where do you think she’s from?

Now scenario 2: the woman leaves and your friend says:

What was she saying? I couldn’t understand most of it.

To me, this is the difference between accent (scenario 1) and pronunciation (scenario 2).

If you’re a language teacher, you should focus on improving your students’ pronunciation, even if they say they want to speak with an American/British/Australian/whatever accent. Hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll be able to convince your students to focus on improving their pronunciation and accept, maybe even embrace, their accent.

But first, a fun video:

 

How much could you understand? If you’re proficient in English, I’m sure you’re able to understand almost all of it except for the few foreign languages she throws in. That’s why this video is called “21 Accents” and not “21 Bad Pronunciations.”

Comprehensibility

Some students (and teachers!) often think that if your pronunciation in the target language is “close enough”, you’ll be able to get by.

If you’re only interacting with people who are familiar with your pronunciation of that language, such as your friends, classmates, and teacher, that might be true. But if you really want to use the language to communicate effectively with new people and express yourself on a wider scale, clear pronunciation is so important.

The key is comprehensibility. If no one outside of a small group of people know what you’re saying, then you have bad pronunciation.

Bad pronunciation is different from an accent.

We’ll come back to this distinction. But first we have to understand what’s acceptable as an “accent”.

Variations Among Accents of English

A few jokes (from Reddit):

Q: Why are there only 239 beans in Irish stew?

A: Because one more, and it’d be too farty.

Get it? Or have you already heard this joke about turdy times?

So what’s going on here, aside from me mildly insulting the Irish?

The difference between “Two Forty” in American English and some types of Irish English is one vowel sound, which (hilariously?) alters the meaning for an American hearing this joke.

And the followup potty humor? In some types of Irish English, the theta sound is replaced with a t sound.

Additionally, r sounds can also vary among accents.

So to sum up, these are the phonemes (sounds) that cause the greatest differences among accents of English:

  • Vowels
  • “r” sounds
  • “th” sounds (theta and eth)

What counts as “bad” pronunciation?

Almost sounds not on the list above are non-negotiable.

For example, if you can’t pronounce an /f/, /p/, or /v/, it’s a problem with your pronunciation, not with your accent.

Again, the key with pronunciation is comprehensibility. If I say “bery” instead of “very,” the meaning changes and I won’t be understood.

But it’s not just phonemes. Stress patterns and intonation in English are just as important, if not more important, than individual sounds. There is tons to teach about the topics of stress and intonation, and research about those phenomena is still ongoing.

I’ll share one quick example of why it’s so important:

One of my students was saying what I thought was “for a place” again and again. In the context, it made no sense.

Then he showed it to me written out: “Fireplace”

His stress was all wrong (firePLACE instead of FIREplace) and it severely impacted the meaning.

Stress and intonation are important for good pronunciation, and their rules do not change from accent to accent. They are non-negotiables as well.

So once your students have their phonemes, stress, and intonation down, it’s time to…

Embrace the accent

He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner…

-Lady Ottoline Morrell about Joseph Conrad

English was Conrad’s third language, after Polish and French, and despite having a strong accent, he was still able to impress someone pompous enough to be named Lady Ottoline Morrell. (He also wrote, among others, Heart of Darkness, a classic of English literature, in his third language. But that’s beside the point here).

I think it’s important to remind students that having an accent is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you speak clearly. In fact, it might be more productive to get students to embrace their accent. Accents are cool.

When I was younger, I lived in a university town filled with lot of educated people from all over the world. Once, a professor from a West African country (I was in middle school, and I can’t remember which one it was) came to talk at our school. Before he began his eloquent speech (about something I’ve also forgotten), in his accent, he said to our class:

“I know I don’t speak like you. I don’t want to speak like you.”

That really shocked me as a kid growing up in central Illinois and it’s obviously stuck with me.

Not everyone has to talk the same. As long as you’re being understood, your accent shouldn’t matter. In fact, why not take pride in it?

Thanks for reading.

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Many of my ideas on this topic were informed by Wayne Dickerson, my professor during my master’s in TESL and a pronunciation teaching god.

Featured Image Credit: Alan Turkus

4 thoughts on “Pronunciation versus Accent: Why it Matters for ESL Teachers

  1. I started to learn English when I was eleven, so English is my second language. I didn’t like English for many years probably because I found it so hard to understand. Why? Because no one ever taught me how to pronounce it. Later in life, I came to love English because I started to read books I was interested in that were written in English. I decided to take up English by myself, and gradually I became better and better, until I decided to go to England to improve my speaking, and above all my listening. I fell in love with England and English people, and instead of staying there for one month as originally planned, I stayed there for… twelve years and a half! Due to economic hardship, I had to leave England to go back to France, where I took the CELTA. And now I am teaching English as a foreign language in China. Although I do have a slight French accent when I speak English (one of my friends told me I had a “left-over”), I can speak very good English and really enjoy teaching it. To many non-native speakers, I sound English. To any native speaker of British English, I sound French. Yet I don’t think it matters because I have a clear and correct pronunciation. On the other hand, I do have to correct my students’ pronunciation, because otherwise fat sounds like fight or fit, have sounds like how, etc. So thank you very much, Kris Wingo, for that clear and intelligent analysis of the importance of making a distinction between accent and pronunciation. I can’t agree more with you. Everyone is entitled to have their own accent, but everybody should strive to acquire a good pronunciation. It is true that there are pronunciation differences between British and American English, but there are few and native speakers are consistent in those differences, so you learn to recognise them quickly, therefore they don’t hinder communication. So thank-you again. It is the first time I have heard someone sharing the same opinion as me on this point. I think it makes really sense to avoid both the extreme of wanting your students to sound like native speakers at all cost as well as that of not teaching them pronunciation at all.

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