You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to…English accents are a funny thing. When it comes to English accents in the classroom, there are a few different issues at play:
- What English accent should I use in the classroom when teaching English as a foreign language?
- What English accent should I teach my EFL students?
- How do English language learners learn English accents?
First things first:
What English accent should I use in the EFL classroom?
First of all, let’s get one thing clear: every single person who speaks a language has some kind of accent. You are probably familiar with the differences between American English and British English but it’s more complicated than that. Did you know there are between 20 and 40 different English accents in Britain alone and approximately 25 accents in the United States? And we haven’t even started counting the English accents from the rest of the world!
This means that no matter where you come from, you will naturally have some sort of accent when speaking English. What does that mean when you are a teacher of English as a foreign language? The most important thing is that you speak naturally, with whatever accent you have. There is no right or wrong accent.
In a nutshell, it doesn’t matter what accent you have, as long as you speak clearly and intelligibly.
What English accent should I teach my EFL students?
The aim of all of our learners of English as a foreign language is to be able to communicate in English. However, there is debate among teachers as well as students as to what the “best” English accent is. For the most part, if you ask that question you could expect the answer to be British English or American English – depending on if you’re asking a British or an American teacher!
All over the world there are many teachers who believe that the British Received Pronunciation accent is best. RP is historically the English of the Queen or King of England; it’s also known as BBC English.
Should we be teaching the RP accent in our EFL classroom?
To believe that RP should be the only accent our students are exposed to in the classroom is outdated, unrealistic and a disservice to our students. There is nothing that makes an English accent from one part of the world better than that from another, or indeed better than that of a non-native speaker.
What’s more, our English language learners are more likely to be speaking English to other non-native speakers than native speakers, so they need to be able to understand and be understood by other learners of English.
Bear in mind, your school will dictate which English you will be teaching. If you are teaching in Europe, you’re likely to be teaching British English, but if you are teaching in parts of Asia, they prefer to learn American English. This means the materials you use will reflect the English being taught.
We’re not saying you need to fake an accent if you don’t have the same one! But, you need to make your students aware of your accent and how it may differ from speakers with other accents. You should include listening activities which expose your students to other accents, especially the more common accents, and any accents you know your students will be exposed to. When it comes to teaching and practising pronunciation, you should focus on issues which affect intelligibility.
How do English language learners learn English accents?
Teachers are models of the language they are teaching. Our students pick up – intentionally or not – the common phrases we tend to use, and our accents. In a nutshell, they learn an accent by hearing and accent, and practising the pronunciation taught by the teacher.
If you have experience teaching EFL learners, you may have noticed that some learners will pick up a neutral accent quite quickly – in other words, it’ll be difficult to identify where they’re from – while others will keep a very strong native-language accent regardless of the amount of pronunciation work they do. This is even common in more advanced students.
Well you may be relieved to hear it’s not a failure on the part of the teacher!
Instead, there are a lot of variables which relate to the learner which will determine how strong their accent is.
Firstly, the age of learning. The younger you learn a language, the more likely you are to develop a native accent. This is known as the Critical Period Hypothesis.
Then, length of exposure. The longer you are exposed to the language, the more likely you are to exhibit native pronunciation – though this obviously differs from learner to learner.
On the other hand, accents are a part of a person’s identity and this may play a part in maintaining a so-called foreign accent. Some learners may feel that losing their accent would feel like they are losing their identity in a sense, so they will continue to speak English with an accent.
Basically taken altogether what this means is that while some students may never lose their accent when speaking English because they only started learning the language when they were an adult, some others may never lose their accent simply because they don’t want to.
To be sure, if a student wants to reduce their accent, there are a number of techniques and pronunciation activities they can do to accomplish this, though it is possible they may never reach their target. Plus there are activities for specific language pronunciation difficulties learners from different language backgrounds can do to eliminate any particular issues which may cause incomprehension or misunderstanding.
However, the focus should never be on speaking with an accent of a native-speaker. Because, really, what is that? The focus instead should be on making sure our learners speak clearly enough to be understood when they are communicating in English, and to be able to identify and understand the different types of accents in English they may hear.