The "right accent" in English
The Good to Great English newsletter and podcast, volum 8 for intermediate and advanced learners of English
I hope you’ll forgive the hiatus … but I am back with good news! English is a language that has a high tolerance for non-standard accents, especially compared to French or Japanese, for example. This takes pressure off budding speakers of English, up to a point. But let’s start talking about our tolerance for accents.
Accent and our tolerance for ambiguity
Both speakers and listeners have different attitudes towards foreign and non-standard accents. Those demonstrating high-tolerance attitudes are less critical of deviations from the norm and, interestingly, less bothered by ambiguity (a consequence of deviating from the norm, whatever it may be). Unsurprisingly, multilinguals also show greater tolerance towards ambiguity, either because of their confirmed language skills- or perhaps, because they have a higher threshold for ambiguity which may contribute to their willingness to learn more than one language.
Justifiably, a lingua franca—an international language that connects and enables communication across the world—cannot be focused on “the right pronunciation,” “How did I sound?” or “That’s not how we say it…”. Although the international English-speaking community isn’t quite giving non-native speakers the green light for “anything goes,” it does indicate that meaning and understanding are generally placed above accent and pronunciation.
The power of tolerance towards ambiguity
I will address accent bias another time—we all know cases where individuals have been very much held up by accent and pronunciation (as a speaker and/or as a listener). Yet, there are nearly twice as many non-native English speakers as native English speakers in the world, proving that, in practice, people persistently use English to get their message across, all around the globe.
French, on the other hand, has a lower threshold for ambiguity. This topic definitely needs an article of its own … but in the meantime, I’d venture to say that:
The Académie française is a French board that issues the rules on good and proper usage of French—while English tends to admit its international character and does not impose a single authority to decide what’s 105% proper and what isn’t.
French has more grammar traps than English does, which means more opportunities to sound “wrong.”
The sound of the spoken language is less forgiving in French than it is in English. What does that mean for speakers of English?
All these factors combined increase the power of English as an international language.
But there’s still a “good accent,” right?
A tool is still a tool whether it works for you, or not. You’ve changed a flat tire (with a jack) and regularly manage to hang your favorite painting on the wall (with a hammer), but have failed to fix the washing machine, the latter because the hammer and jack were useless and, at any rate, you didn’t have the right the skills to do so. In the same way, a “good” English accent is part of your English toolbox. You use it well although it depends on the 5Ws: who, what, when, where and why. Who are the speakers and listeners, what is being conveyed, when and where, and for what purpose.
In my nearly twenty years of teaching English, I’ve come to believe that the “right accent” the one that serves your needs and gives you enough satisfaction, or even fulfillment.
English serves a purpose to the 743 million non-native and 378 million native speakers of English worldwide: it enables us to communicate beyond borders. As a matter of fact, would you believe that 4% of all English conversations in the world today take place between native speakers of English? Let me reformulate, 4% of conversations in English involve only native speakers. The remaining 96% of conversations are shared between non-native speakers of English or a combination of native and non-native speakers of English.
Wouldn’t you agree that this kind of diversity makes it increasingly difficult to talk about the “right accent”? The better questions are:
Does English serve its purpose (in my professional and social life for example)? Does it serve my needs?
If not, why and how can I fix that?
First, let’s see how teachers and researchers break down and explain “accent”. Remember, if you want to “squash your enemy”—meaning that you feel like your accent is your enemy and hurts your overall skills—a deeper understanding of what it means will help you overcome such hurdles.
Accent, intelligibility, and comprehensibility explained
A mouthful, isn’t it! On a good note, this jargon means that native accents are overrated.
Accent is what we hear when you deliver your message. As a listener, I’ll note that it’s native or non-native, or something I’ve heard before, or not. I’ll define it by country, region, continent, nationality, and so on. I might find it esthetic, or less so. Accents are a series of sounds and patterns (this kind of R or L, long and short sounds, word stress, speed of delivery, rhythm, etc.). Interestingly, music changes those patterns because the singer defers to the stronger pattern that comes out when the rhythm, the tune and the lyrics come together. You might sound like Lady Gaga as you sing her songs but lose her American accent when the music stops.
Intelligibility is how much I understand your message. I might not be able to understand the lyrics of a song because I can’t make out certain words or phrases. I’m sure you’ve found yourself listening to a song and wondering what the singer said. What happens when the lyrics are too loud, too soft, garbled, too fast or words are stressed differently, and you just don’t get it? You may frown (with anger, frustration, impatience, or boredom). Then, you may either switch songs or replace unintelligible words/phrases with something more familiar that fits the music. We react the same way in conversation. More than that, we further lose tolerance, especially when expecting skill or expertise from the speaker, or if we are expected to respond well. This lack of understanding is terribly frustrating and results in feelings of inadequacy.
I might find your accent or pronunciation difficult to understand because I can’t convert your words into sounds I know or can relate to. They are unintelligible (to me at least). But it would be wrong to say that non-native accents act as a communicative barrier.
Subgroups such as native French speakers speaking English understand themselves better than other groups who need to get used to what characterizes an average French accent. Keep in mind, it’s even attractive to keep a cultural “je ne sais quoi” instead of unsuccessfully mimicking the Queen of England or Barack Obama. Unfortunately, there is less tolerance for perceived accents of speakers from some English-speaking countries such as Scotland, Kenya, or India.
Intelligibility is both a hindrance and a tool to wield with grace; proper training for both speakers and listeners increases mutual comprehension. Remember that intelligibility is dynamic and relative: the listener’s skill or bias plays a hand in settling on what is intelligible or not.
Comprehensibility is defined by the effort it takes for a listener to understand (to comprehend) your message. Like a reading comprehension exercise, we are looking for meaning. When learning a second or other language, we learn sounds through listening and speaking, we put sentences together, expand our vocabulary, test new words and strive to communicate and be understood. From the tourist to the academic, we desperately seek understanding, our message needs to get through.
Culture, education, context, needs and much more influence how we structure our message and determine its reach. The bottom line is that accent—even a perfect accent—does not ensure understanding.
This should be a relief for learners and speakers who feel obligated to duplicate native speaker pronunciation. Yet it also shows that communicative barriers and pathways are complex and relative.
Remember, the first goal of communication is functional: get that message through to your listener(s). Admittedly, getting there, especially as we seek more in-depth communication, is a road littered with doubt and dissatisfaction.
The feeling of “not good enough” touches everyone
Our fear as listeners is “not getting it” and being viewed as incompetent, slow or even immoral, simply because the message didn’t through. As much as clarity empowers listeners who then choose how to respond, seeds of dissatisfaction grow when something obstructs understanding. This insecurity can grow to fearsome proportions, especially when responding becomes next to impossible, inevitably casting doubt on our skills or values.
Common speaker fears include: “Is my accent ok?”, “How do I sound?”, or “Did I use the right words?”? This translates as: Do people understand what I’m saying or am I losing credibility? This sense of insecurity is even worse if you read and write better than you speak—you almost feel like you have to earn the right to speak—you’re taking up people's time.
As successful speakers, the more invested we are in feeling good about our speaking and pronunciation skills (rewarded by peer response, better relationships, increased sales), the better and more fluently we speak. Positive reinforcement.
Don’t forget that speaking is a physical act, too—better command of your mouth, tongue and throat muscles in tandem with ear training, lead to improved speaking (and listening) skills. Why? You’ve identified your enemy—that awful “R” dare I say—and through listening and speaking practice, you learn how to fix that issue so that your pronunciation works on your behalf.
Is your message getting through?
Effective communication is fulfilling! Professionally, this is especially true for entrepreneurs and the self-employed whose line of work and values are often intertwined, for better or for worse. Delivering a speech or persuading a potential client to learn more or make a purchase validates entrepreneurial raison d’être. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true and compounded when English is yet not at the entrepreneur’s service.
I am shamelessly giving a plug for the English Fluency Sprint—a 4-week intensive English course this July—because it tackles “not good enough” through intensive practice in natural situations: we’ll be networking in English and getting peer and teacher-led feedback, in addition to running live lessons and providing fresh interactive online content every day.
The English Fluency Sprint is effective, measurable—there is a definite before and after effect—and only takes four weeks to make a difference. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, get the programme and see for yourself!
Thanks for reading, or listening, and see you next time.
Oh Yes, Languages and more!
University of Michigan Press, Pronunciation Myths - Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching, by Linda Grant et alia.