Do You Have an Accent?

That’s the question asked by Professor Joseph L. Mbele, who is from Tanzania but teaches English at St. Olaf College in Minnesota (USA).

The answer is yes. Everyone has an accent. I have an accent when I speak Chinese or Japanese, but I also have an accent when I speak English. The way you speak even your native language is determined by your family, where you grow up, your education, etc. I speak American English, of course, but my speaking is affected by my Californian parents, my Midwestern relatives, being raised in the South, and so forth.

Professor Mbele also asks this:

Why should someone with a proper Nigerian or Ugandan accent be pressured to speak like an American? Why should someone with a proper Jamaican or British accent be pressured to speak like an American? In Africa, no one asks foreigners to speak English like Africans: the British speak with their own accent; so do the Indians, the Australians and others.

You can read “Do You Have an Accent?” at The African News Journal. I highly recommend reading it yourself.

Anyway, happy New Year!

5 thoughts on “Do You Have an Accent?”

  1. Personally, I see no harm in accents as long as people can understand what you’re saying. However, depending on the type of employment you may want in the future, it could matter. We’re not as classist in America as people are in the UK, but a lot of people still look down their noses at folks with accents that sound “less educated.” If you’re hoping to work in law, government, news broadcasting, customer service, hospitality, etc. it could make a big difference if you have a more neutral English accent.

    Working here in Beijing, the majority of English teachers I’ve met are from California, Michigan, and Canada. Not sure why California and Michigan are the top US states represented here, since people from many others also have pretty neutral accents, but the perception in Beijing seems to be that people from these places have the accents that they want Chinese folks to learn.

    I wonder if my students have picked up on my slight Walla Walla, WA accent too? “Y’all” and “dang!” to name a couple. :-)

  2. As much as I wish it were true that having a strong foreign accent would not be a problem in the US, I feel it is my duty as an English teacher to prepare my students for the reality they will encounter. And the reality is that as things stand right now, many Americans have great difficulty understanding people with strong foreign accents. So if I don’t teach my students to pronounce English in a way most Americans will understand (i.e., as close as possible to a standard American accent), they will encounter difficulties communicating with Americans, are more likely to encounter prejudice against immigrants, may have greater difficulty obtaining desirable jobs, etc. I want my students to have the best possible opportunities, so it behooves me to give them the language skills that will improve their chances, if I can.

    I don’t want to be part of, or help maintain, a system that devalues immigrants and is prejudiced against them, but I feel that I cannot in good conscience make my students martyrs to my sense of justice, encouraging them to maintain their native accents when doing so will likely handicap them in the US as it currently is.

    This is an issue that many in the TESOL field struggle with, getting accused of pushing assimilation and accommodation, because we train people to sound more American, and often teach aspects of American culture. I have no desire to try to make my students become more American, but I do feel a responsibility to my students to help them achieve their goals, and that often means speaking more like an American.

    To try to counterbalance that, I do my best to let them know that their native language and culture are valuable, and that I encourage them to speak more like Americans only for practical reasons, not because it is “better”.

    This is an important issue for all people who work with immigrants to think about. Thanks for bringing it up!

  3. I think it depends on the situation. Many international English learners will only ever speak to other non-native speakers. There’s no need to push these learners to imitate any particular accent. I think general comprehensibility should be the goal, except in certain cases where a speaker needs to copy a particular accent for one reason or another.

    I disagree (in a friendly way! :) ) that students need to speak as close as possible to standard American accents in order to be understood by most Americans. A person can have a fairly strong accent and be completely comprehensible–and as for people reacting with prejudice, those people will react the same way to a slight foreign accent as to a strong one. (For that matter, many of those people will react the same way to a speaker who has no accent but who has a “foreign” name or appearance–some studies show people reported lower comprehensibility when listening to a taped lecture if they were simply told that the speaker was Chinese and shown a photo of an Asian man, compared to the *same* tape with a Caucasian name and photo.) So I think there is little teachers can do to remove this kind of problem–it doesn’t lie with the speakers, but with the listeners.

    I do think it makes sense to work on a standard American accent for people who want to work in customer service positions in the US or other high-interaction careers (lawyers, teachers, etc.); that goes for native-speaking Americans who have strong regional accents, too. But for nearly all learners, this process will literally take years.

    That’s the other reason that I think emphasizing accents too much is harmful–because accents are among the most difficult things to change for adult learners. Beyond the point of comprehensibility, changing a person’s accent is something that takes years of immersion. Most of the research I’ve read indicates that focusing on accents in class, particularly specific sounds that aren’t vital for comprehension, is generally a waste of time. It can also backfire in that adult students are generally already painfully aware of their accents, so working on them explicitly for a long time with little improvement is likely to decrease their confidence in speaking. (On the other hand, intonation and stress patterns are useful to work on, to a certain extent.)

    Anyway, of course, none of us can solve this problem ourselves, and there are definitely issues to consider on all sides of the question. :) At any rate, the important thing is to think about it as teachers and learners.

  4. Accent is something that students of 2nd languages always worry about. After 16 years of teaching (and learning 2 other languages myself) I’m starting to think that it is mostly because they don’t want to appear ‘different’ or sound ‘strange’.

    I always encourage my students to focus on comprehension 1st. Can someone understand you properly or not? If not, then you’ve got a problem you need to work on. It may be pronunciation, but it could just as easily be word order, vocabulary use, grammar, lack of cultural knowledge and other things.

    There are good tools that students can use either online on via computer to help with pronunciation/enunciation issues. I’ve discussed quite a few of them – and other issues too – on my blog about Computer Assisted Language Learning

    Lots of good points made by the others above too.


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