English, language, Learning & Education, Pronunciation

The Beauty of Accents

Gud afterrnuun. Wilcum to Norn Iron.

I come in PRAISE of accents, not to slate them.

Wait. Before you start shouting at me for vilifying the Northern Irish accent, let me state on record, that is one of my favourite accents in the British Isles. Together with Scouse and Geordie (for the uninitiated, people from Liverpool and Newcastle).

My wife and I recently visited Northern Ireland for the first time. The country was beautiful, the scenery breathtaking, the welcome warm and friendly, the people generous and kind. Everything I had heard and hoped would be the case. I was not disappointed. But to hear the Northern Irish accent, its rich tones and elongated vowels, its wonderful pitch from a lofty high to a guttural low, to hear the accent in situ, was magnificent. It made me want to just sit in Costa nursing a large cappuccino and listen to the soundscape around me, drowning in the mellifluous tones of that gorgeous accent.

You see, accent for me is an enhancement to place, a badge of identity and of belonging. A kinship and a sense of pride. The Northern Irish are a people with fierce pride in their homeland. Sadly, for a long period of history, a fierce pride that escalated to bloodshed, bombing, civil unrest and a very dark episode that left no one unaffected. Identity and belonging is an intrinsic part of the human make up. We all want to belong and we all want to be able to have and to share our identity. The people of Northern Ireland fought over sovereignty, over nationhood, whether to be part of a unified political state (Eire, Ireland, joining together politically with the south of Ireland) or to maintain its place within the United Kingdom, allied to Westminster and the government in London. But the one thing everyone in Northern Ireland maintained was their sense of identity and place. They were protestant or catholic, they were loyalist or republican, but they were all Northern Irish. Identifiable immediately from the deep brogue and pronunciation at odds with almost anywhere else in the UK (although perhaps closest to some Scottish dialects). And that accent, as with Scouse, Geordie, Brummie (Birmingham), Cornish, Welsh, Cockney (East London), Yorkshire, Lancashire, Glaswegian (Glasgow), East Anglian, Bristolian (Bristol), West Country or any other regional accent, are all things people are proud of.

Yet some people are embarrassed by their accent. Not because of where they were born, or where they grew up. Everyone around them would have had the same accent. It would have been the norm, nothing out of the ordinary. But branching out after leaving school or home to embark on a University education, a new job in a different part of the country, would bring them in contact with people who spoke with different accents. And who may perceive their accent as funny or odd-sounding, strange, difficult to understand, frustrating to listen to etc. Which is particularly unfair. Yet it is accepted that some accents are preferable and easier to listen to than others. The English ear has a tendency towards certain accents over others. Accents become stereotypes of personality and caricatures of the person, irrespective of qualification, personality or success. If I can summarize widely held opinions on some the major accents in the UK, the reactions to them tend to be;

  • Geordie – Newcastle = friendly, welcoming, open
  • Brummie – Birmingham = unintelligent, silly, comical
  • Scouse – Liverpool = friendly, funny, comical
  • Mancunian – Manchester = whiny, complaining, unfriendly
  • Received Pronunciation – standard English (BBC / Oxford) = posh, upper class, privileged
  • Bristolian – Bristol = unintelligent, not very clever, slow

These are very general stereotypes, and very unfair. Labelling people because of their accent is extremely unhelpful and can be a barrier to progress in careers and in being accepted socially. However, in a survey of the most attractive accents, Brummie, Scouse and Mancunian came out least attractive, while Welsh and Received Pronunciation came at the top. Interestingly, Geordie came in the middle, but many large companies have located customer call centres in Newcastle because the Geordie accent has such positive responses from the majority of people.

My own accent is neutral. I grew up in the south of England and speak without any strong accent. I have picked up some accent from living and working in Manchester and for the last 16 years in the West Midlands. But no one would accuse me of being from Manchester or Birmingham. As a result, I am fortunate that my teaching voice is easily followed and understood by my students. I deliberately pronounce with clarity and vary my speed and language dependent on the ability of the student. However, this is unrealistic in helping the student properly prepare for real interaction with native speakers beyond the classroom. It is therefore something I am always keen to focus on in lessons; making pronunciation a key element of their learning experience.

When you meet someone who has a strong accent, the difficulties as a language learner can be immense. Even the most accomplished learner with a high level, who learnt RP – received pronunciation or ‘Oxford English’, from the comfort and security of a classroom, will be shocked and surprised at how impenetrable some accents are. The words are the same. The sentences communicate the same meaning and intent. Yet, the words contain syllables and sounds that are variously mangled, squashed, stretched, swallowed, under or over emphasised, falling in tone or rising, soft, hard, guttural, stopped, trilled etc. Even for native English speakers, those who teach the subject, like myself, some accents can be very hard to decipher. A broad Glaswegian (from Glasgow), or Aberdonian (Aberdeen), will be a significant challenge to my listening ability. Add in certain vocabulary and expressions that are dialect and the result is confusion and frustration. Imagine what it must be like for a tourist stepping off the plane, arriving in Glasgow and trying to get directions to Sauchiehall Street, from a local Glaswegian with a strong accent;

“A’richt, yi”ll need tae tak’ this wynd fur 200 metres, cross ower tae th’ ither side ‘n’ caw left doon dalhousie wynd, a bawherr further ‘n’ ye’ll see it fernent ye”

Which translates as ….”OK, you need to take this street for 200 metres, cross over to the other side and turn left down Dalhousie Street, a bit further and you’ll see it in front of you.”

To understand accent, students need to be aware of the following points;

  1. The student can understand what is being said. Usually, they have a good grasp of the vocabulary and the grammar being used. The problem in understanding is specifically related to sounds, stresses and rhythm of pronunciation.
  2. To get used to an accent takes time. The longer you stay somewhere, the more exposure you have to it, the easier it becomes. My wife was in hospital in Liverpool for 5 months when our children were born very prematurely. She had real difficulties understanding the staff in the hospital. Scouse was impossible. One of the health care assistant even bought her a book called ‘Learn Yerself Scouse’. But after a few weeks, my wife started to pick out words and phrases and filter the pronunciation until she was comfortable and able to follow a conversation (My wife is from Indonesia).
  3. If you are going to move somewhere that has an accent, try to find examples of the accent being spoken on the internet, in films or on TV. For example, coming to Birmingham and being exposed to Brummie, try watching ‘Peaky blinders’ for a taste of the accent (although people will point out the accent is not Brummie, but ‘Black Country’ which is a few mile north west of Brimingham.)
  4. Even native speakers find some accents difficult. Be confident in asking for the other person to slow down and repeat if necessary. If you really can not understand, apologise that you find it difficult and ask if they would mind writing down what they are saying. Decent, polite people won’t mind. They will be aware of their accent. Some people may take offence, but as long as you are respectful, don’t worry.
  5. Accents can vary a lot within a small geographical area. Within 60 miles (100km) of where I live in the West Midlands the accent changes enormously, from Bristolian to the south, Herefordshire and Wales to the west, Brummie to the north and Oxford to the east / south east.
  6. Not everyone who lives in a particular city or region has an accent. We may grow up in one place and develop a strong accent from birth. But as adults, our careers and opportunities will often see us moving to other places. People migrate from other countries and will speak English in Eastern European accents, Chinese, Arabic, French or German or Italian. Although not native speakers, their accents will also be challenging to the learner. Some people develop hybrid accents, for example a Scottish-Pakistani accent (it is a wonderful thing to hear!) or a Welsh-Chinese.
  7. There is beauty in accent. If we were to all speak with a neutral accent, language would be dull and uninteresting. Accents are identity and personality. They should be appreciated, celebrated and welcomed.
  8. If you are a student learning English, don’t try to learn and speak in the accent where you are. Focus on learning correct English (ie received pronunciation). Get YOUR pronunciation right first, the correct stress in words and syllable, the correct intonation and rhythm. People will understand you better. If you live or move to somewhere with a strong local accent, and you stay for a long period of time, you may find you pick up the accent. I have taught nurses from the Philippines and India who have been in South Wales for 15 years. They sounded Welsh to me!
  9. If you have an accent, don;t be embarrassed by it. My job as an English teacher is to help students improve their pronunciation and minimize the impact of accents. Not to remove them. It is not possible to lose an accent and speak perfect Oxford English. But you can work on key areas that help you sound more natural.
  10. Finally, if you meet someone and they speak to you in a strong accent, show an interest. Ask them where they are from. Tell them their accent is really interesting. It will break the ice and help you communicate better with them. Don’t run away from a strong accent!

Don’t forget that via my website, , I am able to help anyone improve their English language skills, including understanding accents and fast speech, how to improve overall pronunciation and helping the student to sound more natural in English.

Get in touch.

Best wishes

Tony Frobisher

Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

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