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
Pronunciation, Uncategorized

Pronunciation – The Route to Better Communication

What is the one area of English that the vast majority of English language schools and English language teachers shy away from and rarely teach?

Pronunciation

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The Pronunciation Police……..

Really? Yes, it is true. Even if pronunciation is covered in class, it is often an afterthought, or quickly glossed over.

Pronunciation is perhaps THE most important element in effective spoken communication. Yet it is much maligned and frequently overlooked in favour of vocabulary, grammar and reading etc. Even poor old writing which is often seen as the poor cousin in English teaching receives more attention than pronunciation.

But why is this? There are many reasons most teachers and schools do not teach pronunciation.

  • Teachers who train for their Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) generally do not get taught the importance of pronunciation during the course. The focus is on lesson planning and structure, group dynamics and lesson management, ‘how to teach’…rather than ‘what to teach’.
  • Most English language teachers embark on a career in EFL without having learnt or studied pronunciation or linguistics
  • Most schools do not include pronunciation in their curriculum and consequently even if the teacher has previously learnt about phonetics, intonation, syllable stress etc, they quickly forget it through non use
  • If you teach overseas most of your classes are monolingual groups. I used to teach groups of around 15 Indonesian students. All had the same pronunciation difficulties which could be easily attended to. But when a Japanese or Korean student joined the class, the problems in communication between students (and the teacher too) became very apparent and problematic – because their pronunciation was so different
  • Students don’t feel the need to learn pronunciation…’It’s boring/ unnecessary/irrelevant’ They want vocabulary and grammar instead. That is until they try speaking with a native speaker or other English language learner, perhaps over the phone, in a meeting etc and while the student has excellent vocabulary and grammar and speaks very well, the reaction they receive is ‘Huh? Sorry, I don’t understand….”
  • There has been a global shift towards a generic ‘American’ accent amongst learners. Many of my students in Indonesia and Malaysia spoke English with an American inflection…or a ‘twang’ They sounded quite American and I was impressed. When I asked if they had an American father or mother or if they had spent time living in the States or Canada very often the answer was no. They had never left their country. Really?….Yes, a constant diet of MTV, American films and television series had seen them develop an accent more in line with Los Angeles than Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur.
  • The globalisation of accent in learners does not however account for the vast majority of learners from a huge variety of linguistic backgrounds. All of whom present particular problems with learning how to formulate correct vowel and consonant sounds, effective stress and rhythm and nuanced, communicative intonation. Take a learner (one of the over 1 billion people learning English currently) from Russia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Mexico and Algeria and you will discover a huge difference in how their English sounds…a complex pattern of sounds, dropped consonant endings, flat monotones, exaggerated intonation, confused consonant sounds, flattened vowels, unusual word stress etc etc. It is a linguistic minefield

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This way to better English….help your English take off with pronunciation

Luckily I have worked in a school where pronunciation was given equal importance as reading, listening, speaking, writing, grammar and vocabulary. Two lessons per week were devoted to improving pronunciation. When you have a class of 6 students comprising a Swiss, Spaniard, Russian, Brazilian, Kuwaiti and Japanese you can understand why pronunciation was so necessary.

Many of the students experienced exactly the same problems in their first few days at the school. Based in the West Midlands of England, the students were immediately exposed to native English speakers in every situation. From interacting with a host family, taking a bus to school, buying lunch or train tickets, asking the way, buying a pint in a pub or ordering their fish and chips….

This is a summary of what they found

  • “I can understand the teacher and the staff in the school, but I can’t understand people in the city….Why?!” The reason is simple. As teachers we speak with a clearer, more careful pronunciation dependent on the level of the student. In the ‘real world’ outside of class the students were faced with ‘fast native speech’. I explained that actually they did understand. They knew all the individual words…But it was the speed and the way native speakers link or connect words together that was the problem.

One student panicked in a shop when the assistant asked her..”Wudyalikabag?”…Say it quickly and it is one very fast utterance.. a noise. But we are used to hearing it in context, regularly. The student looked to me for help. “Would..you..like..a..bag?” Ah, I understand she said. She knew the words, the sentence. Easy. But it was understanding fast speech that caused all her problems

  • They expected most people to speak English with a standard English accent; ‘Received Pronunciation’. The English they would most probably have heard via course book listening exercises, the BBC radio and online…’Oxford English’ as it is sometimes known. What they discovered was a variety of English accents which often changed in a very short geographical distance. Within 120 miles / 200km of our school the accents of Birmingham, Wales, Oxford, Bristol, London, Manchester and Liverpool were as diverse and different as you could find.
  • Added to the accents the students experienced a range of dialect….vocabulary and expressions, idiomatic language that caused them more problems in following native speaker pronunciation.
  • When they spoke to native speakers, although most people tried to help and were patient in listening, some would get frustrated and a few would walk off or say ‘no, sorry, can’t help you’. Not very nice. But the root cause was not bad grammar or poor vocabulary. It was how the student asked the question. The use of pronunciation. Take an example of a pleasant, friendly Russian man. Let’s call him Vladimir. He approached a person and asked ‘Can you tell me way to station?’ However his natural tendency as a Russian speaker is to speak with a very low monotone. A flat ___________________________ sentence. No up and down, rise and fall.

“can….you…tell…me…way…to…station?” – Of course there a couple of articles (the) missing; typical of Russian speakers. And can would be better as ‘could’…and don’t forget…’Excuse me….please?’ People would not answer. People would walk away. Why? Grammar, vocabulary…missed article?

No. A low, monotone sounds angry, sad, fed up, bored, aggressive, annoyed, tired, direct, impolite etc etc….. Vladimir soon learnt the importance of rise and fall in intonation to create the correct feeling and to get the appropriate response from the listener.

  • With a few structured lessons looking at individual aspects of pronunciation such as shifting syllable stress (I want to reCORD a new REcord….We would like to preSENT you with a leaving PRESent), word stress – SUpermarket…not (French speakers) suPER marKEET , intonation and understanding common fast expressions (gonna wanna gotta d’ya (do / did you?))  students very quickly adapted to their new environment and began to understand and communicate more comfortably both in and outside of school.
  • Once students had studied pronunciation, almost every one said how important they felt it to be in helping them improve. And they could understand why their meetings, presentations, conversations, phone calls etc, were unsuccessful  and frustrating previously.

As some students quickly realised, there is a very big difference between these sentences; (say them quickly)

“This is Mr Peter Smith, my boss. He is a very IMportant man”

“This is Mr peter Smith, my boss. He is a very imPORTant man”

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No matter your nationality or language, improving your pronunciation is essential to communication and confidence in English

So, in summary, what is the value of learning pronunciation, or in teaching it?

  • Students are able to make progress more quickly, by developing more effective spoken skills. Their pronunciation supports their development of the other key skills and allows them to be more successful in all conversational and speaking situations.
  • Students lose the fear of speaking publicly, the worry that ‘no one will understand me’. They quickly gain confidence in the knowledge that native speakers and other language learners of all linguistic backgrounds can understand what they say.
  • Students develop a more natural and fluent way of speaking. They begin to eliminate errors that cause confusion or a poor, unexpected reaction (e.g losing their monotone speech or overly exaggerated sentences).
  • Teachers are able to create a more harmonious and collective learning environment within their classes as everyone understands everyone else!
  • Teachers can introduce realistic role plays, authentic listening materials and ideas that can be immediately put to use outside of the classroom environment (whether in a native English speaking country or even in watching native level English video, Skype calls, meetings with expatriate native speakers etc).
  • While vocabulary and grammar are essential, without effective pronunciation, a breakdown in communication is inevitable.
  • Pronunciation lessons do not have to be boring, uninspiring and irrelevant. They can be exciting and varied. They can be pitched at every level from beginner to advanced.  Even beginners need to understand ‘Wasyaname?’ ‘Whereyafrum?’and ‘D’yahav’nyquestions?’
  • Pronunciation is often neglected in EFL, but if you incorporate pronunciation into your lessons and curriculum, you will be gaining a significant advantage over teachers and schools who ignore pronunciation.
  • The improvement in student confidence, ability to be understood and to understand other speakers of English is often very rapid. Pronunciation can be the catalyst to accelerated learning and overall improvement in their English level.

As part of my online English teaching, I am happy to focus on aspects of pronunciation that students find problematic. This could include voice coaching for presentations, conversational techniques, intonation or individual phonetic sound problems. All you need to do is ask …although when speaking to you, I may be able to advise you immediately which aspect of pronunciation you would benefit from working on.

Good luck!

Tony Frobisher