Billions of voices: Raising learners' awareness of international accents of English

by Laura Patsko in Blog

Billions of voices: Raising learners' awareness of international accents of English

English is spoken all over the world by literally millions of people. Politicians negotiate in English; football players communicate in English on the pitch and in interviews; scientists conduct and publish research in English; pilots and cabin crew use English with each other and with passengers; entertainers act and sing in English. English is the official language, or one of the official languages, of the World Trade Organization, NATO, the World Bank and many other major international organizations. It is even the language of love for many couples who do not speak each other’s first language!

Clearly, these millions of speakers of English do not all sound the same. So why are there just a few accents represented in most ELT materials and exams? Will this really prepare learners to understand and be understood in the 21st century?

Why do learners need exposure to different accents of English?

There are at least two very good reasons to raise our students’ awareness of the huge range of accents in English in the world today:

1. Learners need to be able to communicate in the real world, not just in the classroom.

The use of English has spread and developed so much in the past 100-150 years. Today, the vast majority of English speakers are “non-native” and very few conversations take place between speakers from the same linguistic background. We simply cannot assume that our students are going to interact with somebody who speaks like the recordings in a traditional coursebook.

For some teachers, this might seem too complicated, confusing or uncomfortable; but this is the way the world is. We have to ask ourselves: do we want to simplify things for students in order to make the task of learning English feel easier, or do we want to prepare them for the real world? There are so many people using English now, our students are going to encounter a wide range of different accents, and they need to be ready.

2. Effective communication involves both a speaker and a listener.

In a Communicative approach, we focus so much on speaking that it’s easy to forget that the listener’s role is also critical. Research shows that our understanding is influenced by what we expect to hear. In other words, when we are more familiar with a particular accent, we are much more likely to understand it. To understand a wide range of voices, first we need to be exposed to a wide range of speakers.

Research also shows that accent is not the same as intelligibility (that is, whether someone else understands you when you speak). Both teachers and learners need to appreciate that it’s perfectly possible for people to speak English with a French / Korean / Brazilian accent, etc., and for others to understand them easily. Learners’ attitudes and ability to understand other speakers will improve when they recognize an accent as a valid and valuable part of someone’s identity, not as a failure or an obstacle.


So why don’t learners currently have the chance to hear a wider range of accents?

The good news is: we know more now about who is using English and why. We understand what makes some speakers easier or harder to understand. We know, for example, that it’s important to speak clearly, but that it’s not important to sound like someone who grew up in Britain or America. The bad news is: it takes time to change such long-held beliefs, and it also takes years to develop new courses and exams. So although change is happening, many existing materials still feature only native speakers, or native-speaking actors pretending to have a non-native accent. This is not a very realistic representation of what our students will hear and need to understand outside the classroom. So why does this persist?

There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about who is using English nowadays, including who is using it “correctly”. Historically, perhaps more learners expected to need English for communication with native speakers. And for other languages, there may be many more native speakers than foreign learners, so the choice of role model is obvious. But English nowadays is an international language, used between millions of people, typically when they don’t share any other language. So we cannot compare the past with the present, and we cannot compare English with other languages. We need to take a different approach.

What can we do to help raise learners’ awareness of accent diversity?

1. Help learners to understand their own accent.

We all hold particular beliefs and biases about accents, and many people believe their own accent to be “neutral”. But an accent is just a consistent pattern of sound, and there are many possible patterns. There isn’t one which is perfect, correct or neutral. We can help learners to notice this by having discussions in class, including questions like these:

  • Think of a language that you speak well. Can you think of any accent(s) that you especially like or don’t like? Why do you like or dislike these accents? Who do you associate them with – friendly people? Uneducated people? Sophisticated people?
  • Has your own accent changed during your life? Why? How?
  • Think about your close friends and family. Do they all sound the same as you? What about people you don’t know, but who you respect or admire (for example, celebrities)?

2. Help learners to understand other accents (not just hear them occasionally).

When we are more familiar with an accent, we are more likely to understand someone who speaks with that accent. Learners need to hear a variety of voices in the classroom and teachers can help them pay attention to specific features of these speakers’ pronunciation. For example, after a listening task, we might prompt students to reflect:

  • How would you say this word / phrase?
  • Is that similar or different to the speaker we just heard? How? Why?
  • What are some other ways that people can say this word / phrase?
  • Which way(s) do you find clearest? Why?

3. Be sensitive when talking in class about attitudes and prejudices around accents, both in English and in the students’ other language(s).

Accent is closely related to identity, and talking about these issues can be difficult. We must always remember to be respectful when analyzing how other people speak. One way that we can help learners (and ourselves!) to separate our opinions about a person from our opinions about their speech is by thinking about who we consider as role models.

For example, research suggests that well-known non-native English speakers, such as actors or sports players, can provide very good role models for learners. They have demonstrated through their professional success that it’s OK to speak with an accent, and that many people around the world have no difficulty understanding or admiring them. You could try questions and tasks like these with students (and note – you could conduct this discussion in the students’ first language if they still have only a low level of proficiency in English):

  • Do you think the way a person speaks gives any information about their talents, skills or other personal qualities?
  • How would you feel if someone criticized the way you speak? (Do you have any examples or experience of this that you are happy to share with the class?)
  • Think of a famous person who has the same first language as you and who you really admire and respect. What do they sound like? Have you ever thought about their accent or how they learned English?

In conclusion…

It’s very important for learners in the 21st century to understand a range of English accents. We can help prepare our students for this diverse world by bringing a range of accents into the classroom, encouraging them to reflect on how the speakers’ pronunciations are similar or different to their own, and discussing their own expectations and attitudes as listeners. By raising learners’ awareness in this way, we can improve the chances of communicative success for the next generation of English speakers, wherever they come from and whoever they are using English with.


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About the author

Laura Patsko is a learning experience consultant with a background in language teaching, teacher training and classroom research. She is co-author of several recent titles on teaching pronunciation and the use of English as an international language, including How to Write Pronunciation Activities (with Katy Simpson, 2018), ELF and Teacher Education (with Martin Dewey, 2017) and Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca (with Robin Walker, 2017). You can follow her work at elfpron.wordpress.com and blackbirdlxd.com, and via Twitter (@lauraahaha).

by Laura Patsko in Blog