“As a teacher, how do I answer learners who say they want an accent like mine? I come from an English L1 background and am aware of the colonial/political history of British English. Also, telling learners that a native accent is impossible (or undesirable) to acquire seems like an inadequate answer.”

Wanting to sound like their teacher is commonly given by language learners as an aim, especially for those learners whose culture extends respect to certain professions, including that of educators. The interesting question is whether, when learners say they “want to sound like” another person, they are actually referring to pronunciation or to something less tangible, such as spoken confidence and fluency. And if the learner does mean pronunciation, is it at the segmental level (vowel and consonant sounds) or suprasegmental (intonation, word stress, etc)? The latter is much more straightforward for a learner – with practice – to approximate.

Who will students actually be talking to?

An important question to ask a learner who voices this aim though, is who they actually see themselves using English with in the future. The majority of L2 English speakers use the language to communicate with each other rather than with L1 speakers. In this case, it’s more important to be mutually intelligible than to sound as if you grew up in Surrey (or wherever).  Have learners focus on key segmental features (e.g. vowel sounds) rather than pushing them to produce non-vital (and for many learners) extremely challenging forms such as /θ/ or  /ð /, which can in any case be approximated through /f/ and /v/ without loss of intelligibility. Learners should also work on preserving vowel length, tone units and nuclear stress in their spoken output. This is also true for those individuals who will spend time interacting with L1 English speakers in the future.

Which accent?

Another point to explore with learners is the variety of L1 accents in existence. This can be done through exposure to authentic materials (film clips, excerpts from podcasts or radio programmes, etc), or allowing learners to interview (and listen to) guest speakers “live” in the classroom, to mention just two possibilities. As learners become more aware of the international nature of spoken English, they may find themselves being increasing more comfortable using their own “voice” rather than approximating to someone else’s.

Liberation not oppression

Finally, as a teacher, remember that helping learners become more intelligible (on their own terms, in their own voice) is an act of liberation, and not – as it might appear at first glance to us educators – one of oppression.

For more about English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) pronunciation, https://elfpron.wordpress.com has a useful list of resources. although there appear to be no posts since 2019.

Kirstie Jackson Wilms worked as a face-to-face General English trainer in Oxford before moving to Germany in 2010, where she continued to teach (mainly) Business English online. She joined the Publishing team of an online training provider in 2018. Kirstie is CELTA and DELTA qualified and is currently working towards an MA in Professional Development in Language Education (MA PDLE). Her professional interests are in developing learner autonomy through materials writing and classroom practice. In her free time she enjoys hiking, reading crime novels, and watching cricket. Check out her blog: https://tefl45.wordpress.com/

Categories: Sounds