I hear it from students all the time. “I need to get rid of my accent.” Or “I need sound like a real British person” There’s a whole cottage industry of people “teaching” real native accents. The problem is that accent doesn’t matter! Comprehensibility does! And don’t tell anyone, but prosody is a far larger determiner of how well understood you are than accent is. In this article, I’m going to talk about what prosody is and why it matters. But first I’m going to explain exactly why your accent doesn’t matter and deconstruct native speakerism in a few steps!

Foreigners Have Native Accents

The argument for a “real native English accent” is easy to refute. Start with the fact that a lot of those “real native accent” videos are taught by people who aren’t technically native speakers.

I was just watching a video series by a Nigerian gentleman with so many comments about how he had a perfect “native” accent. He did indeed have a mastery of RP, often considered the gold standard of proper English speech and easily heard in BBC news broadcasts. That may be for a variety of reasons. In fact, Nigerians can be considered native speakers. Kids in Nigeria often learn English at a very young age and it is a former British colony. Certainly the teacher on the video was a fluent and proficient speaker. And that’s the point! If a gentleman in Nigeria has a desirable “native” accent, then obviously native means more than just British or American—something most students would never admit to.

Native Speakers Don’t Always Have Native Accents

The funny thing is that many people all over the world learn English from birth and thus are native speakers. That includes people born in India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and so on. Yet somehow, native speaker accent doesn’t include English spoken in Mumbai! I’ve never had anyone ask to speak more like a Canadian or a Texan or even a New Englander (but Pepperidge Farm remembers)! Native doesn’t mean West Country England, Scotland, or Ireland. Nor Australia. So native speakers aren’t even native speakers.

The Real Accent is Fake

In fact, what people mean by native speakers of English is usually RP or Received Pronunciation. But RP is a cultivated accent taught in schools rather than being a natural accent that people just have from birth. Even the neutral American accent spoken by midwestern newscasters and announcers of 1950s microfilm, has been cultivated. So the real accents are fake.

How Do Scots Even Talk to Each Other?

Now we come to an important question: if standard English is so important, how are the vast majority of English speakers understanding each other? Why aren’t people working to eliminate their Southern twang or Welsh vowels? (I never realized I say the word for baby cat as ki’en and the thing you wear on your hand to keep your hands warm that has no fingers mi’en, which is apparently a Connecticut thing and no one has ever said boo to me in 45 years!) Why don’t speakers do accent reduction? Because we don’t need to because communication is not impeded! It’s true that we all code switch in formal or official settings to some extent. When I speak in public, I slow down and enunciate differently. However, the “native speaker” industry has a huge problem if they are teaching something that not even native speakers seem to want or need!

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You Tell Ahhnold You Can’t Understand Him

Consider that there are actors and comedians with thick (often stereotypical ethnic accents), who are extremely popular. How can they get jobs speaking publicly if they aren’t able to be understood? Arnold Schwarzenegger actually has to play up his Austrian accent among fans because it’s not only comprehensible, it’s beloved. It wasn’t very long ago that so-called Borscht Belt comedians, Jewish-Americans would play up their accents and stereotypes of Jews for big laughs. Jackie Mason is probably the most famous example, but many American kings of comedy could put on a thick Jewish accent for a bit. Quite recently we had a President with an extremely thick accent, one whose rhetorical style was (rightly or wrongly) analyzed to death, and accent almost never came up!

We Often Talk About Prosody Without Realizing It

Now you may say that native speakers do sometimes have trouble understand each other. It is true that I struggled while visiting Liverpool for IATEFL a few years back. I’m aware that some people from other regions find my American speech hard to understand. The funny thing is that I suspect accent plays little role here! In fact, it’s really prosody, highlighting again the importance of prosody in communication!

What is prosody?

Prosody is the way we employ intonation, tone, rhythm, volume, and length of sounds to express meaning, attitude, and emotion. Think about how you change your voice (not your words, grammar or accent) to show irony, anger, fear, worry, or boredom.

When we speak in formal situations, we tend to speak at a moderate pace. We pause between sentences and pause longer between paragraphs. We exaggerate sentence stress on key words. If we give a rousing speech, we tend to use different intonations. We may speed up and raise our voices to energize the audience or speak quietly at a particularly touching moment. These are all ways we employ prosody to have an impact on our audience!

A really fun example of prosody in action is when you see something bad happening and say “Noooooooo”, drawing out the syllables as if in slow motion. This is a reference to how films sometimes slow down to show something bad happening, like an important document falling out of a window. By imitating this sound, you are both showing that something bad is happening and also to make light of it at the exact same time! It’s really amazing how powerful prosody is in communication. My suspicion is that a lot of accents that are allegedly “hard to understand” like the Liverpool accent are actually because people speak really really fast and smoothly. There are fewer pauses between word chunks and less stress for meaning!

Stop Talking So Fast

Listen to this gentleman from the Deep South of the United States. His accent, in the purest sense of how he pronounces his words, is pretty noticeable! And yet it’s easy to understand him because he’s speaking slowly, with a regular cadence.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pH37Dep0cvU&t=24

I’ve been told a Glaswegian accent can be hard to understand, but the first part of this recording, where a young man is reading a story is quite comprehensible: An 18-year old from near Glasgow on the IDEA project website: https://www.dialectsarchive.com/scotland-18. There’s a part around 4:40 where he is hard to understand. Even the transcriber couldn’t understand him. But the reason for that is that he’s talking really really quickly-which is a prosody issue.

Regional Vocabulary Matters: No one knows what the Irish are saying!

Another reason we sometimes think accents are a problem is that different regions of the English-speaking world have their own terms, words, colloquialisms, and slang. Hogmany is one; that’s the Scottish New Year celebration that the gentleman in the recording above mentioned. If you were in Scotland and some one said, “Happy Hogmany!” you’d be forgiven for not understanding them. The Scottish are well-known for inserting Scots into their English, and the Irish slip Irish Gaelic in. Here’s a great video of a gentleman speaking Irish English. Note that he’s easy to understand because he’s speaking fairly slowly and using clear prosody! It’s really only the colloquialisms that could cause confusion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJFayFOASMg

Pragmatics or Cultural Rules Matter Too

Even the very way of expressing yourself can be more confusing than accent, and it’s easy to put it down to accent. Some New Englanders will give directions in a very meandering way. They don’t simply say, “Turn left at Oak Street.” They’ll say, “Now, when you come to Oak Street, you’ll see a gas station. Now that gas station used to be a coffee shop, but before that it was a beautiful house, the Nelson home. You know, the Nelsons were one of the oldest families to settle here, and even after they tore the house down, they left the cornerstone. So when you see that cornerstone, you’ll know to turn left. And this explanation would be punctuated with “Uh”s and “Ah”s and “Yeah”s. It can be hard to follow, but it’s not the accent that’s creating the problem.

A cousin of mine was from a very hardscrabble farming town in the Midwest and he was taught to speak little. So whenever he spoke, he spoke quickly and quietly, almost under his breath. And he was very direct. He said what he said and he didn’t repeat himself. He didn’t include flourishes or hedges. Of course he was hard to understand!

OK, but British Films are So Hard to Understand

If you are an American who watches indie films, you’ve probably noticed the first 10-15 minutes, it’s very hard to follow what’s going on. I used to think it was the time needed to adjust to the accent. However, it may be due to the differences in sound quality! Everyone knows Hollywood has a ton of money and uses the latest technology! The same cannot be said of British film studios and this is a problem acknowledged even in the UK! Every where you look, the concept of accent doesn’t hold up!

The Important of Prosody, not Accent!

The upshot is that learning a “native accent” is not helpful, if you are thinking about accent as the pronunciation of individual syllables or words! It’s all about prosody over accent. Think more about pronunciation in terms of chunks, sentences, even whole paragraphs. Practice intonation, rhythm, and volume. If you want to use native, or I’d prefer to say fluent or frequent, speakers, listen less for accent and more for things like:

  • How do they sound when they ask a question? What about a statement?
  • What does their voice sound like when they are being friendly? Polite? Sincere? Joking? Upset?
  • How does their face and body language change depending on their emotion or attitude?
  • What are the idioms or colloquialisms or regionalisms you hear?
  • How do they construct their conversations? Do they tend to get straight to the point? What register do they use? Do they ask personal questions? Do they talk a lot or are they more brusque.

Things like that will get you a lot farther than accent! if you’re looking for some activities, check out some of our blog posts about drama in language teaching.

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