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How you speak and who you are

July 17, 2013

There was once a student of French at Glasgow University (let’s call her Jane), who had fantastic pronunciation. The way she used the language seemed incredibly natural, largely due to her near-perfect intonation, her ability to avoid stress-timing and a very accurate production of individual sounds, even in connected speech. Though some of her classmates may have been more accurate grammatically or had wider vocabularies, Jane was the one who sounded most French, so much so that many French people mistook her for a native speaker.

Not long after graduating, Jane met and married a French man, and went to live in a small town in France where she pursued a successful career and raised a family.

Many years later, a former fellow-graduate went to visit Jane at her home in France.  Naturally, he expected her French to be even better than when she had been a student in Scotland. He was, however, surprised to find that her accent had got worse. She now spoke French with a very pronounced Scottish accent, making no obvious attempt to form sounds that are usually difficult for native English speakers. She was clearly fluent, with a native-like command of vocabulary and grammar, but she had lost the near-native level of pronunciation that she had had before she lived in France.

So how did this happen? Why would living in France, being surrounded by French people and using French all the time, lead to someone’s pronunciation regressing? Jane had already demonstrated that she was capable of having really good pronunciation, but something had changed which led to her speaking with a Scottish accent.

Consciously or subconsciously, Jane must have made some kind of choice. Could it be that she just didn’t like being mistaken for a French person? Living in a small town as she did, maybe she preferred everyone to know that she was foreign, that she was Scottish and unashamed of it. Maybe she felt that her Scottishness (or Britishness, or non-Frenchness at least) was an important part of her identity and that she wanted this to be clear to everyone.

As English teachers we often get students who say they want to speak English “like a native speaker”. As there are so many different varieties of English spoken by native speakers I’ve never been sure what they mean by this, and I’m not sure they are either. Do they want to speak like me? Like the last teacher they had? Like David Cameron? Like David Beckham? Do they know the difference?

On the other hand, there are also many students who don’t express this need. Of course, they want to be easily understood, but they don’t necessarily want to sound like a “real” British person. Perhaps, like Jane, they see their accent as helping to define their identity, and this is an identity they don’t want to lose. They want people to know they are not native speakers, that they come from somewhere else, and that they possess something that native speakers don’t possess – a whole other culture. Being mistaken for a native speaker would, for them, mean they were losing a part of themselves.

Maybe, as their teachers, we should bear this in mind when we focus on pronunciation in class,  and cut them some slack.

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10 Comments
  1. baumann eszter permalink

    i have actually done this to my English,ie going back to not caring how i sound – except now im mistaken for a Swede all the time.what’s that about??

    • Maybe most native English speakers have heard more Swedes speaking good English than they have Hungarians, so to their ears you sound more Swedish than anything else they are familiar with.
      Interesting that this has happened to your English though, Eszter. Was it a conscious decision or has it just happened? If you don’t mind me asking 🙂

  2. Perhaps our students want to sound like a native speaker because when they don’t we use words (as you do) that describe their pronunciation in a negative way “surprised to find that her accent had got worse,” “someone’s pronunciation regressing,” “she was capable of having really good pronunciation, but something had changed which led to her speaking with a Scottish accent”. The implication here is that native pronunciation (whatever that may be) is better / has higher status (?) than having an accent. Presumably “Jane” was easily understood so why the negative associations connected to her having a Scottish accent?

    • Ah OK, so you’re saying that I appear to regard native-like pronunciation in a positive way, and any non-native pronunciation features are viewed negatively?
      I think that’s an important part of the point I was trying to make. There is this assumption that students aspire to sounding like native speakers and that teachers should help students to achieve this goal. Any “non-native” features of pronunciation are therefore seen as bad. But maybe some students don’t want to sound like native speakers. As you say, Jane was perfectly intelligible with her strong Scottish accent, in the same way that Arsene Wenger is perfectly intelligible when he speaks English with a strong French accent.
      I used the words I did (good/bad accent/pronunciation) because, without getting really technical, I couldn’t really think of another way of describing it. Which goes to show how this perception of good/bad pronunciation is institutionalised. I don’t think it’s just me, I think we all tend to talk about pronunciation in this way. Don’t we? I’d rather we didn’t though.
      Having said that, some non-native accents can be viewed positively in certain contexts; many Hollywood actors – e.g. Antonio Banderas, Jean Reno, Isabella Rossellini, Salma Hayek – derive much of their sex appeal from the way they speak. But I’m not sure (pure) sex appeal is what most language learners are aiming for…

      • Yes but “personality goes a long way” and having an accent – any accent – does contribute to one’s personality. Whether you are a native speaker or a non-native speaker, if you have an accent it makes you stand out from the crowd; or identifies you with a certain group and, perhaps that is why there are plenty of people who affect accents or dialects – “he’s not from New York City he’s from Hunter’s Bar” – It is a certain group that our students want to be associated with. it is not just about sex appeal but status. Many of the students I have worked with in Glasgow have told me they wanted to sound like a native speaker but not a Glaswegian. What do they mean by native speaker?

      • Thanks for this, Holly. I think your point that accent contributes to your personality is exactly the point I’m trying to make. Learning a new language does, in some sense, allow a person to create a slightly different identity. Status probably does play a big part, and this may be behind what your students are telling you. There are a range of different types of Glaswegian accent, as you know, some of which are less easy to identify than others. Perhaps we should explicitly expose our students to a range of accents so they can choose one to work towards.

      • Should that range of accents also promote diversity by including men and women with accents that have status is society, even though that is not represented in the media?

  3. Whatever is most appropriate for your students, I would have thought.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. My French is OK – as long as you don’t talk to me. | stevebrown70's Blog
  2. The Accommodating Teacher | ELT Reflections

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