Talking ‘Good’

By Peter Martin

A recent blog post asked, “How important is spelling?” I have a knee-jerk reaction, as I imagine most people do. My education, for better or worse, came from teachers and publications who taught me to take the “rules” of language very seriously. Only more recently, through my self-education and thanks to differently minded friends, have I begun to entertain the idea that language doesn’t have rules at all. Language, of course, is constantly evolving. And the importance of language is the ability to communicate, however that’s done. So maybe nothing is right and nothing is wrong.

Try telling that to an ESL student.

I haven’t been bold enough to run that philosophy by any of my students. As a second-language student myself, I know how helpful it is to be taught rules, things that are always, 100 percent true. Generalities, subtleties, and maybes are not nearly as helpful as rules. So I try to teach my students as many rules as I can.

One personal rule I teach is that, at least in English throughout most of the world, students should not worry about their accents. They should be concerned with pronunciation. But accent and pronunciation are very different. And I find it helps a lot of students when I put this out, explain it to them, and explain why this distinction is so important.

Many of the students I’ve taught have been concerned about their accents. They think that their accents will mark them as bad English speakers. So they ask me how they can reduce their accents. I tell them they’re worrying about the wrong thing.

I won’t quote dictionary definitions, but here are the normal-people-English definitions I give my students. An accent is a style of pronunciation that usually marks where someone is from (whether a country, region, city, or even neighborhood), or the language they grew up speaking. Pronunciation is the sound a letter or a word is “supposed to” have in a given language or accent.

I say “supposed to” because, obviously, every language has many correct pronunciations—as different accents show. Anyone who has heard both an Australian and an American speak English knows there’s no singular correct pronunciation of letters and words in English. But what does exist is a set of correct pronunciations: Australian English dictates the correct set of pronunciations in that accent, and American English does the same, as do each of their regional and micro-local accents.

Each accent has a set of sounds that let speakers and listeners know which words are being said. These are the “correct” pronunciations. And these are important for communicating. That’s why, when one of my native-Spanish-speaking students pronounces “bird” as “beard,” I correct her. Because of her incorrect pronunciation, she is saying a different word from the one she wants to say, thus impeding her communication.

But when she tells me she’s embarrassed by her accent, I tell her not to worry. She will almost certainly have some accent for the rest of her life, making clear that, yes, she grew up speaking Spanish. But with almost equal certainty, her accent will not be a personal or professional hindrance. English is the rare language whose native speakers make up a small minority of its total speakers. So my students, I tell them, do not have to worry about being judged. They just need to worry about saying things they don’t mean to say.

I assume every ESL teacher has confronted this issue. How have you dealt with it with your students?

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  1. Hamish MacFarlane says:

    Aug 08, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Thanks, I really enjoyed your post! And I also want ESL students to concentrate on being understood, not obsessing over accent-reduction.

    I think once ESL students can hear the broad spectrum of different accents spoken by native English-speakers, in the United States, Australia/New Zealand and the United Kingdom, it can really help them understand that there isn’t one “correct” accent for them to aim for, and that communicative language learning is the key.

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