Focus on English: in pursuit of ‘perfect’ pronunciation?

Language learners shouldn’t obsess over the ‘correct’ accent — there’s no such thing

English pronunciation. Source: Nothing Ahead via Pexels

Picture a middle-class Brit, getting off a Greyhound bus in Atlanta, Georgia for a breakfast stop, faced with the frustrating situation of being unable to communicate in English with the woman who is dishing out the food. His spoken request for scrambled eggs on toast, orange juice and coffee is received with blank incomprehension, and he is reduced to pointing at the food and pantomiming his requirements.

The reasons for this are clear enough to linguists. Before the days of mass media and communication there was little contact between isolated speech communities. Each village was able to maintain contact with its neighbors, but the further one traveled from one’s home the greater the differences were. This is how dialects occur; language evolves differently among different speech communities. 

The problem can be compounded by local vocabulary, and, in the case of the waitress in Georgia, additional differences in grammar and pronunciation between two varieties of English were sufficient to make communication impossible. Both parties were speaking English, but quite different varieties. 

Now, if that middle-class Brit had been speaking to a bank manager in Atlanta this would not have happened. Society requires those who hold prestigious public positions to have a command of an internationally understandable variety of the language — that is, understandable to people like themselves. An international symposium of neurosurgeons or political economists would probably have no need for interpreters to explain to the delegate from Ottawa what his colleague from Canberra is saying. However, this is not the place for such sociolinguistic analysis; suffice it to say that local catering staff are more likely to speak local dialects, with local accents.

All of which leads me to the Argentine learner of English, who wants to improve the way they speak. First things first: despite what you might see and hear there is no such thing as a “correct” accent. 

Most people can successfully identify several hundred speakers merely by hearing them speak a few words. This is a clear indication that we all speak differently. Similarly, most people with minimal phonetic training can identify a speaker as coming from the United States rather than the United Kingdom, or from New Zealand rather than Ireland. If one person’s speech is “correct”, then everyone else’s must be “incorrect”. If the King of England speaks “correctly”, then Joe Biden doesn’t. Clearly, this idea is rubbish.

If a learner wants to try to pass themself off as a native speaker, they will have to invest an enormous amount of time, and unless they have a gift for it, are unlikely ever to be able to do so. This is especially true if they start learning beyond the age of puberty. Some actors do have this ability; many in the US are unaware that Hugh Laurie (House) and Idris Elba (The Wire) are not originally from the States, but Brits. However, this is a gift very few people have in a foreign language.

“Perfect” English diction?

In espionage training, it is useful to be able to infiltrate a community and pass for one of the locals. To do this, it is of course necessary to speak like one. However, most Argentines studying English are not, presumably, thinking of applying for a post with the CIA or their equivalent. So, what kind of accent should our learner aim at? 

Native speakers don’t expect or require “perfect diction” in learners of English, and learners should not be so ashamed of their origins that they want to eliminate all the linguistic clues that betray their provenance. What the native speaker is grateful for is someone who is intelligible and easy on the ear, and this can only be achieved if the learner speaks naturally. By “naturally”, I mean without any apparent strain or effort. 

Some English teachers and phoneticians are so conscious of a need to speak “correctly” that they go over the top with their demands. The student may indeed have started with a more pleasing accent to listen to than their teacher, precisely because it was “natural” rather than “forced,” and end up with a strained pronunciation worse than the one they started with. I’ll just leave that thought there.

So, what kind of pronunciation do I recommend to my learners? When I trained as a teacher, I was urged to give my students an accent that has the least chance of being misunderstood and that draws the least attention to itself. Espionage apart, that’s all that’s really necessary.


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