Accent by Numbers

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Accent by Numbers -

Eighth and last in the series Accent through the keyhole. Scroll down for the mp3 podcast version.

What’s the correct answer to the accent by numbers puzzle?

Well, you have to join the dots in this order: won, tur, free, faugh, fife, sucks, savn, airt, noyne, tin, ulleven – if you do that, you get a big star! Obviously, those are the numbers 1-11 in different accents. The spellings are only approximate, of course, and they’re based on GB (General British) spelling conventions, eg the ‘r’ in airt is not pronounced. But you get the idea: this puzzle replicates in print the experience of hearing different accent.

According to my dictionary, won and one are identical in pronunciation. So this number in the puzzle has no accent, right?

As I said last week, there’s no such thing as no accent. The GB (or RP) given in British dictionaries is an accent too. Actually, for me, one has always rhymed with gone, and I remember being very surprised about the dictionary transcription making it sound like won. There’s also another number in the puzzle which is in the GB accent: the number 4 - faugh. I’ve spelt it this way to highlight the fact that the ‘r’ is not pronounced in this accent.

Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone spoke English with the same accent?

Perhaps. That strategy was implicit in the past, when we were trained to teach pronunciation to a standard prestige model such as Received Pronunciation or General American. On this model, there was a symmetry between speaking and listening: eventually, everybody would speak in the same accent, and they would understand that accent spoken by others (and have zero tolerance for any other accent). Trouble is, the eventually never comes, and in the mean time, people just get on with trying to communicate with what they’ve already got. And so, with out any help from policy makers, the new model becomes asymmetrical: people speak with their own accent, and in turn, become tolerant of accent variety in the speech of others. The receptive repertoire become much bigger than the productive.

So how can we learn to be more accent tolerant?

Two ways. First, you need exposure to various accents. Students didn’t get much of this in traditional coursebooks, where the audio was mainly a standard native accent. Nowadays, ELT material tends to incorporate more accent variety, and in any case there’s an immense amount of listening material available online. You can't be familiar with all accents of course, but there are some variations are more common than others, and some of these are the ones we've covered in this series of blogs/podcasts.

Right. And the second way?

The second way is to listen in good faith. Sometimes, people close up when they hear an unfamiliar accent. It’s not that they don’t understand, it’s that they won’t. We all have to try a bit harder as listeners. Use your head, look around at the context, try to work out what they might be trying to say. Once you get a handle on that, pay attention to the accent features that made it hard and be ready for them next time you meet someone with a similar accent.

Coming back to the theme of numbers, there’s a very funny video from the BBC Scotland sketch show Burnistoun showing two guys in a lift. The lift has no buttons and is activated by voice. The two guys are heading for the eleventh floor and so they call out ulleven in their Scottish accents. The voice recognition machine just doesn’t get it, doesn’t even try, and they’re stuck in there for ages. The frustration you can see on their faces is a perfect picture of what it’s like talking to someone with zero accent tolerance.

Last Week: Twang

Audio icon Accent by numbers.mp34.24 MB
Image icon accent by numbers.jpg111.9 KB

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