What accent do students think they want?

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Comment permalink - hancockmcdonald.com/comment/1852

Here's Gemma Archer at IATEFL Brighton (on the PronSIG day) explaining how she felt when, starting her teaching career, she was expected to teach pronunciation in a posh English accent. She was teaching in a Scottish environment and has a Scottish accent, so teaching RP just didn't make any sense. So she gave up on pronunciation altogether. This happens all too often.

So why this insistence on posh English as a model for pronunciation teaching? Is there any benefit to anybody in it? Is that what students really want? Do they even know what they want? These are some of the questions that led Gemma to do some classroom research on the matter, and the results are interestingly ambiguous. It seems that, in some cases there may be some motivational benefit in RP, in the sense that this is the accent that many students think they want. Tell them they are learning another accent and they may be less than enthusiastic.

However, this is not as much of an endorsement of RP as it may appear at first. It turns out that many students don't actually know what RP is or sounds like. Gemma reported, for instance, that her students said they would be happy to have a clear accent like hers. They assumed that her accent was RP simply because it was clear and easy for them to understand, whereas it is actually Scottish.

Perhaps the whole mistake lies in presenting accent models to students as if on a menu. Would you like American or British today, sir? And for you, madam - a little Australian, perhaps? This is not realistic, and it's perhaps misguided and misguiding to offer this choice. Most students evolve an accent that is all their own, not something off the peg. We need to stress less about which model to present. If you are intelligible, your own accent is as good a model as any, whether it be English or Scottish, Spanish or Russian.

Comments

I am not convinced that this is necessarily true. It seems to me that there are two sets of pronunciation that can be legitimately taught to other than specialist students studying linguistics -- the local accent (be that Bute, Birmingham or Brighton) and RP. To seek to teach "correct" pronunciation through the medium of a third, non-local (e.g., Tyneside in Tilbury or vice versa) accent is surely a serious error of judgement -- by all means expose the students to other accents (by which I think we both mean topolects) and explain that such an accent/topolect is not only acceptable but is "correct" in the area(s) in which it is the local topolect, but please don't use such an accent/topolect as a normative reference.
Mark Hancock's picture

Thanks for your comment Philip. Teachers are de facto the model in most classroom contexts. The majority of those (globally) don't speak in accordance with RP norms. This may have been felt as their guilty secret, but I don't think it should be. RP is not necessarily more intelligible globally than other accents.

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