The Great Big Accent Debate

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The aim of all of our learners of English as a Foreign Language is to be able to communicate in English. While this may seem like a pretty straightforward goal, if you consider the huge variety in differences in our learners – their linguistic backgrounds and language needs – you may understand there is no one way in which this communication can be realised. What is acceptable as a means of communication for one person may not be acceptable for another. Nowhere is this clearer than in the debate of accent, which affects both the teaching and the learning process.

What is the great big accent debate?

There is debate among teachers as well as students as to what the “best” English accent is. For the most part, if you ask that question you could expect the answer to be British English or American English. This, however, is problematic.

First of all, there is no one accent in those regions but rather hundreds of different English accents depending on which geographical region you find yourself in, so those answers are a bit flimsy. Secondly, is this to say that other English accents are not comprehensible? Surely not. Whether a person is a native English-speaker from Scotland or a language learner from South Korea, their intelligibility does not depend entirely on where they come from but rather from individual traits which are factors for both native and non-native speakers.

Even with taking all this into consideration, though, there are still those who believe that the British Received Pronunciation accent is best, and this is the crux of the debate. Should we be teaching the RP accent in our EFL classroom? Should non-native speakers be required to have  neutral accents before being accepted into EFL teaching positions? Should native speakers also have this requirement?

How to deal with accent in the EFL classroom

Let’s put our two cents in right here: there is no one correct accent. To believe that RP should be the only accent our students are exposed to in the classroom is outdated, unrealistic and a disservice to our students. There is nothing that makes an English accent from one part of the world better than that from another, or indeed than that of a non-native speaker.  What’s more, our English language learners are more likely to be speaking English to other non-native speakers than native speakers.

What does this mean for your EFL class?

Basically, it doesn’t matter what accent you, as the teacher, has, as long as you speak clearly and intelligibly. You need to make your students aware of your accent and how it may differ from speakers with other accents (including RP). You must include listening activities which expose your students to other accents, especially the more common accents and any accents you know your students will be exposed to. Finally, focus on any pronunciation issues which affect intelligibility.

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