Is it possible to speak ‘without an accent’?

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This is another essay I wrote as part of my MA in Applied Linguistics. It got a very very generous mark (YAY!!!) but is unlikely ever to be published elsewhere as it doesn’t offer anything massively original and also probably has a few typpos.

Is it possible to speak without an accent? Discuss this question with reference to the relevant literature (pronunciation, World English(es), English as a Lingua Franca and others you want to include). Consider the implications of the issue of ‘accent’ for language learning, teaching and testing, and for the role of English speakers more globally.

Mention native and non-native accents and discuss whether it is useful to differentiate between the two.

Introduction

It’s common to hear ‘native speakers’ of a language praise ‘non-native speakers’ who have achieved mastery of it on the basis that they ‘speak without an accent’. However, an informed view of language rejects such a notion: the first fact about accents that Riney, Takagi, and Inutsuka (2005) list is ‘Everyone has an accent’, while Lippi-Green (2012) calls one of her chapters ‘The myth of no accent’. However, not all accents are granted equal status: prejudice exists against varieties of ‘native speaker’ accent, on the basis of geographical or social variation, and as for ‘non-native speakers’, discrimination on the basis of a non-standard accent can have profound personal and social consequences. This should lead us to question who any given language ‘belongs’ to and who is in a position to make judgements as to ‘correct’ use.

Notions of what an accent is are by no means fixed. Lippi-Green even argues that the term has “no technical or specific meaning” (1997, p44). Riney, Takagi, and Inutsuka define it as a “perceived degree of native or foreign accent in someone’s speech (…) determined by (or at least associated with) the speaker’s regional, social, or linguistic background” (2005, p442), which seems sufficiently nuanced, if a little circular. A common theme of academic definitions involves variation from a standard: in the words of Derwing and Munro (2008), “we understand accentedness as how different a pattern of speech sounds compared to the local variety” (p478). The term ‘local’ is of course deictic, and together with Riney, Takagi, and Inutsuka’s invocation (2005) of perception indicates that we only ever experience accents subjectively; Derwing and Munro state that “Listeners’ judgments are the only meaningful window into accentedness and comprehensibility” (2009, p478). Certain sounds are prestigious, but only for socially-determined reasons; they differ along geographical and social lines rather than aesthetic ones. As Giles and Niedzielski (1998) argue, no accent is inherently more beautiful than another.

However, since our focus here is English language learning, we must consider several aspects related to what are often called ‘L2’ accents, which Lippi-Green defines as “the breakthrough of native language phonology into the target language” (p46). The phenomenon of variation from a norm has profound implications for how languages are taught and learnt. Is it possible for ‘native speakers’ of another language, or for that matter bilinguals, to achieve a full ‘native-like’ phonological range? Assuming such a goal is achievable, should learners be encouraged to aspire towards a ‘native’ accent? If so, which one should serve as a model? Does the notion of a Lingua Franca Core (LFC), focussed on intelligible communication between non-native speakers rather than the acquisition of native-like pronunciation, have validity, and should teachers lead their learners in that direction instead? Are there circumstances in which ‘native-like’ pronunciation is a valid goal? Drawing on insights from Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition theory (SLA), this essay will examine the contemporary context for the notion of accent elimination, before looking at why the subject of accent is so important in the concerns of learners and why they might see it as a priority. It will then look at the context of English today, in terms of debates about World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), and the final section will set out some pedagogical implications.

The phenomenon of ‘accent reduction’ courses

There are bountiful resources to help learners who aspire to eliminating their L1 accent, not all of which are based on sound linguistic principles. Lippi-Green (2012) constructs an elaborate metaphor (a ‘sound house’ (p48)) to demonstrate how intricate, time-consuming and frustrating the process of developing a separate phonological structure can be, and stresses that the successful acquisition of a new accent does not necessarily have significant impact on one’s communicative competence. She highlights two questionable claims made by promoters of accent reduction courses, namely that foreign accents can indeed be eliminated, and that accent is the main cause of social marginalisation. Derwing and Munro also critique the claims made by the accent reduction/elimination industry, arguing that they are based on “pseudomedical jargon and mysterious techniques with no known empirical basis” (2008, p483).

The importance of accent to English language learners

One key element of the appeal of ‘unaccentedness’ is the notion of belonging to a particular speech community that ‘owns’ the language and literally gives voice to the ‘correct’ standard, thus rendering its own phonological characteristics appear ‘natural’. This can be demonstrated by an anecdote from my teaching experience. In an EFL lesson in London several years ago I showed my class a clip from the US TV chat show ‘Ellen’, and asked what accent the presenter had. ‘American’ was the immediate response. I then played them a part of the first interview with the British actor Hugh Laurie, whose accent is fairly close to RP, and repeated my question. This time the students were nonplussed – they didn’t consider his way of speaking an ‘accent’. In the words of one student, they were in the ‘home’ of English, and Hugh Laurie was, by extension, (and echoing Lippi-Green’s metaphor), a homeowner. It may well be that the class taken place in the US, the students may have seen the presenter’s accent as the ‘unmarked’ one. Thus is the notion of ‘no accent’ inherently connected to national identity, belonging and status.

However, we might want to pause before dismissing the desire for accent reduction as the result of misconceived notion of the role of the relationship between a language and ‘its’ speakers. In a classic study (described in Tagg 2012 p299), Lambert found that people speaking with ‘native’ Canadian English accents were ranked higher by both English and French-speaking Canadians for “likeability, ambition, dependability, self-confidence, sense of humour, good looks and height” than ‘non-natives’. The research took place in a lab rather than in a natural setting, but its results have been replicated elsewhere (see Tagg, 2012 p301 for a list). Thus can accent imply not just a positive image of others, but a negative view of oneself, and in this way can linguistic value systems “reflect and reinforce class, ethnic and gender inequalities” (ibid; see also Lindemann, Litzenberg and Subtirelu, 2014, p171). Those who speak with a prestigious accent possess what we might, following Bourdieu’s notion of ‘linguistic capital’ (1977), call phonological capital.

Sociolinguists concur that the categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in relation to language use are of little relevance (see for example Trudgill 2000). But as users of language we are nonetheless very quick to categorise and judge people – literally so, in fact. Flege (1984) showed that people can recognise a ‘non-native’ accent in only 0.03 seconds, while Major (2007) demonstrated that we can identify one in a language we don’t speak. Munro, Derwing and Burgess discovered that we can even detect a non-native accent when the speech is played backwards (2003). As we saw in the previous paragraph, and as Lindemann (2005) detailed in her study of US undergraduates’ categorisations of ‘broken’ English, recognition of ‘non-native’ speech patterns often leads to social discrimination and prejudice. It might be considered reasonable to try to escape judgements which, as Gee wrote in another context, “implant in thought and action unfair, dismissive, or derogatory assumptions” (2014, p96).

However, an L1 accent can also be beneficial to the learner. Some accents have other currencies which serve to offset the disadvantages (Lippi-Green, 2012, p239) such as the cache attributed to French accents. Dalton and Seidlhofer (1994) also point out that language is used to establish a sense of community. Some may prefer to preserve their accent out of a sense of wanting to indicate their membership of a separate community. The phenomena of convergence and divergence, developed as part of Speech Accommodation Theory by Giles, Coupland and Coupland (1971) explain some of the dynamics of this not-always-conscious process, while Gardner and Lambert (1972) highlighted the importance of identification with the target community. Hence one reason why ‘non-native’ speakers of a language may want to reduce their accent is, as Jennifer Jenkins acknowledges in her work on the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) (1998; 2000; 2003), not to be intelligible but to fit in socially. As Levis (2005) explains, accent is an essential marker of what social groups the speaker belongs to and would like to belong to (p374-375). In addressing the difference between the need to communicate and the need to assimilate, Dalton and Seidlhofer make a useful distinction between accessibility (ie intelligibility) and acceptability (access to social groupings) (1994 p9-10). As we shall explore later, the particular setting for language learning will help determine the extent to which the learner wants and/or needs to ‘fit in’. This issue has different implications for English speakers in Inner Circle, Outer Circle and Expanding Circle contexts (Kachru 1992).

In arguing for the importance of sociolinguistic factors in the formation of accent, Levis (2005) argues that “the role of identity is perhaps as strong as the biological constraints” (p375). The degree of social allegiance, whether conscious or unconscious, is certainly a powerful determinant. But what about other aspects?

Is it possible to get rid of one’s accent?

A long-standing principle in ELT is what Levis (2005) calls the ‘nativeness principle’, which holds that it is both possible and desirable to achieve native-like pronunciation in a foreign language. Piske, Mackay and Flege (2001) identify several aspects as crucial in determining how successful or unsuccessful a learner may or may not be in mastering a different set of phonological features: their L1; the age at which they started to learn; how long they have lived in the L2 environment; their gender, formal instruction, motivation, and language learning aptitude; and how frequently they have used the target language. That is a formidable list of challenges, and together with the sociolinguistic factors helps explain why, as Rampton discovered, people who are indistinguishable in other ways from native speakers can still have accented speech (1990). Levis also confirms that “in practice very few adult learners actually achieve native-like pronunciation in a foreign language” (2005 p370). Even in relation to bilingual speakers, Mack (1984) confirmed that early bilinguals demonstrate minor differences from monolinguals. This has been attributed to various attitudinal and psychological factors (Dalton and Seidlhofer, 1994, p8), and debate continues with regard to the ‘critical period’ for language learning, with plasticity of the brain thought to be a factor (see for example Birdsong 2018).

Is it desirable to get rid of one’s accent?

Now we return to the question of its desirability of acquiring native-like pronunciation. Jenkins not only argued that “the whole concept of ‘accent reduction’ is flawed in the context of English as an International Language (EIL) accents” (Jenkins, 2000, p207), but also developed an alternative, based on research into mutual intelligibility between non-native speakers, reducing the range of phonological features of English to ones that learners are able to master and which make a difference to their ability to understand one another (Jenkins, ibid). There have been a number of critical responses to her model, but in essence it provides a formidable challenge to the ‘nativeness principle’ by supporting what Levis (2005) called the ‘intelligibility principle’, which “recognizes that communication can be remarkably successful when foreign accents are noticeable or even strong” (p. 370). Seidlhofer (2005) argues in favour of the latter model on the basis that is based not on a notion of deficit but of divergence. Firth and Wagner (1997) rightly criticised the notion of the foreign language learner as a “deficient communicator struggling to overcome underdeveloped L2 competence, striving to reach the “target” [L2] competence of an idealized native speaker”.

The ‘Lingua Franca Core’ and World Englishes

Jenkins draws on drawing on existing SLA theories in arguing persuasively for an enhanced focus on EIL: for example, she argues that convergence is a factor, but that learners should not be encouraged to converge towards a ‘native speaker’ model. She argues that ‘L1 speakers have…forfeited the right to dictate standards of pronunciation for L1 use’ (p16). There are valid arguments against her reasoning. For example, as Trudgill (2005) points out, although the number of non-native users of English long overtook the number of ‘natives’, there are few non-natives who use English 100% or even most of the time. Jenkins’ model is also based on observation of learners from a limited range of language backgrounds, and so can be criticised for limited coverage. Trudgill (ibid) also comments that successful intelligibility partly depends on the level of speaker and the listener. I know from personal experience of learning languages that it is often easier to understand a fellow non-native speaker with a better command of the language, although this may have more to do with the relative absence of idiomaticity and pragmatic difficulties. Trudgill also evokes the Shortfall Principle, which holds that whatever model is used, it is not expected that learners will fully achieve their goals. He uses it to argue persuasively that if EIL is used as a model, any failure to attain its targets will result in a breakdown in communication (2008 p92). It might also be argued that there is also element of embracing pidginization to the LFC/ELF projects. That may be not such a bad thing, given that the role of English internationally as a medium of trade and exchange (a ‘contact language’) is not dissimilar to the functions which pidgins have played throughout history. However, that same historical development also suggests that Jenkin’s call for ELF to be taught as a subject (including to ‘native speakers’ of English) (Jenkins, 2000), may be misguided, as it is destined by definition never to be used as a mother tongue and thus never to stabilise into a creole (Wardhaugh, 2002).

Another issue with particular implications in relation to accent and English teaching is the phenomenon of World Englishes. If we are to retain the model of Received Pronunciation or General American for English language learners, what does that imply for the status of Singaporean, Nigerian or Indian speakers of English, who may easily satisfy almost all definitions of ‘native speakers’? This returns us to a set of political issues as to who can claim ownership of English. Seidlhofer dismisses the notion that English will be forever subject to the rule(s) of monolingual native speakers as “naïve” (2005, p61), while Jenkins herself states that neither GA and RP can call itself standard, in that neither is “intrinsically superior” (2000, p204). Phillipson (1992, sets out a number of fallacies which he argues exemplify an essentially imperialist attempt to maintain control over the language, although his critique has rightly been taken to task for failing to acknowledge that learners of English also have agency and may well wish to use English to suit their own communicative and social purposes (Holborrow 2016); this may include, for example, desiring to adopt another accent.

It’s also important to note that, as Jenkins (2000) acknowledges, the degree of usefulness of the LFC framework depends on the specific teaching and learning context. As mentioned previously, it is true that in many cases assimilation is the goal of learners, and in many contexts (for example, in the case of migration from Expanding Circle to Inner Circle countries (Krachu 1992)) that is entirely understandable. Some learners are likely to do more than merely communicate functionally with L1 speakers of English. In most EFL contexts, in which the language and culture of Inner Circle countries is paramount. One valid criticism of the whole approach is that it’s not always clear to learners what their goals, targets and models should be, and therefore the LFC may not suit them. As Seidlhofer (2005, p70) points out, this relies on judicious decision-making by the teacher.

Pedagogical implications

Despite all the difficulties and misconceptions that we have looked at, Derwing’s discovery that 95% of students want to get rid of their accents suggests that this (self-)perception is still prevalent (2003). It would be interesting to see similar statistics regarding teachers’ attitudes, especially with regard to native and non-native teachers: although Trudgill’s negative reaction to Jenkins’ work seems to suggest that he is partly concerned to preserve his own identity and status as a ‘native’ (Trudgill, 2008), the same cannot be said of the several Polish (i.e. non-native) teachers who contributed to two conferences on the value of the LFC, many of whom expressed indignation at the notion of a reduced inventory of phonological features, feeling the LFC to be condescending and of limited relevance to their teaching contexts (see Dziubalska-Kolaczyk and Przedlacka, 2005).

However, it seems to me shortsighted to reject out of hand the notion of a limited set of manageable priorities for teaching intelligible pronunciation. I agree with Smith and Nelson (2006) that while good pronunciation remains the focus in EFL classrooms, it is situational, social and cultural awareness that actually causes learners more difficulties. In any case research has shown that despite the academic attention it has received, the notion of an LFC has only had a limited impact within the word of EFL, partly as it has received “low status and low priority” on teacher training courses (Spicer, 2012). As a result, most pronunciation classes I have taught and observed have maintained the same focus on the full range of phonological features of English. It it takes a concerted effort to remember to consider carefully how a pronunciation activity will develop learners’ ability to communicate with each other. Thus all teachers would benefit from being made more aware of these debates and resources, especially on CELTA courses. Lindemann also argues that the case against misconceived ideas about accent should be made outside the classroom, in society more generally (2008, p41).

Walker (2011) makes a number of specific suggestions for teaching the LFC. But what general lessons can be learned from all the research we have surveyed? Firstly, it is essential that learners be made aware of issues and debates around identity and ownership of English. The notion of English as a Lingua Franca should not just be discussed by teachers in relation to their learners. The coursebook series ‘Global English’ (Clandfield, Benne, and Jeffries 2011), produced in consultation with David Crystal, explicitly addresses these issues in a way that helps learners to make informed decisions about their own needs and identity as users of English. Learners should be helped to understand that their difficulties are not necessarily caused by Communicative Competence (Lindemann 2006 p43). Similarly, teachers should be aware that not all problems can be solved by better language teaching (Lindemann ibid).

Given that there is no single ‘native speaker’ model, more ‘non-native’ ones should be used in listening exercises. Very few coursebooks do this at present, with ‘Outcomes’ (Dellar, Walkley and Maris, 2010) a rare exception. In addition, Cauldwell’s book ‘Phonology for listening’ (2013) uses spoken texts from native speakers not as a model to teach accent, but to develop listening skills. In addition, English is spoken with a wide range of accents, not just ‘native’ ones, and this includes those of the students themselves, or others from the same L1 background. They make more appropriate models in most cases than ‘native’ accents.

Another adjustment that the whole TEFL industry should make with regard to the insights and tools developed by Jenkins and others is to employ non-native teachers. Seidlhofer (1999) points out that they have privileged insights based on having learned the language (p221), while Widdowson (1994) emphatically demolishes the theoretical justifications for ‘native’ teachers being employed over non-native ones. The tradition of doing so is ultimately a matter of marketing rather than a rationale based on pedagogical principles.

With regard to language testing, the IELTS band 9 descriptors rightly specify not ‘native-like’, but a ‘full’, ‘precise’ and ‘subtle’ range’ of pronunciation features. All such exam criteria should have a strong emphasis on accessibility over acceptability and any mention of ‘native-like’ should be replaced with ‘expert’, ‘proficient’ or some other term. IELTS even requires that candidates show their passports to the Speaking examiner. Such procedures serve to activate discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious, on the part of the tester, and thus the procedure should at the very least be anonymised wherever possible. Lindemann also argues that it is wrong for universities to make a blanket distinction (on the basis of nationality) between ‘native and ‘non-native’ students when it comes to language ability (p41); as she points out, there is” no simple definition of what constitutes a non-native speaker”, and it is simply not the case that everyone with a particular passport has a C2 command of their ‘national language’.

Conclusions

As we have seen, the issue of accent is an extremely complex one and the notion of a ‘native accent’ is deeply problematic. Everyone has an accent, and those who learn to speak another language will almost inevitably do so with traces of their own phonological background.

Learners should be encouraged to work towards pronunciation that is, as Block (2009) wrote of ‘Wes’, ‘good enough’ for their purposes. There are vanishingly few social circumstances wherein a ‘non-native’ accent should be regarded as a problem, and once they have mastered intelligible pronunciation learners of English should be encouraged to focus on other areas such as pragmatic and lexicogrammatical competence in developing their language skills and knowledge.

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