While in London recently, I came across a book entitled Get Rid of Your Accent: The English Pronunciation and Speech Training Manual. My initial reaction was to get quite annoyed, and my feeling hasn’t really changed since then. Accents and pronunciation are often on my mind, as an English teacher, and at the time I was particularly conscious of this area of language as I was on a course with fellow teachers from England, The Isle of Man, Scotland, Australia, India, Serbia and Portugal. Everyone of course had quite different accents, but was perfectly comprehensible, which is obviously important for an English teacher.
And comprehensibility is naturally a primary concern for language students. You want to make sure that people can understand you when you speak. Which is why I understand when students are concerned about their accent causing communication problems. And that can happen, depending on the person’s native tongue, nationality, and particular way of speaking. Therefore one can help students with developing their accent in terms of certain words and phrases, or specific sounds. But getting rid of one’s accent? Not only do I think that it’s never necessary, I actually find the thought quite abhorrent.
First of all, as the make-up of the group of teachers on the course shows, English can be spoken perfectly clearly in a variety of accents. Students may struggle with pronunciation while learning English, but usually after some time spent learning, any serious problems disappear. Any non-native speaker has the potential to speak in a comprehensible manner, given enough time to study and practice.
Getting fixated on pronunciation can also strongly affect a student’s confidence, and therefore their learning. Someone might make great improvements in their grammar and vocabulary, for example, but still hesitate when speaking as they want to pronounce things “perfectly,” even though they’re quite easy to understand when they speak.
And yet if one really insisted on getting rid of one’s accent, what accent would one replace it with?
The most common choice would usually be an English accent. Which makes sense in a way, as it is the English language after all. But which one? The most common choice is Received Pronunciation, generally identified as a variety of the accent of south-east England and whose phonological features are taken as the standard which British-English textbooks follow. Yet why not a Yorkshire, or Liverpool, or Birmingham, or Cornish accent? And what if one is living in a different English-speaking country? Should one try to develop a Dublin, or Albuquerque, or Sydney accent, if one is living in those cities? While RP is still often seen as a standard English-language accent, one can be perfectly understood using any of the huge variety of accents native English speakers have. One might even be better off developing another accent, as RP is often now seen as being overly posh and stiff, and its status has declined somewhat as people are more and more exposed to different accents. Try watching the BBC now and see how many different accents you hear.
But as I’ve said already, that’s all academic anyway, because one can speak English perfectly well with the accent of another language.
My other main reason for disliking the idea of getting read of one’s accent is that there’s often a snobbishness behind the idea of losing an accent. That became clear to me as I leafed through the book. It was quite obvious that the writers equated losing your accent with speaking with Received Pronunciation. Perceived as the accent of upper-middle class England, there’s always been a sense that it sounds more refined, cultured and educated than other “regional” accents. Even though this impression is in decline, we do still tend to judge people by their accents, and perceive different ones as “higher” or “lower” respectively. Which is why this book annoyed me: it perpetuated the myth that Received Pronunciation is more desirable than others, under the guise of improving English students’ pronunciation.
And what really irritates me is that the assumed desired result of getting rid of one’s accent is that everyone would speak with the same accent, which I would find incredibly boring. One of the things I love most about English is the huge variety of different accents it has. There are great differences between an urban Cork accent, a north Texas drawl, and the tones of a West-country English farmer, for example. Yet all are mutually comprehensible (generally!) and are all part of the same language. That diversity should be cherished simply for its own sake, but also because their are different charms we can all find in different accents. And that extends to non-native English speakers. English is such a flexible language that adapts and assimilates elements of other languages, and I love the way speakers of other languages introduce some of the cadences, rhythms and little quirks of their own languages into the way they speak English. Yes, it might be different from the way your teacher speaks, but if they and everyone else can understand you, then so what!?
Your accent is also part of you are. It tells your story, where you’ve been, and maybe where you’re going. One of the best things about an English-language classroom is the variety of backgrounds and cultures of the students, and I’d resist anything that might lessen that diversity.
So if you’ve ever considered or felt pressured into getting rid of your accent, please don’t! It’s part of who you are, and part of the wonderful variety of English which is a language that we all share and own, even if it’s not your native language.