Learning Strategies: Accents

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast all about accents.

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Hello and welcome! This is the English with Stephen podcast and today I am going to talk about something that worries a lot of my students: accents.

Some of the questions I hope to answer today are:

What is an accent?

Is it ok to have a foreign accent?

Should you try to speak like a ‘native speaker’?

Should you learn British, American or some other variety of accent?

How can you improve your accent?

What should your goal be for your accent?

Before we look at my answers to these questions, think about your own answers, and then we can see if we agree.

After this.

Today, I would like to recommend a youtube channel. Rod the Brazilian English Teacher produces an amazing number of videos specifically for English learners. He looks at the news, plays games, has short videos, interviews and looks at different countries around the world. He was gracious enough to interview me once and we spent some time talking about accents. So if you would like a change and watch a video instead of just listening to a podcast, go to youtube and look for Rod the Brazilian English Teacher. Alternatively, I will post a link on my site EnglishwithStephen.com.

Ok, so back to accents and let’s start with the first question I asked before the intro music.

What is an accent?

An accent is a way of pronouncing words in a language. This means that everyone has an accent. It does not matter where you come from, you have an accent.

Sometimes, people say I do not have an accent. This is not true. I do have an accent. Growing up, I spoke with a Birmingham accent (Birmingham is the city I come from in England). After over 25 years of teaching English, my accent has changed and has become more similar to RP, which is the standard accent for British English.

Your accent reflects who you are. It does not only reflect where you come from but also your social class, your education, your status.

And it changes. It changes over time as you change. But it also changes depending on who you are speaking to and where you are. When I go home, or when I get angry or excited, or even when I have had a couple of pints of beer, my Birmingham accent becomes more prominent.

Is it ok to have a foreign accent?

The simple answer to this is “yes”. Your accent is you. It represents you. If you are not from my city of Birmingham, why should you try to speak like people from my city? You are from Brazil or Japan or Angola or Germany. This is a part of you and so will probably be a part of your accent.

The only problem with accents occurs when people do not understand you. If this regularly happens to you, then you will need to work on pronunciation. However, I have never found an accent that cannot be understood.

In fact, having a foreign accent is great. It shows the listener that you have learned their language. It can be exotic, or at least different. And sometimes, it can be seen as sexy. There is nothing inherently wrong with a foreign accent. Just make sure people can understand you.

Should you try to speak like a ‘native speaker’?

Let’s assume that you want to reduce your accent and sound more like a native speaker. Well, there are problems with this. Which native speaker do you want to sound like? There are native speakers from Jamaica, Ireland and New Zealand. Do you want to sound like one of them? Or maybe you want to sound British? Well, there are many accents in Britain, so which one of those?

While I understand the temptation to ‘sound like a native’ it is also not a realistic goal for most people. You might spend a lot of time changing the way you speak, but this time might be better spent on some other aspect of learning a language, like improving your vocabulary.

Remember, just make sure that most people can understand you most of the time.

Should you learn British, American or some other type of accent?

While you may not want to sound exactly like a native speaker, you might want to improve the way you speak. As we have mentioned, there are many different English accents, so which one should you choose?

There are a couple of standard English accents: General American English is the standard for the USA, and RP, or Received Pronunciation, is the standard for the UK. However, just because these are the standards does not mean they are better than other accents.

If you are learning in a country like Brazil,m then you will probably be influenced by the book you are using and the teacher who is teaching you. Having a standard is great because it allows you to be consistent. So, choose one that is relevant to you, and stick with it. It might be relevant because it is close to you geographically, or your country’s education system generally uses it, or you just like it.

However, you should also expose yourself to different accents. You may not want to speak with an Australian, Indian, or South African accent, but being able to understand different accents is vital.

How can you improve your accent?

The simple answer is to listen and repeat! Listen to podcasts, especially ones with a transcript, and repeat. Try to copy the person you want to sound like.

Ask a professional, usually a teacher, for advice on what aspects of your accent you need to work on. People often assume that accent is all about the pronunciation of individual sounds, but there are other things that are important as well: word stress, and connecting speech, for example. I am planning a series of podcasts that will look at this in the future.

And finally, what should your goal be for your accent?

Your goal will depend on where you are at the moment and what you want to do. However, for most of my students, their goal is to easily be understood. If they achieve this, they are happy and can move on to thinking about other aspects of their language.

I hope the answers in this podcast have helped you. If you have any questions or doubts, feel free to leave me a comment on my site EnglishwithStephen.com. That’s S T  E P H E N, EnglishwithStephen.com. At that site, you will also find a transcript of this episode in case you would like to copy the way I speak, as well as a link to Rod the Brazilian English Teacher’s youtube channel.

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