Learn English – How to explain accent variations to students


I am an ESL teacher working in China. During lessons, I am occasional interrupted by students or parents who point out that my pronunciation of some words is incorrect. They then produce a dictionary or text book and point to the IPA guide or pull out a electronic dictionary and play the rather tinny sounding, low quality, usually American, recording of the word.

Usually I am unable to discern any significant difference in pronunciation. If there is a difference, it will be in the vowel sound which in English is highly variable from one region to another. However the student/parent will argue adamantly that their book or dictionary is correct even though I am a native English speaker with an middle class, albeit regionally slanted, accent.

I think the situation is exacerbated in China as they have a concept of Putonghua or 'Proper Speech' in their native tongue. My university students have to take Putonghua exams to show that they can speak Chinese in a correct, standard, style. They thus extend the same concept to English. They know that AmE and BrE are not the same but they fail to understand that within these, there are large variations in accent and that nobody speaks a truly standard accent.

So with that background, on to my question.

I am looking for explanation and/or resources that can assist me in explaining English accents to students and parents who query the correctness, or rather validity, of my pronunciation. Does anyone have any ideas on how to teach students about accent differences within English?

Best Answer

OK, there are a couple of things that you need to tackle initially:

  • if students have it into their head that there exists one single accent that is "the correct" one, then you need to start by educating them on that point: explain to them that no two people have a precisely identical accent, that the associations we attach to different accents are purely arbitrary, and that even within what is perceived of as a "standard" accent (e.g. among TV newsreaders) there is actually variation -- as an exercise, maybe you could have the students listen to some different newsreaders and look out for differences, e.g. in the vowel used in "path" etc, whether they pronounce the first syllable of "decided" with a schwa or a [I] vowel etc;
  • given that, they need to understand that hearing one example recording gives them a typical pronuncation "within certain parameters, subject to some variation";
  • students need to understand that a phonetic transcription is an abstract analysis, where the transcriber attempts to give "the main features" of an utterance, and in the case of a dictionary, not even an actual utterance but an imagined one; they can't expect to even glean all of the details of an actual pronunciation from a transcription, let alone then use that as a judge for all utterances of a given word/phrase.

Things that may help you:

  • the Speech Accent Archive -- as an exercise, get the students to listen and note differences of various pronuncations deemed to have a given "accent" (some have phonetic transcriptions -- these could also be used as support)
  • work by Peter Trudgill on perception of accents (sorry, don't have exact ref to hand, but he compared foreign speakers' reaction vs native speakers' reaction, showing that perceptions of accents are arbitrarily learnt rather than inherent)
  • the book "Urban Voices" by Foulkes et al
  • a little bit technical, but if you don't mind paying for it or local library has access, Emmanuel Ferragne & François Pellegrino's article "Formant frequencies of vowels in 13 accents of the British Isles" in the Journal of the IPA (2010, vol 1) -- even if you/they don't understand all the technical details, it may serve visually to say "look, there are quite a lot of differences between accents"