It’s very important for learners in the 21st century to understand a range of accents in the language they are learning. When people speak a language, they do not sound the same and to be successful communicators internationally, students need not only to make themselves understood but also to be prepared to listen and understand the truly vast variety of voices they’ll encounter in the world outside the classroom.
Bearing this in mind, it is important for teachers to help prepare their students for this diverse world by bringing a range of accents into the classroom, encouraging them to reflect on how the speakers’ pronunciations are similar or different to their own, and discussing their own expectations and attitudes as listeners.
By raising learners’ awareness in this way, teachers can improve the chances of communicative success wherever they come from and whoever they are using the language they are learning.
Here are some tips to help your learners understand different accents:
The more you listen, the easier it is
It’s common for learners to complain about a particular accent, but there’s little evidence that anyone's accent is more difficult to comprehend than any other. Although the language ability of the individual you’re talking to will have a major effect on intelligibility, the accent itself need not cause problems. The more familiar learners are with an accent, the easier it will be to understand. Therefore, the best thing you can do to help your learners is to ensure they’re regularly exposed to the accents they need to understand.
The initial part of any lesson on accents will not differ greatly from a typical listening lesson. Allow learners to gain a general understanding of what is being said. Then set a more detailed listening task using comprehension, true or false questions, or another suitable task. Don’t forget vocabulary. Think about the words learners may struggle with and either teaches these before listening for lower ability groups or concept check them afterward for higher groups. Once you’ve used the listening device to develop general listening skills, you can go on to exploit it specifically for accents.
Help learners to understand their own accent.
We all hold particular beliefs and biases about accents, and many people believe their own accent to be “neutral”. But an accent is just a consistent pattern of sound, and there are many possible patterns. There isn’t one that is perfect, correct or neutral. We can help learners to notice this by having discussions in class, including questions like these:
Think of a language that you speak well. Can you think of any accent(s) that you especially like or don’t like? Why do you like or dislike these accents? Who do you associate them with – friendly people? Uneducated people? Sophisticated people?
Has your own accent changed during your life? Why? How?
Think about your close friends and family. Do they all sound the same as you? What about people you don’t know, but who you respect or admire (for example, celebrities)?
Help learners to understand otheraccents.
When we are more familiar with an accent, we are more likely to understand someone who speaks with that accent. Learners need to hear a variety of voices in the classroom and teachers can help them pay attention to specific features of these speakers’ pronunciation. So it’s critical that learners listen to challenging accents frequently. Then, ask them these questions:
How would you say this word/phrase?
Is that similar or different to the speaker we just heard? How? Why?
What are some other ways that people can say this word/phrase?
Which way(s) do you find clearest? Why?
Be sensitive when talking in class about attitudes and prejudices around accents, both in English and in the students’ other language(s).
An accent is closely related to identity, and talking about these issues can be difficult. We must always remember to be respectful when analyzing how other people speak. One way that we can help learners to separate our opinions about a person from our opinions about their speech is by thinking about who we consider as role models.
Research suggests that well-known non-native English speakers, such as actors or sports players, can provide very good role models for learners. They have demonstrated through their professional success that it’s OK to speak with an accent and that many people around the world have no difficulty understanding or admiring them. So, try these questions with your students:
Do you think the way a person speaks gives any information about their talents, skills or other personal qualities?
How would you feel if someone criticized the way you speak? (Do you have any examples or experience of this that you are happy to share with the class?)
Think of a famous person who has the same first language as you and who you really admire and respect. What do they sound like? Have you ever thought about their accent or how they learned English?
Do you have any other tips? How do you prepare your students to understand different accents? Which tools do you use?