Too much accent?

03.31.2011

in Beyond the Basics

Shortly after I published What about my accent? a Successful English reader asked if too much accent could make it difficult for listeners to understand what he was saying. I told him that could happen. But I also told him that it probably wouldn’t happen very often.

He wrote:

It’s really inspiring for me to learn more English without caring so much about my accent. But does the accent influence the pronunciation and pronunciation influence the meaning or idea of the word we want to utter? There are so many words in English that resemble each other in pronunciation. If we say a word unclearly with our unique accent, how can a listener comprehend our words?

It’s possible, but not probable

The situation my reader describes could happen, but let me explain why I don’t think it will happen very often.

We constantly try to make sense of, or to understand, what’s going on around us. It’s a natural part of being human. To do this, our brains use all of the clues – linguistic (language) and non-linguistic – that are available to us.

When we listen, and when we read, our goal is to understand, or make sense of, what we hear or see. The words and sentences we hear are linguistic clues to help us understand, but they aren’t the only clues. Important clues also come from the situation – who’s talking, what they’re talking about, and why. Our personal experiences and knowledge of the world provide important non-linguistic clues.

The words we hear do not occur as individual words, the way they do in a word list. They’re found in the context of, or together with, other words that make up sentences and paragraphs; sentences and paragraphs are found in the context of conversations, lectures, and speeches. All of these together provide clues to meaning; all of these together help us understand what’s being said.

So what happens if you mispronounce a word? Pronunciation is important; there is no question about that. But is occasional mispronunciation going to be enough to destroy the meaning of what you’re trying to say? Probably not. Let me give you an example to illustrate why not.

An example

I have been working with a doctor from a city in central Brazil. When I began working with him, his English had a very strong Portuguese accent. It was very difficult to understand words like “Rio” (Rio de Janeiro) or “hospital” when he spoke them individually.

Let’s imagine that he and I are conversing and he says, “I flew to Rio yesterday to see the emergency room in a new hospital.” And let’s imagine that he pronounced “Rio” and “hospital” the way he did a year or two ago, almost impossible to understand by themselves. I would have had little trouble understanding what he said to me because there were enough other clues to help me make sense of what he said.

What were some of the clues? First, I know he’s a doctor who lives in central Brazil. He flew to get where he went. I couldn’t understand the name of the place he flew to – he used only one short word – but the rhythm of the word matches the first part of Rio de Janeiro, and to get from his home town to Rio, he would usually have to fly. He went to see an emergency room, which we usually find in hospitals. These are only a few of the clues that were available to me to make sense of his sentence, but they are enough to show how our brain uses a variety of clues to help us understand what we hear. Even though “Rio” and “hospital” were unrecognizable, I understood what he was saying.

How good does your pronunciation need to be?

So how good does your pronunciation need to be? It needs to be good enough to provide usable clues for your listeners, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s an important source of clues to meaning, but it’s not the only source: understanding does not depend only on your pronunciation.

Most of our speaking fluency comes from listening; and reading helps, too. If you want to improve yours, that’s the place to begin. Just yesterday I received a new research study – which I’ll write about soon – that adds more support for this idea. For practical suggestions about using listening to improve your speaking fluency, especially your accent or pronunciation, be sure to read What about my accent?

Remember, conversations are not pronunciation or fluency tests. You’re not graded on the sound of your words or even your fluency in general. Conversations are for communication. Among my students, those who focus on communication – on the conversation they’re participating in – always do better in all aspects of fluency than those who constantly worry about being correct.

Warren Ediger

 

Andreu Martínez March 31, 2011

Hello,

Totally! Very good advice.

I’ve started some years ago learning English. I mainly listen a lot. Between 1 or 2 hours by day, sometimes even 4 hours. I work with international people in an international team. At the beginning and one or two years ago I needed sometimes to repeat words or sentences. I know it because obviously the person with who I was speaking asked me to repeat. Lately I almost never have to repeat anything.

I never been worried about pronunciation and I’m not shy so I speak. I’m sure that I do mistakes but I can communicate well enough. So, I totally agree with you Warren.

Bye,

Jehovanna M. Arcia Torres April 7, 2011

Dear Warren Ediger:
Reading your article makes me think about the deep reasons why English language learners want to be seen like native speakers of the English language. I honestly consider important the individual pronunciation of words in order to be able to be understood by your listener, but one’s native accent, something I understand as one’s dialect, is very difficult to overcome, and I consider it to be true because there is always anxiety presented in the acquisition of a second language, as Doctor Stephen Krashen says, this levels of anxiety may prevent the acquisition of the accent to take place. I have personally felt this situation. I speak English fluently due to my engaging in extensive reading of materials written in English (news papers, magazines, academic journals, books, articles from the internet and so on) , but I speak English with a foreign accent. I remember watching a program in which Boris Becker –the former German tennis players- was interviewed, and I felt identified with him because of the way he speaks English.
People like us, like Boris Becker and me, who have learned the English language in our adulthood, tend to have heavy accents that are not easy to surpass. In my case, those feelings of anxiety had been interchangeable by feeling of “not being part of the club,” “I have never been invited to be part of the club” (Stephen Krashen in A Conjecture on Accent in a Second Language) of the English speaking community in my native Panama, and maybe “I don’t want to be part of it.”
In spited of the fact that I like the English language so much, and am an admirer of some of the western traditions, I am of mixed backgrounds (Spaniards descendants, black Caribbean descendants and black colonized by the Spaniards, and native Americans), and have always had some feelings of some personal distress, because of the way the Europeans have always mistreated the native and the blacks in my continent. I just don’t feel to be fulfilled by this society of money violence, and maybe it is because of my feelings that I cannot achieve a much better pronunciation in the English language. I am personally much more concerned with ideas, in debating ideas, in learning subject matter in English, than in being seen like someone I am not. I am a second learner of the English language and I feel comfortable with that reality. “I rather prefer to be rejected for what I am, than having to be accepted for what I am not,” as a dissident friend says…
Many thanks for your input, it is always excellent…

David Monteiro April 7, 2011

Hi, Warren!

First of all, your suggestions are simply fantastic and very, very efficient! I’ve been studying English for 7 years, and I’ve never seen such an effective way of explaining and giving suggestions. It’s helped me a lot. I really appreciate that, man! Your articles have not only great ideas, but also overpowering contents that compellably match my needs as an ESL student! Every single day I google for new materials about listening and speaking improvement, and since I’ve found your website about one year ago, the ideas in it have helped me improve my English so much that oftentimes I think that it’s not me who’s speaking it so fluently, easily, and understandably. And I must confess that by reading your articles almost every day, including the oldest ones, my self-confidence and self-esteem have been so high that they often collide, in a good way, with the clouds in the sky. (There isn’t another way of expressing how I feel or that shows you how much PASSION I have for what I want to master. I don’t know if it makes sense to you, but that’s the way I feel).

About the article above, I’ve been doing that (focusing on listening) so that I can express myself better so that people can understand me better. They say they do, but my accent is so heavy in my native language that makes me think that it is not different in English. And it certainly isn’t! But my goal is to improve it more and more.

I got it! Great advice, man! I’ll always be grateful to you!

David Monteiro (from Bahia, Brazil)

David Monteiro April 7, 2011

Just to make it clearer about the comment I did on the article above:

I’ve been focusing on listening so that I can express myself better and understand people.

Thanks a lot!

David Monteiro (from Bahia, Brazil)

Warren Ediger April 7, 2011

Jehovanna,

Thank you for a very thoughtful comment.

You’re right that anxiety can block, or get in the way of, acquiring all aspects of language. I wrote a brief article about that almost two years ago; maybe it’s time to write more about it.

I can understand how your personal experience has affected your thinking about “club” membership. Thank you for being willing to write about it.

Today – by that I mean in 2011 – I think we can expand the idea of the English club. Because English is becoming such a universal language, we don’t need to locate it in American or British culture as much as we have in the past unless, perhaps, someone plans to immigrate. Today we can focus on that worldwide family of English-users who are fluent enough – including accent, or pronunciation – for good communication. That’s the group to join.

Along with that, I wonder if how we think about our relationship to the group is more important than being “invited to be part of the club.” (I wish that the English-speaking community in Panama had made you feel invited – I would certainly invite you!) Let me use my students as an example.

I’ve worked with adult immigrants to the U.S. and – online – with professionals, business people, and students living in different countries. Many of the students I’ve had have looked at themselves as “outsiders” when they think about English. They’d like to be an “insider,” a member of that worldwide family of English-users, but they don’t allow themselves to join the group. The reason: they don’t think their English is good enough.

I believe that language classes have contributed to this problem. The goal in class is always to get 100%, to be perfect. When students leave class, they often continue to believe that perfection is the only acceptable goal. Consequently, if they feel their English is not perfect, they refuse to think of themselves as members of the group.

This is unfortunate and, I believe, inappropriate. It takes time for fluency to develop. It emerges gradually as we acquire, or pick up, language by reading and listening. Because of that, we should expect beginners to sound like beginners and intermediates like intermediates. This is what we expect when children acquire their first language (and when they learn to walk); it’s what we should expect when we acquire a second language.

One other way to think about group, or club, membership is to think in terms of that group called “people I’d like to sound like.” Vicarious learning helps us to become like those we admire when we listen to them. This is why children often sound like their friends rather than their parents.

A good, or acceptable, accent is not a small target that’s difficult to hit. The concept of “native-like” makes it sound like it is. There is, in fact, a relatively wide range of acceptable accents. And the most important question is not “Is mine native-like?” It’s simply “Can I be understood?”

David,

Thanks! I’m delighted! Look out for those clouds!

Jehovanna M. Arcia Torres April 7, 2011

Dear Warren Ediger:

Many thanks for your reply…Yes, I agree completely with everything you have aforementioned, though I feel that English is already a universal language, so there are different English styles, I mean, English spoken with variations in the accent, but there will always be that particular style preferred because of the prestige enjoyed by members of that particular group of people who speak in such a way. The way one speaks makes you member of one particular group that in the case of my country, the style that gives prestige is definitely the American style. This reality is easy to understand if one knows the American presence in Panama. The problem, second learners in Panama may have nowadays, is to be seen like the poor version of the English speakers in Panama. Many of the new comers in Panama are commoditized white privileged people coming from rich English speaking countries, not only Americans but also Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and even some Europeans…but mostly the vast majority of the English speaking community is composed by Americans. The reality is that the members of other communities – Canadians for instance- move themselves with a low keyed manner, while the Americans are much more obvious giving local people the idea that the American style is the only possible accent acceptable.

Of course, in my country people are picky with the accent and we are compelled to be 100 % perfect not only in the spoken language but also in the written language because there are many people who can understand English, it is not like in other Latin American countries where few people may know English.

It has been interesting for me to know about “vicarious learning,” it is the first time I read this word “vicarious.” I will consider this approach in the future. In the case of sounding like people you admire, I have tried this, moreover now that I can reach people like Doctor Stephen Krashen and you in internet.

Watching/listening to Doctor Stephen Krashen is like attending the concert of a “rock star,” he is fantastic, and I imagine that watching/listening to you … would be great too. You are very generous with your time and expertise and I appreciate that profoundly. I hope you will continue with your job in many years to come.

Pss: One of the things that it is difficult for me is to recall the prepositions used when writing, for instance I know that one has to use “prevent from” but when writing, I sometimes make the mistake to use the preposition “to” instead of “from.” For example “preventing the acquisition to take place,” it has to be written: “preventing the acquisition from taking place. Prepositions for second learners like me are sometimes misused in the written language. I have to simply keep reading painstakingly, as you have already said, there is no other way…

Warren Ediger April 7, 2011

Jehovanna,

It’s true, accent is used to identify a speaker as being part of a certain group; I wrote about that in the first accent article. I’m sorry, though, to hear that it’s used in what seems to be a negative way in Panama. In general, I feel that we’re better about that here in the U.S. Accent variety is a fact of American life: we have a variety of accents among native-born Americans as well as those from other cultural backgrounds. Unfortunately, there are always some people who look for a reason to discriminate, probably in every country.

It’s common to expect 100% accuracy in writing, especially academic and other kinds of formal writing. However, in spoken English – even among native speakers – 100% accuracy is much less common. Once again, the important question is whether or not your spoken English is good enough to do what you need to do – order a Big Mac at McDonalds, talk to your doctor, answer your professor, etc. Different situations have different requirements.

Don’t worry too much about the prepositions. They are what we call a “late acquisition” – they are one of the last elements we acquire. That’s true also for native speakers. Keep reading and listening and you’ll pick them up.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: