One thing I’ve noticed virtually all language learners want to achieve, as soon as they can, is getting rid of their accent. That is, the specific phonetic features of their speech that are a dead giveaway of the speaker’s first language. And when it comes to native accents, most learners seem to have made their choice – whether their preference leans towards the old prestige, fancier British accent, or the modern, hollywood reminiscent and snappier American accent. Because, let’s be honest, nobody really thinks of beautiful New Zealand as their first choice (anyone?).
However, the specific features of those accents are not easy for everyone to learn. And, as a result, speakers show a very distinct array of non-native accents. And, let’s face it, almost nobody likes having an accent. In fact, I myself, living in Spain, can’t help but blush every time a stranger replies to me in English after I approach them in my best Spanish. That being said, it’s important to understand that your accent does not necessarily hinder your audience’s ability to understand you. And there is some very interesting science on that.
Jennifer Jenkins, a UK linguist, spent many years listening to non-native English speakers interacting in social and classroom settings, and took note of the communication issues that arose. Based on that, she published a scientific paper called “A Sociolinguistically Based, Empirically Researched Pronunciation Syllabus for English as an International Language”. And what that paper aims to be is just that, a brief syllabus pointing out those patterns that arise when analysing miscommunications between non-native speakers of English, and some recommendations on how teachers should focus their attention on correcting those problematic features. An interesting finding in that article is that there are some sounds whose correct pronunciation is crucial for mutual understanding while other sounds are not really important. For example: are you able to distinctly pronounce “leave” and “live”? What about “pat” and “bat”? On the other hand, some mispronunciations are acceptable in that they do not stand in the way of mutual understanding. If some consonant clusters are difficult for you to pronounce and you tend to add a syllable (for example, you pronounce “product” as per-od-uct), that’s okay! Her findings suggest that you can get away with that because your interlocutor will still understand you.
Jenkins says in her article that these findings have important implications for English pronunciation teaching. It seems that the efficient way of teaching English pronunciation should be to solely focus on those features that are crucial to understanding, without trying to make the student acquire a perfect native accent (which is, in some cases, straight up impossible). Moreover, on that line, some other researchers point out that non-native language teachers can do a fine job at teaching pronunciation if we judge them on the basis that having a regional non-native accent, while still having to fulfill certain parameters, is totally okay.
If you really think about it, non-native English speakers outnumber native speakers, and that has been the case for a really long time. So, from a practical perspective, does it really make sense trying to make a majority of people speak in the way the minority do? By these numbers, most of the English interactions a non-native speaker of English will participate in will be with other non-natives. So why should a German and a Chinese native speak to each other in a perfect, say, London accent? Why meet in a whole other country, instead of meeting in the middle?
But of course, this is not what you see in reality. Language academies boast about hiring only native speakers. There are even professionals solely dedicated to regional native accent acquisition, the so-called accent coaches (and whether a good native regional accent serves to improve a person’s chance for career success in that region is debatable and very circumstantial). Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against these professionals because any case of supply is brought by some sort of demand: English learners (or, in general, learners of any language) want to sound like a native. Parents in Europe – I’ve seen this in Spain a lot – spend vacation money on sending their kids to England to hear the language spoken exclusively through British lips. And, every time I walk into a class and have a student read a newspaper article aloud for me to pinpoint his pronunciation “particularities”, I happily write down any deviations from what would be a standard UK accent and point them out to the student, as all of them expect me to do. Because, as any worker, I’m just a piece of supply trying to adapt to an unyielding demand.
Most trends change slowly and, although the research behind teaching English as an international language is growing in number and relevance, I don’t expect the wish for non-natives to acquire a perfect native accent to change any time soon. But, with time, and as the number of international speakers of English grows, I believe in the future people will start focusing on using English purely as a shared means of communication with the world, and speakers will start making the English language their own.