The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

American or British accent?

Question:

Submitted by Majid Shojayee,  Iran

Do you think students should aim to master an American or British accent?

Dr Richards responds:

The role of English as an international language has refocussed interest in the role of pronunciation in teaching English. In the 1970’s the target for learning was assumed to be a native-speaker variety of English and it was the native speaker’s culture, perceptions, and speech that were crucial in setting goals for English teaching. The native speaker had a privileged status. Today local varieties of English such as Filipino English and Singapore English are firmly established as a result of indigenization, and in contexts where English is a foreign language there is less of a pressure to turn foreign-language speakers of English (e.g. Koreans, Mexicans, or Germans) into mimics of native-speaker English, be it an American, British, or Australian variety. The extent to which a learner seeks to speak with a native-like accent and sets this as his or her personal goal, is a personal one. It is not necessary to try to eradicate the phonological influences of the mother tongue nor to seek to speak like a native speaker. Jennifer Jenkins argues that RP pronunciation is both an unattainable and an unnecessary target for second language learners, and she proposes a phonological syllabus that maintains core phonological distinctions but is a reduced inventory from RP.

Setting a native-speaker target for the learning of pronunciation has also been criticized on other grounds:

Because it is largely unattainable  – Unless learners commence learning English at a very young age and are exposed to very large amounts of native-speaker input and are strongly motivated to acquire a native-speaker accent, it is unlikely that they will acquire a native-speaker accent.

Because it is unnecessary – Effective comprehension is not dependent upon the speaker having a native-speaker accent. What is more important is intelligibility and fluency, which depends upon a good control of grammar, vocabulary, a level of pronunciation which does not impede communication, effective communication strategies as well the ability to communicate with ease and without excessive pauses and interruptions. The speaker’s pronunciation should not arouse negative reactions or interfere with understanding but variance in pronunciation is a normal feature of communication.

Because the learner may not seek it – Learners may feel that it is acceptable for their English pronunciation to reflect their linguistic, and hence their cultural background. While some learners may set as their goal being able to speak like a native speaker of British, American or Australian English for example, others may feel that an accent influenced by their native language is part of their cultural identity.