Try telling an adult ESL learner who has been here for years and still struggles to be understood that reducing accents isn’t necessary. It may be PC to accept everyone no matter how they pronounce English words, but non-native speakers live in the real world. And c’mon…what image do you get in your mind when you read the phrase “hillbilly English.” Is that a posh British accent in your head or a nasal drawl?
People judge. We just do.
Shouldn’t we honor the fact that they are speaking English rather than nitpick their accent? Of COURSE! However, please don’t tell someone who wants to be able to drop their accent that they should keep it. It’s their choice, and they might have an excellent reason for that desire.
I was born in and grew up in Oklahoma. I used to have a heavy Okie accent. For a very brief time, I lived in New Jersey, and let me assure you, people most certainly stereotyped my intelligence every time I opened my mouth.
If people weren’t dismissing me as dumb, they were practically patting me on the head (both men AND women) and patronizing me for being cute. They didn’t take my message seriously due to my accent. I would get great responses to anything I had written, but I somehow turned into the female version of Gomer Pyle in their eyes when they heard me speak.
I would have given anything to be able to speak without my accent, and eventually, I got really good at it. People don’t just judge non-native English speakers by how they speak, but they are already up against so many stereotypes. Why not lessen the power this has over them?
Accents identify outsiders.
Now, while people may have judged me as a redneck, I never had to worry about my safety from those who are anti-immigrant. They knew I was from Oklahoma, not overseas. Our adult ESL students are better off when they can neutralize their accent when speaking with it could jeopardize their safety.
I lived overseas for a number of years, and you can bet that I tried to subdue mine when being identified as an American made me a target. I wasn’t that great at it, so I had to limit what I said. I wished I knew how to neutralize it. I saw it as just another precaution to take, like, don’t walk down certain streets alone after dark. Accents identify outsiders, which is sometimes no concern at all. But, for the times when it does matter, isn’t it better to know how to and have the ability to code-switch?
Accents can be limiting.
Wait, isn’t neutralizing a person’s accent unnecessary as long as most people can understand him? Having a neutral accent (or as close to one as possible) will help adult ESL students make progress in their professional life and social life (outside of their first language community).
Right or wrong, when all else is equal, an employer is more likely to promote someone, whether a fluent speaker or not, whose accent is easily understood. To be clear, I feel this is wrong, but I am never consulted on societal rules, expectations, and such.
Many people may label someone with a heavy accent as an outsider or even less intelligent. An accent is not likely to accurately reflect a person’s abilities, but it can limit his/her opportunities due to others’ perceptions. The world isn’t perfect, so sometimes we are forced to work within the boundaries.
How can adult ESL teachers help?
Does reducing or neutralizing an accent require a speech therapist? A speech therapist would very likely be your adult ESL students’ best opportunity to speak with a native-like accent, but how many have the time or the money for one? ESL teachers can be one of the steps on the path and should be. Too often, we get accustomed to many heavy accents. We become an expert in deciphering what our students are trying to say. What happens when they are outside the classroom trying to communicate with someone who DOESN’T have experience with ESL students?
Your adult ESL students should strive to neutralize their accents to increase their personal and professional opportunities. This isn’t EFL, where people who speak English with the same accent surround them. Your students need to LIVE their English, not just use it.
Neutralizing their accents will help them communicate more effectively in social settings (think conversations, phone calls, parent-teacher meetings) and professional environments (think presentations, working together on projects with co-workers). It will also help them if they plan to attend a university where class participation is part of their grade and meetings with professors necessary.
Where do I even begin?
- Search the internet to find the common pronunciation difficulties of your students according to their language background.
- Then focus heavily on what they say to see what their weaknesses are.
I recommend doing the research FIRST because, again, we are so accustomed to a myriad of heavy accents that our brains just switch the sounds around until it is correct. I had been listening to Saudi students for years before I started to really work with them on their accents. Their habit of using /b/ instead of /p/ was still noticeable to me. However, I hadn’t even realized that they struggled with vowel sounds. It wasn’t until I concentrated on HOW they spoke that I could hear it, but I’d heard from people in the community that they struggled to understand the Saudis.
- Next, gather minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are words that sound exactly alike except for ONE vowel sound or ONE consonant sound. For example: peach/beach, very/berry, wrist/rest .
- Finally, use those minimal pairs to help your students first hear the difference in sounds and then to pronounce it. With pronunciation, drill, drill, drill actually helps. They need lots of repetition and lots of practice. Check out this article where I share (not chair) how to create listening labyrinths with those minimal pairs. (not bears).
Oh, and that heavy Okie accent I used to have? I worked really hard to reduce that. Now I’m judged by WHAT I say rather than HOW I pronounce what I say.
Looking for some pronunciation BOOM cards with audio? Click here.