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Choosing a Model for Pronunciation - Accent Not Accident by Robin Walker
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This article first appeared in the TESOL Spain Newsletter, Spring 2002

In March last year I attended my first TESOL-Spain conference in Seville, and was, as many committee members know, thoroughly delighted with the experience. I spoke about pronunciation at the conference, and as a result, I couldn't help but notice the range of accents I was surrounded by during my stay. The UK accents of London, Liverpool and Manchester among others, accompanied my own Newcastle twang, and I was also fully aware of a range of American accents, although obviously here I was less able to pin them down geographically speaking. Of course, to this inspiring range of native-speaker identities, I was quickly able to add an Andalucian English accent, a Madrid English accent, a Basque English accent, and a Catalan English accent.

The experience perfectly mirrored something which was to happen to me only a few weeks later at the IATEFL annual conference. After nearly two weeks in the British Isles, having been in Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Cambridge, I heard my first RP accent as I entered the conference centre on the seafront at Brighton. Both experiences raise the thorny question as to just which of these accents we should use with our students when we practise the pronunciation of English. Do we go for one of the prestige native speaker accents, Received Pronunciation in the British Isles, and General American in the United States? Alternatively, do we try for one of the less marked regional native speaker accents, or, and this really is going out on a limb, do we allow our students to imitate their local non-native speaker accent? The answer to this difficult conundrum is far from easy, since it requires us to consider not only phonological issues, but sociological, psycholinguistic, and political ones, too.

If we take the first of our options, the use of the appropriate prestige NS accent, it is easy to state the advantages of this approach: neither accent is associated with a particular region or social group in its respective country; both accents have been widely studied and are now understood in enormous detail; both accents figure widely in pronunciation course books: high-quality recordings of both accents are easily available for use in class and self-access facilities , etc. However, in the case of RP, as I so graphically discovered in Britain in April very few people actually speak this model. Indeed, current estimates for the number of RP speakers in Great Britain place the figure at less than 3%. and falling, And whilst I have no figures for GA in the United States, I am aware as I listen to programmes and films produced there, that I am being exposed to a huge range of accents, and only occasionally to GA.

The use of either of these prestige models is not without its drawbacks, the first of which is the decision as to which of the two to use in Spain. For geographical reasons, given that our students are presumably more likely to come into contact with British English, there are arguments in favour of RP. On the other hand, with around 300 million users of English as a mother tongue in North America, and less than 60 million users in the British Isles, there are strong arguments in favour of GA. But leaving numbers to one side, and ignoring for one moment the arguments of geographical accident, there are important reasons why RP, at least, is not such a good model as we initially thought. First and foremost, is the fact that it is not actually that easy to understand. In the summer of 1999, at an international conference being held in Oxford, the translation teams were required to help out on two occasions. In both instances, the speakers were British-born, Oxford dons, yet despite their RP accents, or rather because of them, the lecturers in question were not actually intelligible to the vast majority of the skilled, English-speaking, multinational audience. With its elisions, assimilations, schwas and massive vowel reductions, RP is an accent which many non-native speakers of English find depressingly difficult to understand once they reach the British Isles. Indeed, time and time again, my own students comment that it is much easier to follow other non-native speakers of English than to understand my compatriots.

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