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Breaking down ESL: What it means to have an accent

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At some stage, language teachers and learners everywhere have obsessed about what it means to speak with an accent, which begs the question: Is speaking with an accent such a bad thing? The first step to answering the question is understanding the true meaning of the word. A quick exploration of online dictionaries will produce the following definitions related to accents and speaking.

Accents defined

Accent is defined by Cambridge Dictionary online as the way in which people in a particular area or country pronounce words. Merrian-Webster agrees, calling it a way of speaking typical of a particular group of people, and especially of the natives or residents of a region. Interestingly, it also adds that it’s an individual’s distinctive or characteristic inflection, tone or choice of words. Oxford seems to agree as well, adding that not only it can be associated with a particular nation or locality, but also to social class. Out of the three, Oxford is the only one to also define it as pronunciation.

Pronunciation

Cambridge explains that pronunciation is the way in which a word or letter is said, or said correctly, or the way in which a language is spoken. Merriam-Webster and Oxford, both define it as the way in which a word is pronounced, adding no value and warranting further research.

When looking at ‘to pronounce’, Cambridge uses once again the expression ‘correctly’, as in to say a word or letter in a particular or correct way. The assumption of correctness is repeated in the other two dictionaries, with Merriam defining it as saying or speaking a word correctly, and Oxford concurring that it typically means the sound made was the correct one.

Is having an accent such a bad thing?

It might be best to illustrate with examples, focusing on native English speakers only. Take the case of the Scottish. Their accent is a very distinct one, often making it difficult for native speakers of other regions to understand them. Notice for a second the distinction between difficult and impossible. While difficult implies it inherently poses a challenge, by no means does it translate into being impossible to achieve. In fact, a little cooperation and tolerance on both ends of the communication channel will most likely result in successful communication, even during a first encounter.

The second example focuses on Americans from the south, who have one of the most peculiar accents in the country. Their special twang can also prove difficult to be understood, even to fellow Americans from other areas of the country. Like in the previous example, while it may be a little bit challenging for native speakers from different regions to understand them, it is in fact possible.

In both cases, accents tell a story about the origins of a person. They are symbols of their country/region and their culture, an integral part of their unique identity as citizens of the world, differentiating them from other native English speakers across the globe. This uniqueness is what makes them beautiful.

If it’s OK for native speakers to have an accent, why is it so concerning when non-native speakers have them too? Both teachers and students must strive for accuracy in pronunciation at all times, because it’s fundamental to speaking a language correctly and communicating effectively. Pronunciation, however, is not to be confused with having an accent. All foreign language speakers should carry their accents with pride. It’s not only a beautiful reminder of where they’re from, but evidence to some of their wonderful achievements, and they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Melissa earned her CELTA in 2010 at International House Madrid, and began teaching ESL in November 2010. She earned a second TEFL certificate in 2011 at TtMadrid. During her time in Spain, she led a staff of 40 to 50 language teachers in a language services company in Madrid for almost two years. Most recently, she has been teaching ESL and Spanish in Denver since October 2013. Find out more about her at www.linkedin.com/in/melissaarmstrong2013.

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