I’m currently taking the iTDi course on materials writing with Kath Bilsborough. We took a vote on whether authentic materials needed to come from a native speaker, and the result was that the group is overwhelmingly in favour of using materials from a range of sources, not just those written ‘by native speakers for native-speaker consumption’ (the definition of authentic materials being put forward for discussion). Since Kath pointed the group in my direction for more details about this topic, here is an attempt to clarify some of the issues and provide a bit of background…
The issue that we have been trying to address here at ELFpron for the past three years is the lack of listening texts featuring a range of accents beyond native speaker accents.
We focus on speaking and listening because…
- This is what our students seemed to have most difficulty with when it comes to variation.
- In speaking and listening, it is often more instantly identifiable where someone comes from based on their accent than in writing. Therefore, the native vs. non-native speaker issue becomes more relevant.
- When you codify language in a written form, it is easier to refer to a ‘standard’. As much as some people would like there to be a standard when it comes to spoken English, the reality is much messier.
So, why don’t coursebooks feature a wider range of accents?
- As mentioned in point 3 above, some people might feel that the messy nature of the scattered English language does not make it easy to package into a neat, tidy coursebook. (I believe otherwise, which is why I am currently designing my own website and online course with resources for learners interested in International English. It will be going live very shortly – so watch this space, and thanks in advance to fellow iTDi course participants for feedback on the materials!).
- Publishers are naturally conservative. They tend to follow trends and avoid taking too many risks (with good reason, given how long and expensive the publishing process is). The demand has to come from the consumers, i.e. schools, students and teachers, but the problem is…
- That creates a vicious circle; teachers and students cannot demand something if they do not know what that something is. Students say things like “Teacher, I want to sound British” because they believe that is how they should sound. Why? Because teachers and coursebooks suggest that is how they should sound, not necessarily explicitly, but that is the message that comes across by using such a limited range of accents, and also by teaching things like weak forms and linking in productive exercises, e.g. drilling these features and using words like ‘correct’, ‘mistake’, or ‘good pronunciation’ – as if these are a) how everyone speaks everywhere in the world, and b) as if things like weak forms and linking will help students in their speaking. It is exactly those types of pronunciation features that students complain they find difficult to understand when they listen to some native speaker accents. So why would they want to make themselves sound more difficult to understand? And why would teachers want to make their students sound more difficult to understand?
Here are some suggested answers…
- Maybe the student does not know any different – see point 3 above about the vicious circle. In my experience, those same students who have said they wanted to ‘sound British’ (whatever that means, given the huge amount of accent variation within the UK alone) did not feel the same way after their awareness had been raised about the variety of English in the world, and after we discussed accent and identity.
- Maybe the student worries that people will have a negative perception of their accent and discriminate against them. I understand this feeling, on a very personal level. But I would argue that the solution is not to perpetuate accent discrimination by maintaining the status quo as a materials writer. I was horribly bullied at primary school after moving from the south of England to further up north in England because my accent was different. ELFpron co-author, Laura Patsko, is also passionate about this subject on a personal level, having moved from the USA to the UK as a child. But do you think my teachers turned to me and said that my pronunciation was ‘not correct’ and that what I needed to do was to try to sound more like them, perhaps drilling the phrases the way I ‘should’ be saying them in front of the other children? Or do you think they tried to encourage the other children to be more tolerant, and took the opportunity to speak to them about diversity? Those teachers might not have succeeded in their attempts to bring the other children round (after two years of bullying, I was moved to another school where people seemed more accepting), but just because they ‘failed’, does it mean those teachers should have opted for the first solution? Accent is a sensitive topic, not only because people’s identity is wrapped up in it, but because accent discrimination is real. People are disadvantaged in the workplace if there is prejudice surrounding someone’s accent – not just in the English language teaching industry. Do we want to ‘feed into’ that system as materials writers?
- Maybe the teacher feels that teaching pronunciation features like linking and weak forms productively can help students receptively, and there may be other carefully considered reasons for making such choices. In which case, great. We are all in favour of responding to students’ needs by making informed choices; it’s the lack of awareness surrounding those choices that we have been trying to work on for the past three years by speaking at conferences and writing about ELF. That said, if you are teaching things like weak forms to help students receptively, just be aware of the language you use, e.g. avoid terms like ‘good’, ‘correct’, and ‘mistake’.
- Maybe the teacher (native or non-native speaker) went through the same process of being made to feel their own accent was not acceptable or in some way deficient, and so their students, in turn, inherit this deference to native speakers in the case of non-native speakers, and deference to a perceived ‘standard’ like RP in the case of native speakers with a regional accent (who, if they become English teachers, will continue to perpetuate the myth with their own students, and so on).
- Maybe the teacher is a native speaker who confuses the fact that they do, personally, ‘own’ English, i.e. it is his or her own first language, with the fact that it is also the world’s lingua franca, i.e. English is spoken everywhere, which means everyone ‘owns’ it, which means it does not ‘belong’ to any one geographical place. Indeed, it might be for that very reason that the native speaker teacher in question has a job in English language teaching – not necessarily just because they are a native speaker (although there’s plenty of that discrimination going on, as we all know), but because the need for English language teachers would not be there on such a huge scale if English were not the world’s lingua franca. It’s remarkable that some materials writers even question the existence of the concept of English being used as a lingua franca (yes, ELF – English as a lingua franca – refers to the way English is used; it is not a variety of English, as some people mistakenly believe) when those people have a job that depends on there being such a demand for English, precisely because it is the world’s lingua franca.
- Maybe the teacher in question is under external pressures, e.g. to prepare students for an exam which requires students to speak in a certain way. There is definitely much work to be done in the field of assessment if we are to promote accent tolerance.
- Maybe the student wants to change their accent in order to integrate within a specific speech community, e.g. they are going to live, study, or work in the UK or with British people. Of course they should have the option of adapting their pronunciation to fit in, if that is what they want. But students are rarely given this choice. It is usually assumed that people want to sound like a native speaker, whether that is relevant or not. You only need to look through the endless videos on YouTube about ‘improving your accent’, ‘getting rid of your accent’, or ‘reducing your accent’. Those terms don’t even make sense – everyone has an accent; you can only swap your accent for another one, not get rid of it. It’s just a matter of who you are speaking with, e.g. a Canadian in their home city speaking to someone else from that city is not perceived to have an accent. But if they travel to a different city in Canada, they may be perceived to have an accent (an accent from their home city). If they travel to another country, they may be perceived to have an accent (probably a Canadian accent). They could only ‘reduce’ their accent in the sense that they could try and sound more like the people in the place where they currently are. But with English this makes little sense because English is mostly used as a lingua franca, e.g. between a Japanese person and a German person, perhaps at a conference in Poland. In this situation, what does it mean to ‘reduce’ their accent?
- What people can and, we would argue should, focus on is speaking intelligibly. But how can we know what makes English intelligible? See our post about the Lingua Franca Core for this. Ultimately, though, more research does need to be done to establish what makes English intelligible. The great thing about the iTDi course is we have a group of 40+ teachers who might be interested in getting involved in research in this area. We are already planning to collaborate by going through our coursebooks to collect information about the range of accents featured in the main coursebooks. If you would also like to help with this, please get in touch in the comments below.
So, if you are a teacher making your own listening materials, e.g. using clips from YouTube, what questions can you ask yourself to choose your audio?
- What accents are my students most likely going to need to understand? For example, my students in Thailand will probably speak to people from other ASEAN countries, like Malaysia. Can you ask your students about who they usually speak English with (or expect to in the future)? If they are young learners, can you ask their parents or someone else?
- What accents are they most likely to have difficulty understanding? These are likely to be accents that are the most different from their own and the accents they are least familiar with.
- Which speakers could be useful role models for my students? While it is helpful to expose students to a range of accents they might not be familiar with, it can also be beneficial to use speakers they identify with and can aspire to sound like, e.g. a proficient, intelligible Thai speaker could be a role model for Thai students.
- If you cannot find relevant audio online, can you ask someone to record something for you? If so, don’t forget to share your audio as we would all love to benefit from it!
If you are a materials writer creating listening scripts for a publisher which will be read by actors, you might have less control. So what can you do?
- At least raise the issue of accent diversity with your editor; the more people who ask about it, the more likely they are to perceive a need, and hopefully respond to that need.
- At least ensure that the topics are generic enough that they do not perpetuate the myth that English ‘belongs’ to the UK / the USA etc.
- Contribute your skills elsewhere if you can find the time! If you are a skilled materials writer, can you help move the industry forwards by publishing some materials for free that do feature a wider range of accents? There are materials here on this site, I am also launching another site soon aimed directly at learners, and hopefully we might have some materials from the iTDi course to share with you too!
Any other suggestions? Share your ideas in the comments below.