Thoughts on a Standard Accent & English as the lingua franca

I was interviewed by the wonderful Chi Odogwu, Co-Founder at Odogwu Digital Inc. Canada. And he asked so many interesting and insightful questions that I kept thinking about them after the interview ended. So I thought I would share some of those thoughts in my blog over the next couple of weeks. Thank you, Chi.

Thus far, I’ve coached speakers of English as a Second Language. But one of the many thought-provoking questions Chi asked was regarding native English speakers from around the world –– from countries where many languages are spoken but English has been chosen as the common language, the lingua franca. These native English speakers might come from across Africa, from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, St. Lucia, Fiji, Singapore and so many others.

These are native speakers, not speakers of English as a Second Language (ESL). How are their accents perceived in native English-speaking countries like Britain, the United States and Canada? Various studies since 2010 have shown that native English-speaking listeners were less likely to find the foreign accent of speakers of ESL truthful or proficient and that the heavier the accent, the greater the bias.

Do native speakers of English perceive speakers of English as a lingua franca with the same bias?

There was a time when the English-speaking world seemed to insist on conformity in the public eye (or should I say “ear”). Canada, with the exception of the East Coast, has never really had a huge difference in its regional accents. But in the States and in Britain, of course, there are many regional accents.

American and, yes, even Canadian actors, newscasters, and politicians adopted a weird quasi-English accent, dubbed “Mid-Atlantic.” Go back and watch old films – listen to old broadcasts. The accents are very similar and very phony. Luckily that didn’t hang around too long as films depicting gritty realism demanded accents that reflected the real world.

In Britain, BBC English or Received Pronunciation (RP) was recognized and taught as a Standard Accent starting in 1922. It was to become the nation’s trustworthy voice of authority, implying social status, power, money and education.

And even though the BBC now encourages all kinds of regional dialects on its airwaves, a 2013 poll of 4,000 people in Britain indicated that RP was still considered to be the most intelligent (along with the Devon accent, but what do we know about the Devon accent on this side of the world?). Interesting and sad how we can be brainwashed.

I posted a video a while back called “Can You Talk White,” about African Americans moving from African American Vernacular English to the Standard Accent in order to get ahead.

And, by the way, what exactly is the Standard Accent?

Oh, just the accent spoken by the majority group or the socially advantaged group. Those who speak with the Standard Accent tend to be seen as more intelligent, more competent and more credible, according to Harvard psychologist Olivia Kang.

There was a study done in 2013 demonstrating that imitating the speech of the person with whom you’re interacting positively changes the attitude about the speaker’s perceived “social attractiveness.” Somehow it makes them more likable. It helps them fit in. So how often do we actually adjust our accents to fit the person/people we’re currently associating with? Food for thought, and I’ll be blogging about that next week.

Meanwhile, the fact is we all have an accent of some kind, and studies like the one above show that whether we realize it or not we tend to favour those who share our accent. And we tend to differentiate, for better or for worse, based on dialects and regional accents, more so than on physical appearance. But how those differentiations will play out exactly is hard to tell.

Does that mean speakers of English as their lingua franca should adjust their accent to conform to the Standard Accent, as Olivia Kang defines it? Is it necessary? Hmm, in my humble opinion – not unless there are intelligibility issues. But if there’s a clear sense that the accent is provoking some kind of negative response? I guess it’s worth looking at.

In this increasingly globalized world, surrounded by the beauty of the dialects and accents of native speakers of English across the seas and North America, the speakers of English as a lingua franca and the speakers of English as a second language, not to mention the beauty of all the languages other than English that we hear more and more (200 alone in my hometown of Toronto), I hope our ears will become attuned to their music and to a living breathing English that enriches our existence at every turn.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you a native speaker of English as your lingua franca? Where did your instructors come from? How would you define your accent? What has been your experience coming to Canada?

Don’t forget to check out the latest episode of One-Minute Words on the Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel.


Thoughts on making up new words

The other day I was taken aback when my I was sitting with my cousin. Her husband arrived and immediately said to me. “We’ve gotta talk to you about something. Can you say Amazon primate?” “Sorry?” I replied. “What did you say?” “Amazon primate,” he repeated.

It suddenly dawned on me they weren’t talking about monkeys in the South American Rain Forest when my cousin quietly explained that when she wants to get something delivered quickly from Amazon, she says “Let’s Amazon-Prime it.”

My cousin’s newfangled verb was driving her husband nuts!

“Okay,” I replied. “Well, strictly speaking, I guess we could say “Let’s use Amazon Prime to get it delivered or something like that. But language is constantly in flux. I mean how many times a day do I google for information on the internet? So who am I to argue about making up new verbs from names and existing trademarks??”

In fact, I have to admit that I actually love it. It’s so much fun – so inventive. I think that’s what makes language come alive. After all, how many brand names have found their way into the vernacular as commonly used nouns or verbs?

So for today’s blog, I thought I’d simply leave you with a couple of articles, each with 50 common words that began as trademarks or brand names. The articles do have some overlaps, to be sure, which just goes to show you how often we use these words! Maybe some of them will surprise you. In any case, enjoy.

Oh, and by the way, my cousin and her husband are still together in a loving and devoted relationship, despite this minor “intellectual” difference.

And don’t forget to check out this week’s One-Minute Word on the Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube  channel.


Thoughts on Syllable Stress 

As I listened to the audio that accompanied the exhibit on the works of the American artist, Joan Mitchell, and Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO),  here in my home town of Toronto, Canada, a few months  ago, I remember being struck by the fact that the narrator (clearly francophone) not infrequently stressed the wrong syllable. Yet his delivery, especially the “word stress,” was so clear that I, as a coach of accent management, found it very engaging. Incorrect syllable stress can throw us, but when we’re continually brought back to the important ideas in a sentence, we still pay attention.

Even native English speakers are using incorrect syllable stress on radio … on podcasts. For example, I was listening to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) interview where the host of the weekly radio show kept saying “diasPOra” although his guest used the correct syllable stress, “diAspora,” several times. It made me uncomfortable, but I knew they were both talking about the same thing. In the last few weeks, I’ve listened to a podcast featuring a discussion among lawyers (very well educated) where one of the panelists (American born – no ESL issues) said “impliCAted” instead of “IMplicated.”

And of course, whenever we listen to the British, we often hear syllable stress that’s different from our own: “BROchure” instead of “broCHURE,”, “GArage” instead of “gaRAGE,” “DEEtail” instead of the American “deTAIL”. And let’s face it – when we listen to English songs, how often have songwriters put the stress on the wrong syllable just to make words rhyme?

And by the way, that word, “detail”? The Canadian Oxford Dictionary lists the American pronunciation as the correct Canadian pronunciation. Well I’ve never used the American pronunciation. No one has ever corrected me. No one has ever misunderstood me. So how rigid should we be about syllable stress? How flexible should we be in accepting that there can be a variety of pronunciations?

I remember working with a colleague who always pronounced “SUBsequently” “subSEEquently.” Nicest guy in the world! Very intelligent and he spoke several languages. But his pronunciation of that word drove me crazy. I couldn’t stand it any longer, so finally corrected him. He immediately went to a dictionary to confirm who was right. Well, the dictionary provided the North American pronunciation, i.e. mine! I began by feeling vindicated. Then subSEEquently, I felt rather ashamed of myself.

Why was I such a snob? Everyone understood what he was saying. What difference did it make? I wonder if the choice is ultimately the client’s/student’s. We can point out the accepted pronunciation in our country or our particular region, then allow the learner to decide which they prefer. If, in the course of their interaction with someone, the listener looks puzzled, the speaker understands why and can correct it, if necessary.

We can point out the more common generic pronunciation of the word, but not insist on its use. I’m not saying we shouldn’t identify and teach accepted pronunciation in our particular location, I’m just saying that “it’s not a big deal.” We can teach awareness without insisting on conformity. What we should focus on is the sounds that interfere with intelligibility and the rhythms that interfere with our understanding of intention.  I think there’s a balance between what’s important for comprehension and developing aural tolerance.

Food for thought. If you have any thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear from you.

Thoughts on “tongue calisthenics” and pronunciation 

While changing one’s accent is partly psychological, there’s no doubt that learning a new accent also involves vocal mechanics. We need to place the tongue, lips and/or jaw in different positions in order to produce certain sounds.

Coaches and teachers will often say to a client/student “Relax your tongue.” But what does a relaxed tongue really mean?

That’s why I like to do an exercise I call “tongue calisthenics.” The mouth is slightly open and the tip of the tongue is dropped behind the bottom front teeth. These exercises are done without sound. They are physical exercises only.

  1. Spread the sides of the tongue to push out the bottom side teeth. Then release. This released feeling will become the neutral or “relaxed” position on the bottom of the mouth.
  2. Feel the width of the tongue and lift the front of the tongue (not the tip) ever so slightly (The tip of the tongue will push slightly against the bottom front teeth). Then release.
  3. Feel the width of the tongue and raise the back of the tongue up toward the bony part of the roof of the mouth. Then release.
  4. With the tip of the tongue dropped, arch the rest of the tongue up until the top sides are touching inside the top side teeth. Then release.
  5. With the tip of the tongue still dropped, spread the tongue so that it’s lightly touching the sides of the bottom teeth, as the middle part reaches up toward the roof of the mouth. Then release.

Now I don’t necessarily ask that all the exercises be done in the same class. The tongue is a collection of muscles and gets tired. But like athletes and dancers, we can isolate and strengthen muscles with practice.

I work in increments, choosing the exercises that reflect the position of the tongue for whatever vowels represent the greatest challenge at the time. Sometimes I even have clients practise quiet “ululating,” with the very tip of the tongue rapidly moving up and down, touching just behind the top and bottom front teeth.

“Tongue calisthenics” teach learners to place different parts of the tongue in various positions without sound to create a physical awareness of various shapes and a sensation of space for consonants and vowels. Visualizing, isolating and practising these subtle changes create an awareness of tongue positions that can lay the groundwork for dealing with pronunciation challenges.

Have you ever tried this technique with your students? Have you ever had instructors who have tried this technique with you?

Don’t forget to check out The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube Channel for my latest weekly video, One-Minute Words, and videos on English pronunciation.