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.


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