Do accents matter when teaching English abroad?
When it comes to accents we all have one no matter where in the world we were brought up. Most of us are familiar with the basic differences between British and American accents, but what about accents from Australia and New Zealand, Canada and South Africa? And within each of these countries there are dozens of regional accents, just to complicate things further. So, we all have an accent, but is it a problem when teaching English as a foreign language?
What English accent should I teach my students?
The first thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong accent when it comes to teaching and learning English. When teaching it is fine to speak naturally, just be sure that you always speak clearly and that all your instructions are fully understood by the whole class. Whether there is one accent that is better to teach than others is often debated within the TEFL world and the answers usually follow the nationality of the individual teacher.
Mostly the debate is between British and American English, with many people suggesting that British pronunciation, or the King’s/Queen’s English, is most appropriate as it has traditionally been used in many classrooms worldwide for many years. However, the idea that only one kind of accent should be used in TEFL classrooms is a very outdated and wholly unrealistic approach that does little to aid the students we aim to help. The bottom line is that no individual accent is better or worse than any other, so it is largely irrelevant as long as the teacher approaches each lesson in a consistent and open manner.
Sometimes the school or language center you work for will dictate how you approach your lessons. Many schools across Europe prefer to use British English in their teaching materials, while many in Asia prefer to use American spellings and grammar. This doesn’t mean that Americans teaching in Rome have to put on a British accent or Brits need to adopt an American twang when teaching in Tokyo, you simply have to observe the differences in the two approaches and stick with the one favored by your employer.
When following one particular style of English in the classroom it is important that you also make your students aware of the differences out there. Using listening exercises that feature people with different accents is an excellent way to highlight the differences that your students need to be aware of when using English in the real world.
How do English language students learn English accents?
Whenever we are in the classroom as teachers we are modeling the English language to our students. They will naturally pick up the words and phrases we use and our accents will be transferred to some extent every time they practice pronunciation. In some cases students quickly pick up a neutral type of accent, while others will adopt a strong native-language accent which never softens no matter how much pronunciation practice they do. Why this is the case can be down to a variety of factors, such as:
- The students' age: The younger the student the more likely they are to pick up a native English accent.
- The length of language exposure: The longer you are exposed to the English language, the more likely you are to adopt a native English accent.
You might find that some of your students are self-conscious of their accent and are keen to reduce it and there are various ways to try. However, the success rate of these specific pronunciation practice activities is often mixed and many students will never change the way they speak no matter how hard they try. At the end of the day, the focus in your class should not be on the accents anyone speaks with, but on speaking clearly and being understood when communicating using the language they have learned.