Why Are Accents Important?

“If you adapt your speech to sound more like the community you’re engaging with, that can be a way of showing that you fit in.” – Dr Will Barras

In episode 4 of the More Than Words podcast, Alex Rawlings discusses accents and their importance for language learners with Dr Will Barras, lecturer in linguistics at Aberdeen University, and Luke Nicholson, the founder of Improve Your Accent.

Luke Nicholson
Luke Nicholson

Why are accents important?

Accents are an important part of our identity. An accent gives clues about who we are, and the community we belong to or wish to belong to. They’re also important for those getting to grips with a new language. “Having information about accents empowers a language learner,” explains Luke Nicholson, as it allows learners to make informed decisions about the kind of accent they would like to adopt and why. “For example, if you’re moving a to a certain part of a country, you might want to integrate better with your new community by learning the specific accent of that region.”

What is the difference between accents and pronunciation?

Accents are about different speech sounds and localised ways of speaking a language. They are part of the culture of a language and – while they may make it harder to understand sometimes – contribute to its richness and diversity. This is true even in the way that non-natives might speak a language. A French person may speak English flawlessly, just with a French accent. That’s fine because there is no wrong or right with an accent.

Pronunciation, on the other hand, is more about making sure you’re understood properly and is something that – as a learner – you can get ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

If your pronunciation is correct, and you understand how to use different phonetic sounds in different contexts, you can communicate effectively with others whatever your accent.

Rosetta Stone’s no-translation methodology is deisgned to make you focus on the sound of the language you are learning and on speaking your new vocabulary with confidence.

Accents as a way of connecting with your community

There are many sociolinguistic associations that come with accents. In the UK, Received Pronunciation (RP) or “the Queen’s English” was long considered the gold standard of speech, the accent adopted by those in power and a sign of good education. But thankfully things are changing. And it’s worth considering that speaking RP in some communities could be taken somewhat negatively, and have a “distancing effect”. Accents don’t have to be about “notions of sounding correct” or superiority, but rather community and place.

Where do different types of accent come from?

“If you think back historically people were much more localised” with generation after generation of families living in the same small village and very little travel out of that area during their lifetimes. So over many generations differences in accent emerged and became very distinct to particular areas. Mountainous villages that are not easily accessible often develop very strong and distinctive accents.

Why do some countries have lots of accents and others don’t?

In terms of the United Kingdom, “We have a lot of diversity in quite a small geographical space”. This is in part due to our history and the incredible diversity of marauders and conquerors that have visited English shores at one time or another. Liverpool and Manchester are only 30 miles apart, but their accents are vastly different and immediately recognisable. But sometimes there isn’t a lot of accent variation. Will mentions Hebrew spoken in Israel, and Russian as two examples of languages with very few traditional accent variants. Luke points out that it depends how long the community has been in the area and how old the language is. For example Hebrew was only revived as a native-speaker’s language in the late 19th century. It can also depend on the type of governance, for example, if a government exercises a lot of control over its population and perhaps moves its population around a lot variants don’t necessarily develop. The media also exerts a strong influence over how different types of accents are perceived and judged by wider society.

How important is it to get an accent right?

Most English-speakers have had that experience on holiday where one tries hard to speak another language and the person replies… in English! So really mastering an accent, including details like the shape of your mouth when you speak, and “where in your mouth the sounds come from”, can really enrich your experiences in communicating with native speakers. As Dr Barras explains, accents show a sense of solidarity with the community you are trying to assimilate with.

How to improve your accent?

Rosetta Stone has amazing speech recognition technology, which will give immediate feedback on whether you’re pronouncing a word correctly. Luke also recommends learning “lexical sets” – groups of words that all use a certain vowel sound in the same way. He also urges learners to think about which sounds don’t exist in your native language and do in the language you’re learning. And then spending some time in front of the mirror to practise moving your tongue and mouth to get those new and different sounds. And to be aware of stress and tone, which can sometimes even change the meaning of words. However Will reassures us that lots of accent work will happen subconsciously, you don’t necessarily have to slave away at it. And also to remember that your original accent is part of who you are and doesn’t have to change completely, even when speaking another language.

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