Contemporary Problems of Social Work


Social aspects of accent: benefits and costs of speaking with an accent

Автор/Author: Povetkin S.A.

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Список литературы/References:

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Содержание статьи/Article:

The social ramifications of accent constitute a huge area of study, and we will only touch on some of the important sub-areas.

Several researchers have noted that having an accent can be beneficial to L2 speakers. First, it can signal to language learners’ interlocutors that they may need modified input or, as it used to be called, FOREIGNER TALK. Second, some accents, particularly European accents, are associated with sophistication, to such an extent that some individuals have intentionally adopted foreign speech patterns. A good example of this is Leopold Stokowski, the famous conductor. He was born and raised in London, England, and spent his whole life between the UK and the US, yet in radio interviews he often spoke with what people described as a vaguely Eastern European accent. Maurice Chevalier was allegedly required to exaggerate his French accent as part of his contractual agreements with his movie studio, because people found his accent ‘charming.’ [1]

Despite these benefits, accents can also entail social costs. Loss of intelligibility is the most obvious of these. Not being understood, despite good control over the grammar and vocabulary of an L2, can be frustrating or embarrassing for both the speaker and the speaker’s interlocutors. Take, for example, the case of another famous conductor. Gianandrea Noseda, in an address to an audience before a concert, produced (with emphasis) a problematic vowel in the word fact, such that the word rhymed with ducked. The vowel error was extremely salient, and the audience could be heard tittering in the background. This is an example of a vowel substitution error that has a particularly negative consequence and is a good candidate for pronunciation instruction.

Given the importance of intelligibility to successful communication, we find it disconcerting to see some people actually claiming that intelligibility is NOT important. There appears to be a perception of a trade-off between changing the L2 speaker’s pronunciation and preserving identity. Golombek & Rehn Jordan (2005), for instance, have argued that ‘a decentering of the primacy of intelligibility as a skill is necessary if preservice teachers are to make informed decisions about how best to establish their credibility as speakers and teachers of English’ (p. 529). An example of an especially extreme statement coming from the identity perspective is found in Porter & Garvin (1989: 8): ‘[t]o seek to change someone’s pronunciation – whether of the L1 or of an L2 – is to tamper with their self-image and is thus unethical – morally wrong.’ If that’s the case, then put us on the side of the devil. Would it really be morally wrong to help Noseda change his pronunciation of the word fact? Or if we drew that error to his attention, would he be appreciative or would he be morally offended? [2]

Now we’ll describe some utterances taken from interviews with L2 engineers in the workplace in Canada. We found these utterances quite difficult to understand the first time we listened to them. In the sentences in question, one speaker produced a segmental error. Another made a stress error, and the third speaker was monotone and lacked vocal projection. These are all pretty straightforward problems – there is nothingmysterious about how to help them, and there are no medical issues here. These engineers have found that some aspects of their pronunciation are a liability, and they have expressly asked for help. We therefore don’t think it is immoral or threatening to their identities to assist them to become more intelligible. We have no expectation that pronunciation students will fully adopt Canadian English patterns – there is no need to erase their accents. We simply want them to achieve successful communication both at work and in their everyday lives – exactly what THEY want and why they have sought help. [20]

The Golombek & Rehn Jordan (2005) study of two EFL speakers that we mentioned above stands in sharp contrast to the findings in other work. Several studies actually contradict the view that identity preservation and pronunciation learning are incompatible. For instance, in a large study of 400 EFL students, Timmis (2002) found that 67% aspired to native-like pronunciation. In a Canadian study of 100 adult ESL learners (Derwing 2003), 97% strongly agreed that it is important to pronounce English well, and 95% said that they wanted to sound like a native speaker. In these days of learner-centred curricula, it seems ironic that some authorities advocate the opposite of what the students want. If someone wishes to retain his or her identity through accent, that is a personal choice. But denying students help with intelligibility on the basis of protecting their identity seems not only misguided but paternalistic. Identity and intelligibility are both obviously important, but when it comes to sacrificing intelligibility FOR identity, there is no reason to believe that many learners will make that choice. Surely, if one is intelligible and comprehensible, one’s expression of identity will come through more clearly. When the 100 ESL learners in Canada were asked if they felt their identity would be threatened if they were able to speak English with a native-like accent, their response was overwhelmingly negative – because they had full use of their own L1. They saw their L1 as the clearest expression of their identity. Their preference was to be fully competent speakers of both their own language and English. [15]

In our view, the discussion of identity in some of the pronunciation literature is over-simplistic. First, it ignores learners’ responses to questions like these. Second, it doesn’t recognize the differing effects of context on people’s understanding of the role of pronunciation in identity. Third, it ignores the possibility that people can have multiple identities. Fourth, it does not acknowledge that there are both volitional and non-volitional aspects of accent (we’ll come back to this point shortly). There is good work on identity issues outside the field of pronunciation, and we’d like to see a more careful consideration of the subtle problems of understanding identity. In our view some of the best work on identity and pronunciation has been done by our colleagues Gatbonton, Trofimovich & Magid (2005), who examined perceptions of ethnic loyalty, and by Piller (2002). In an investigation of high proficiency L2 speakers she found many who professed to pass as native speakers in brief encounters. This led her to argue that NATIVE SPEAKER ‘is no longer an identity category, and rather than being something that someone is, it becomes something that someone does’ (p. 201). [9]

The extent to which a speaker can use accent to express identity is constrained by the degree to which accent features are volitional. Some aspects of accent are simply outside the speaker’s control. This depends on many factors: age of learning, how close the L1’s phonological inventory is to that of the L2, the availability of suitable models and sufficient input, and probably a number of other variables, including aptitude. More than any other aspect of language, there is a motor component to pronunciation, which limits the ability to change one’s speech patterns. [5]It is wrong to interpret accent as an intentional expression of identity if the speaker has no control over these non-volitional features. Of course, there are volitional features of accent that any speaker can choose to modify – or not. If we enhance intelligibility and comprehensibility by working with volitional aspects, we increase rather than reduce the L2 speaker’s choices for self-expression.

We do not want to minimize another important aspect of accent – the fact that many L2 speakers experience discrimination in reaction to their accented speech. Lippi-Green (1997) pointed out the strong association of accent with race. She also suggested that the media perpetuate stereotypes through accent. Munro (2003) documented three types of accent discrimination. First there is stereotyping, often through shibboleths. Someone who is biased against Iraqis, for instance, may recognize a Middle Eastern accent on the phone and deny the speaker a service or employment, solely on the basis of an assumption that the individual is from Iraq. The second type is harassment – for example, a coworker may mock an L2 accent. The third type of discrimination occurs when a prospective employee is told that his or her accent is unacceptable for a particular job, even when the speaker is fully intelligible or the job does not require language skills. [17] We stress that accents do not cause discrimination – the fault is with intolerant, often monolingual interlocutors. Some listeners will fail to understand even the clearest L2 speaker, simply because they have made up their minds that they can’t understand accented speech.

The responsibility for successful communication should be shared across interlocutors. Although we advocate pronunciation training for intelligibility, we don’t mean to suggest that the L2 speaker is at fault every time there is a communication breakdown. Empirical evidence indicates that familiarity with L2 speech improves comprehension (Gas & Varonis 1984).Moreover, listeners’ attitudes also have a role to play. Rubin’s (1992) study showed that if listeners merely thought that a personmight be from a different language background, they understood less of what was said. Although sometimes prejudice based on race or ethnicity may be involved, it is not fair to assume that everyone who is apprehensive about interacting with people from other language backgrounds is discriminatory. In fact, some people, because of their limited experience interacting with L2 speakers, lack confidence in their own abilities to communicate, and therefore avoid situations where they need to talk with L2 speakers. These individuals can be helped with familiarity instruction. We attempted to address this issue in a training study in which social work students were exposed to Vietnamese-accented speech along with phonological explanations for Vietnamese accent (Derwing, Rossiter & Munro 2002). The participants were more confident at the end of the study and much more willing to interact with L2 speakers. Several cited real-life examples of positive experiences they’d had following the training. [8]

We are now starting to see more interest in listener responsibilities in the workplace. Improving interactions is important in parts of the private sector where immigrant employees work in teams with native speakers of English. Many employers seek to implement training programs for their staff that emphasize enhancing communication for everyone in the company. [7]In parts of Canada, we are currently experiencing severe labour shortages, which are a boon for immigrant professionals in that they are getting jobs in their original occupations. However, when immigrants are hired into engineering companies, for example, there is often a need for instruction in the areas of cross-cultural awareness and pragmatics for both Canadian-born and L2 newcomers.

We will conclude with some suggestions for future directions in the areas of L2 speech research, L2 pedagogy and L2 social aspects of accent.We see many possibilities for research on accent issues to support L2 learners. First, we need more investigations of L2 phonological development, both naturalistic and instructed, acrossmultiple languages. This will necessitate longitudinal studies that trace development over time (e.g. Derwing, Munro & Thomson 2008). Some aspects of L2 phonology may not need to be taught if they tend to develop naturally, whereas others may require intervention. More classroom studies are also needed. The reason there are so few of them is that they are so hard to carry out, but closer collaboration among teachers and researchers would help to bring this about. We also need more studies investigating the relative importance of various accent features to intelligibility, some along the lines of Hahn’s (2004) study showing the effect of sentence stress, and more studies of functional load. We also need far more work in languages other than English.

As for pedagogy, preliminary studies of pronunciation teaching have given us a starting point, but there is room for more research to identify effective teaching approaches. Technology offers a great deal of promise, provided that technological applications are guided by pedagogical specialists who understand appropriate goals and priorities in teaching pronunciation. There certainly is a place for more teacher training. In our own country, Canada, very few programs offer courses in how to teach pronunciation, but without preparation, many language instructors will neglect this aspect of language learning. [9]

In the area of social aspects of accent,we need more careful investigations of the relationship between identity and accent, rejecting the idea that pronunciation instruction and identity preservation are mutually exclusive. We also need far more research from the perspective of listeners, both native and L2 users. This is emerging as an important workplace issue in an increasingly diverse world. In this talk we have focused on ESL settings, but there is a growing body of work in English as an international language (EIL) settings as well. Many social issues such as the costs and benefits of an accent, discrimination and listener responsibility need to be examined across a variety of language learning contexts. A growing area of concern is the practice of assessing asylum seekers’ country of origin on the basis of accent by self-professed experts who have no linguistics background. This serious problem has been highlighted by Eades et al. (2003) in Australia. In some cases, accent is used to make crucial decisions, for example, deciding whether or not to send people back to their countries of origin to face certain death. Increasingly, accent is at issue in other legal and forensic applications as well. Finally, we see a real need to evaluate the interaction of pragmatic factors and accent. It is very clear that accent is sometimes a scapegoat that masks a negative reaction towards unfamiliar pragmatic behaviour, or discrimination. [20]

On the one hand, accent is important in that people use it to make social evaluations, and these evaluations clearly affect both listeners and speakers. Furthermore, in those instances where accent really does reduce intelligibility, it is worth addressing. On the other hand, we know that accent, comprehensibility, and intelligibility are partially independent constructs, and that simply altering accent will not necessarily affect the other two. In fact, communication obstacles are often based on things other than accent, but because of its extreme salience, accent is given more weight than it deserves. Recognizing both sides of this very complex phenomenon is essential to improving the lot of everyone who lives and interacts in linguistically diverse contexts. 

Ключевые слова/Tags1: pronunciation without accent, learning English, teaching English without accent.