I was inspired to write this attempt at a post by recent posts by Laura Patsko, Katy Davies and Steve Brown, all of which concern, to a greater or lesser degree, the way we use language and what this means. It takes a different route to these posts, but there’s occasional points of convergence (more on that later).
An Enquiry into Scottish Understanding
Question: what do me and David Hume have in common? No, it’s not that we’re both great philosophers, as my work is clearly superior to his… Yes! Got it. We come from the same country. That country is Scotland. And so one could posit that Hume and I probably have (adjusting for the passage of time and many many changes, of course) Scottish accents.
Having a Scottish accent is a funny thing. While we come near the top of rigorously scientific and useful polls on who has the sexiest accent, we are often portrayed as unintelligible (with thanks to Laura for the link). I am routinely told (by both native and non-native speakers), in tones of delightful surprise, that I am remarkably easy to understand as my accent is “so clear”. As it seems Scottish people are completely unintelligible to the rest of the world, it’s apparently quite a shock to many a non-Scot that they can understand me without having to really make an effort (as an aside, I’ve never found Scottish people particularly difficult to understand…).
But I digress. Coming back to Hume, he famously (as well as wearing suspicious hats and wigs) could not abide the thought of “Scottishisms” in his written work and sent it to friends so they could find any and remove them (and told off other philosophers for not doing so). Why would he do that? The reason was for clarity on behalf of the reader, it seems. In other words, he was doing something that all language teachers should: accommodating (which is probably where Hume and I’s common bonds end).
Accommodation is an idea from sociolinguistics that involves processes with which speakers change their way of speaking to be more or less like their interlocutor (see Dimitrios Thanasoulas for an accessible and complete description of Accommodation Theory and Scott Thornbury for further discussion more relating it to teaching). It can be verbal or non-verbal and is often subdivided into the two categories of:
Convergence – involves speaking more like your interlocutor to make yourself understood due to factors such as attractiveness, charisma, higher social status and so forth. As such, it involves a desire for social acceptance, but also for intelligibility.
Divergence – the opposite of the above, asserting your identity and difference between you and your interlocutor to signal group identity, for example (q.v. Steve Brown for an example of this).
Note that in my definition of convergence, I mention intelligibility. For my purposes here (and Hume’s above), I’ll be using accommodation in this convergent sense, to mean making yourself understood to those with whom you are speaking. So, I seem to be rather good at convergence, as my learners can understand me (a facet of “language grading” in ELT terms), Americans I meet in the pub can and when I’m with other Scottish people I (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) become more Scottish. But it’s not all about me; it’s about us all as teachers.
Teachers and Learners: Separated by an Accommodating Language?
The language we use in the classroom is a thorny issue. Whether you’re an ELF (yes, that is the appellation for a proponent of ELF..), a new teacher, a non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST) or just some bloke that turned up in Costa Rica looking for money for sustenance and beer and then ended up teaching English, the language you use in the classroom is critical. And I mean use, not teach (whether those two things should be distinct is another debate). In Laura’s post, she deplores courses featuring “accent reduction” for NNESTs and Steve Brown laments “accent neutralisation”. These terms are loaded and not particularly helpful descriptions of exactly what courses along these lines might actually do, but interestingly they are for NNESTs and aim at making their accents more native-like. After all, surely these are the people who need to develop their pronunciation to be more native, right?
I work with a lot of trainee teachers on a pre-service course like CELTA and, eight times out of ten, the people with the biggest problems accommodating are the native speakers. This is both in terms of speaking to other trainees and to their students. And why? Because the majority have spent their entire lives accommodating only with other native speakers and so think nothing of idiomatic lexical choices when talking to an elementary level class, for example, not seeing that that’s not helping them be more intelligible. Add to this suspiciously complex grammar choices (clefts with modals, anyone?), more connected speech than you’d find in a law firm called “Assimilation, Elision and Co.” and cultural references to, Ireland, say, because that’s really obvious and everyone knows about it (yeah, not your average Bangladeshi learner in Dubai – what do you know about Chittagong?) and you’ve got a heady mix of unintelligibility going on there.
Y’see, making yourself understood is not just about your accent; it encompasses linguistic choices across all the systems (grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse). So, like, accent reduction completely misses the point. This isn’t the problem. The problem is a lack of awareness of how to accommodate your speech to your learners. There are strategies that can be used to do this and these will be based on listening to the learners and working out what you can and cannot say to be intelligible. This is such a big issue for a language teacher who teaches in the target language as, without some successful accommodating, there ain’t gonna be no mutual intelligibility and then, ultimately, what’s the point? Where’s the course for NESTs on how to accommodate better? In fact, regardless, where’s the course for language teachers on how to accommodate better, whatever your accent?
The Accommodation Enlightenment
So, my line here is that, while terms like “accent reduction” are highly prejudiced and really not very useful (and yet, to get that job in an American call centre in Costa Rica, your learner has to take this course), an idea like accommodation is powerful and very important for a language teacher. It should inform completely the way you use language in the classroom (and not just to be understood, but to build successful rapport too!). If I am teaching people who have recently emigrated to being a new life in Scotland, I will be more Scottish as it would be a disservice to them to be more neutral; however, if I am teaching Iranians in Dubai who don’t even know where Scotland is, it would be a disservice to them to be overly Scottish and so I should be more neutral. I can’t completely neutralise my accent (does such an accent even exist?), but I can make informed choices about what I say and how I’m doing it.
And so where does this leave us? It means that as teachers, whether NNESTs or NESTs, we all have a duty to convergence, to make ourselves understood by our learners to help them learn better. And if that means you have a strong French accent and some people can’t understand you (as happened on a recent course of mine), you have the responsibility to change that; likewise, if your strong native accent is causing your learners problems (as is more likely to be the case, for me) then you too must do something about that.
Take a leaf out of Hume’s weighty book and be more aware of how you say what you do.