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Accents of English: Everything we must know about them

My name’s Bianca, I’m Brazilian and I’ve been an English teacher for about 8 years. I have a degree in Languages Portuguese and English. In 2017 I had the opportunity to go study abroad. I went to England and studied English at Oxford English Centre for 3 weeks. In 2020 I started a project in social media called Unpuzzled English, and since then I have been sharing different accents of English every week with my followers. Last year I participated in the international event the Polyglot Conference Global as a speaker of The Lingua-Cultura experience, with the topic “Linguistic Prejudice: What kind of bias do we promote in the language learning process?”. I’ve been studying pronunciation and accents, and English varieties, for about one year and a half, and also working with English as a Lingua Franca as a private teacher, and I keep working as an English teacher in a franchise in my city Curitiba.

There are lots of misconceptions and lack of information when it comes to accents. Many people believe that an accent is the same as pronunciation, or even that there are right and wrong accents. But these are not facts. An accent is composed of five main features: stress, intonation, rhythm, pitch, and pronunciation. This means pronunciation is part of it, but not all. So, if we pronounce a specific word using the sounds present in one specific accent, it doesn’t mean we can speak using the stress, intonation, rhythm or pitch of the same accent.

Thus, where do accents come from? Well, accents started when the world was quite an isolated place and people living in different areas would never meet, so in each region they would produce sounds in one specific way. As the world becomes globalized, and people from different regions talk to each other, accents influence one another, and they will constantly change. For this reason, only in Uk it’s possible to find around 40 accents of English.

Also, we have to remember that Britain colonized many countries in America and Africa. Both continents had already had their own languages when the British arrived, so the English they speak is a mixture of British English and some other African or Indian languages. That’s why there are so many varieties of English around the world. In Uganda, for example, they speak what they call Uglish, which they are really proud of, and they even have their own dictionary written by the Ugandan linguist Bernard Sabiiti.

Another reason for accents to exist is that English is used as a Lingua Franca by many people around the world. It means that people use this language as a way to communicate with people that have a different mother tongue. So English is a global language nowadays, used as a first, second or third language by those who we call “native” and “nonnative” speakers. People who learned it as a second or third language will take with them some features of their mother tongue, be it pronunciation, be it stress or pitch; there will always be something that characterizes the person’s accent.

When it comes to rythm, there are two different kinds of languages: Syllable-timed, in which syllables last the same amount of time no matter if they are stressed or not, and vowels are never reduced; and Stress-timed, in which syllables last a different amount of time, that is, stressed syllables last more time than unstressed ones, so the time between stressed syllables should be the same, no matter how many syllables there are. Consequently, depending on which of these your mother tongue is, this will influence the rhythm of your accent.

Also, we can divide accents into two kinds: rhotic and non-rhotic. The rhotic ones will have the sound of a retroflex R, in which the tip of the tongue is curled back toward the hard palate, something quite common in American accents. Non-rhotic accents may only produce letter R when it’s followed by a vowel; some examples are the Cockney and the Nigerian accents.

Besides the letter R, other sounds are variable among different accents. Diphthongs such as /eɪ/ or /əʊ/, present in “face” and “know” in some British accents, may be pronounced as /ɪ/ and /o/. Some vowels can also be pronounced in a different way; for example, in the word “up”, while some speakers in the UK and USA pronounce the letter U as /ʌ/, other British, African and Caribbean speakers pronounce it as /o/. The short vowel /ɪ/ is pronounced as a long /iː/ in accents such as the South African. The TH sounds are also very variable, as for Americans in general the sounds are /θ/ and /ð/, for some British accents the sounds are /f/ and /v/ for some Africans they are /t/ and /d/ and for some other non native speakers around the world they can be /s/ and /z/.

Aspiration and glotalization of some consonants are other factors that may change depending on the accent. Accents such as the Cockney or the Geordie may glotalize the letters T, P and K, while Americans pronounce them mostly as aspirated. Voicing or devoicing sounds is also common. Phonemes like /b/, /g/, /z/, /d/, /v/ may be pronounced as /p/, /k/, /s/, /t/, /f/ in accents such as Indian, Chinese, Spanish, Lithuanian and others. The other way around also happens. Of course, these are only possibilities, and it doesn’t happen all the time.

So, what teachers should have in mind is that there’s no such a thing as speaking like a native. First, because even though someone can do that, this person will be speaking just like one native, and not like all of them; second, that’s not necessary, considering that there are more people in the world who use English as a Lingua Franca than people who speak English as a first language. And, that’s really important to show to our students.

It’s the language educator’s responsibility to give learners the opportunity to listen to different accents, and also give them the possibility to choose how they feel more comfortable pronouncing new words. This way English learners might feel better with their own accent, and they’ll also understand that a different accent is not “wrong pronunciation”. This awareness is not only essential to improve our listening skills, but it also helps to break linguistic prejudice and nativespeakerism.

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