Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

A Cacophony of Words

Here in Portugal, teachers of English have been scratching our heads a bit recently over what words should sound like. We found it to be quite a conundrum.

You might think that it shouldn't be so, but there we were, working with state school teachers who had been told that, for the first time ever, they had to include the oral utterances of their students as part of the annual assessment figures and, well, this raised rather a lot of questions.

There had been a directive to teachers of English working in Portugal's state schools to count the oral skills of students (30% of the total annual assessment figure) but this wasn't accompanied by any helpful information on how it might be achieved, and there is little history of speaking skills playing any kind of role in the language classroom. Like in so many schools around the world, up until now language learning was carried out with little or no attempt to get the little darlings to actually talk. In the language being supposedly learned, anyway.

However, there is a lot of experience in developing oral skills, and in ways of assessing it, outside of the state sector, which is how I became involved. Earlier this year we started devising ways of sharing these nuggets amongst the teachers, and we made sure that our suggestions were in line with measures that have become de rigueur in Europe these days — CEFR, or the Common European Framework of Reference for languages. These are eminently sensible guidelines, and designed so that we can measure progress in learning one language fairly against learning any other language. It's all to do with language production skills. On paper it looks great, and even in practice it clears away a lot of doubt and opens up level playing fields. There is, of course, a big "but. "

Actually, we quickly found two "buts. "  One involved some deeply rooted prejudices about "proper" English and the other was in regard to standardization of assessment processes. Let's take the latter first. At first I thought we'd done a thorough job of collecting a fine range of examples of students (and others) talking and exhibiting a wide variety of abilities in spoken English, together with carefully graded assessments of each example. The idea was to show the teachers who had come to some intensive training courses how to match what they heard against a usable, classroom-friendly checklist, which paid due attention to the guidelines set out by CEFR.

I was immeasurably pleased with myself at first, and so couldn't understand their sullen silences and why they kept shooting troubled glances at each other. Eventually one of them broke ranks and explained to me that as none of the examples I was giving showed any Portuguese speakers speaking English, they felt not much wiser. How could they use assessments of Italian or Spanish or Greek kids to guide them when listening to their own students. It was a perception of spoken language that I hadn't even considered, not only because I am an experienced assessor of international English exams and thus used to a wide variety of speech patterns and sounds under exam conditions, but also because as a native English language speaker I am so used to hearing English being spoken in such a variety of guises and accents every day that it is hardly an problem any longer. The teachers sitting glumly in front of me, though, were mainly used to hearing only either Portuguese or native speakers — British, American or South African on the whole — speaking English and they had great difficulty in tuning into speakers from other countries.

This brings up the issue of 'listener competence" amongst the teachers (which is closely related to the belief that if you shout at foreigners who don't speak your language then they will somehow understand you), and is a particular bugbear of mine. I say this because I am a victim of those who, on hearing their own language being spoken with a foreign accent, instantly conclude that they cannot understand a word and consequently don't even bother to listen. (I once had difficulty in ordering a banana in a cafe, even though it is the same word in Portuguese as in English, simply because the girl behind the counter had switched off, much to the amusement of her colleagues). However, lack of experience in hearing a variety of accents is a real problem and, as was pointed out to me, most teachers of English in Portuguese schools will only hear Portuguese accents. (This is becoming less true, incidentally, as the slow mix due to immigration takes effect). The conclusion was that to make the standardization process workable, or at least easier, then we needed a library of examples of spoken English representing the whole range of CEFR from A1 (beginners) to C2 (proficient speakers), all collected from Portuguese speakers.

We checked with the Ministry of Education and the Universities, and there isn't such a library in existence, which means we'll have to make one ourselves; it's a project I'm looking forward to starting. However, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that we ought to be widening our teachers' experiences of spoken English, not narrowing them down. I suspect that that process will be the second part of a bigger project.

The other concern I mentioned earlier — rooted prejudices — is distantly related to the above, and it is quite a pernicious devil to deal with, as most prejudices are. It concerns what is the acceptable sound — or accent — that is "permitted" for each and every word, phrase or sentence. Those who subscribe to this prejudice seem to believe that there is a correct and an incorrect way to speak and that this is determined by a very narrow range of acceptable accents. The most extreme version of this would determine that "correct" English is spoken by a native speaker and that all non-native speakers should try to emulate native speakers speech patterns. This is a highly pervasive view, and it is quite ludicrous, of course, but nevertheless very corrosive.

There is the cautionary tale of the Frenchman who, having spent a great deal of time and effort in perfecting the kind of accent he heard from his cousins in perfidious Albion, discovered he was confounded time and time again because it was assumed he also knew the cricket score, enjoyed roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and was happy to talk about the weather all evening. Had he spoken with even a slight French accent he would have been spared this cultural torture. You have to ask yourself what drove him to do this. What is wrong with English spoken with a French accent?  Personally I love the sound of Gallic-hued English and, as with any other accent, all I would ask is that it is intelligible. This may require a little effort on the part of the listener (referring back to my bugbear) but that is a normal part of discourse. The listener, too, needs to become more culturally aware.

This leads us directly to my final point: if a "native speaker accent" is demanded, then which one or ones of the many do we choose?  Not only are there the broad categories of British, American, Australian and the other "native speaker" Englishes to deal with, but the divisions within each one are remarkable too. Why did our putative Frenchman choose the particular English accent that he did?  There are over a dozen main groups of accent within England alone (let alone Scotland, Wales or Ireland) and each of those is divided into sub-classes of often very distinctive variants of their own, leading to dozens of accents to choose from. Some accents in England are not easily understood by inexperienced listeners from other parts of the country, with some seemingly unintelligible to others. I used to hate going to Newcastle, Glasgow and Belfast when I was giving training lectures to teachers there, not because I didn't like the places (far from it) but because I nearly always got embarrassed by not understanding some of the questions asked at the end of my talk.

On the other hand, the accent that many people regard as quintessentially English — known as Received Pronunciation, or RP English (as spoken by the Royal family, for example) — is in fact spoken by less than 5% of the population, so that can hardly be considered representative, even if many people still regard it as "proper" English. Actually, I could understand it if the English that was taught used some of the stronger, wilder accents, especially those which avoid the infamous "th" sounds, [ð] and [þ], and which substitute "t" or "d" or glottal stops instead (e.g. "Take t'kids wid ya'). Much easier to deal with. Of course, all that is just on one small island off the north coast of Europe; I haven't even thought about the challenges faced on the other side of the Atlantic.

Standardization in developing speaking skills is thus full of pitfalls and requires some serious rethinking of what people think sounds "right" and what sounds "wrong. "   Even trying to talk about "standard" and "non-standard" English is a problem because what, after all, is standard?  No wonder our teachers on the training course were having a hard time of it. However, what it does point a wobbly finger at, though, is that area of growing interest, the field of "Englishes," and the concept of a world English that is not American nor British nor any of the others. Ee by 'eck it fair makes me 'ead spin.


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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 11th 2011, 7:37 AM
Comment by: Dominik G. (Königswinter Germany)
Very interesting article. We do have similiar issues here in Germany. Many teachers are very reluctant and sceptical when it comes to putting a higher value on spoken language in the classroom and exams. I guess this might be mostly due to a lack of oral and listening comepetence in the teachers themselves. If so, a very delicate and hard to solve problem indeed.
Tuesday October 11th 2011, 7:41 AM
Comment by: Dominik G. (Königswinter Germany)
I have to add: this lack of oral and listening competence might in turn be due to a lack of exposure to different varieties of accents. That could be helped, in the long run at least.
Tuesday October 11th 2011, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Fascinating article indeed, and quite surprising to me. When I learned French in the 1950s, a few simple sentences (name, home town, hobby, weather) and that was the oral exam. But with the advent of language labs in the 1960s, I had assumed the emphasis had changed, so that speaking the lingo and being immersed in the mundane culture of everyday life had become more important than learning lists of irregular verbs. Perhaps there was a phase when that was the case, but it sounds as if it was short-lived and we're back to the lists of irregular verbs. Could this partly explain why languages have fallen down the list of UK students' options when they have a choice?

As far as which UK-English accent to choose, it depends what image you most want to project as an English speaker. In polls, I believe a Tyneside or Scottish Highlands accent are the most liked - hence their monopoly on teleworking jobs. They are deemed to be the friendliest accents, and I'm curious to know why this should be so. Certainly, my favourite is the Scottish Highlands - such speakers sound as if they're reciting lyric poetry even when talking about the state of the nation or the city's sewers.

The Liverpudlian accent has become characterised as the joker's accent due to the galaxy of comedians who've come out of Merseyside. If they're not joking, they sound worldy-wise, even cynical. Liverpool and Glasgow accents both sound like the words are being forced out between clenched teeth (one theory about the Scouse accent is that the words ARE being forced out - against the prevailing westerly wind coming off the sea, and I suppose that could apply to Glaswegian speakers as well).

Birmingham and Black Country accents (very different - we Black Country people insist ours is a dialect, not an accent!) have become characterisied as stupid, which is a shame, especially since my roots lie there. Cockney speakers are characterised as loveable rogues.
Anywhere south-west and you can't escape the agricultural stereotype.

Oh, I forgot the 5% RP speakers. They convey learning, authority and, of course, class (pronounced 'clarss' of course!). I can't think what a Northern Irish accent has become characterised as.

Thanks, Mr O'Connell, for a most stimulating article.
Tuesday October 11th 2011, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
I'm not familiar with dictionaries other than American. But, for English, if you will follow the suggested proper enunciation, as shown in the American English dictionary, most all Americans will be able to understand you. I'm from the midwest (north west KS). We speak faster and a little more crisp than those in the deep south.(southern drawl). We speak slower and don't cut words as short as the upper lakes and New England areas. Foreigners will add their accent to whatever region they are in. We seem to be able to communicate quite well in all areas. Of course TV, movies, and radio has tended to meld all our accents into a more similar execution.

If teaching English in France, teach from a standard English dictionary. You will obviously get a French accent, but any one in France who speaks English should be able to decipher what you are saying.
Tuesday October 11th 2011, 9:21 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
As a native speaker of American, I have cultivated some skill with a number of "foreign" accents, including English. The article underlines a phenomenon that I have checked out numerous times: if I am speaking with a native French speaker, I am more easily understood if I use a "classical" French accent. The same is clearly true with Mexican Spanish. I also speak Texan, having lived there for ten years; and with strangers it appears, when visiting there,I am more readily understood when using a Texas accent. It also overcomes the prejudice that can crop up as some Texans still tune out upon hearing some Yankee-speech. By the latter I don't mean some variety of New Yorkese. Most any accent beyond Texas and the Deep South is commonly considered the language of Yankees (foreigners).

To return to my main point, teaching English speaking skills in Portugal could be furthered if taught with a Portuguese accent. Then one could proceed by working with various English accents. Perhaps assignments could be given to listen to the BBC or watch British TV and/or movies. One could go on to Crocodile Dundee and the wonderful series of the Lady's Detective Agency in Botswana.

For entertainment and consciousness raising, I do find it fun to approach American cashiers or salespeople, asking if they speak English - but using a "proper" Queen's English intonation. Understandably, I get an affirmative answer. If the employee appears to be open to weirdos, I reply with, "Hmm. It sounds American to me, but at least you understand English. Jolly good." Then I proceed to do my business, seldom revealing that I too speak American.

I appreciated the author's reference to the Scottish burr that is often so difficult to grasp. A further curiousity I encountered once in Glasgow involved recognizable but variant words in pronunciation and even in spelling. A brief anecdote will help here.

I was registering at a bed and breakfast place and put down my age at the time. I was sixty-six. A pretty young lady behind the counter noted this and said, "Ah, you're sexty-sex." I replied that she truly overestimated me.

Keith Mc from Kula, Maui
Tuesday October 11th 2011, 3:21 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
There's a controversy about this in Arizona at the moment, regarding teachers who speak English with a Spanish accent:

"Currently, the Arizona Board of Education is deciding if teachers who speak with an accent are fluent in English. [...]"

http://hotword.dictionary.com/fluency/

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/us/in-arizona-complaints-that-an-accent-can-hinder-a-teachers-career.html?_r=1
Wednesday October 12th 2011, 12:09 AM
Comment by: Hermitian (San Diego, CA)
Interesting. In the California schools I was brought up in -- both grade schools and colleges, you had to pass both the verbal and the written or fail the class.
Wednesday October 12th 2011, 8:39 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Accent and fluency are entirely separate things. By all means let them judge a teacher's fluency but not their accent. Even when an accent makes it tricky to understand 100% at first, if listeners will give the speaker a chance they will quickly become attuned and comprehension becomes a non-issue.
Wednesday October 12th 2011, 11:20 AM
Comment by: mer (fort pierce, FL)
Sunday October 16th 2011, 1:39 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I would be very concerned about the Arizona Board of Education even considering 'an accent' to be a measure of fluency. Like many others, I'm sure, I know of many people with 'foreign' accents who are far more fluent in English than many native-born speakers. I do hope the Board of Education is soon visited by the muse of enlightenment.

I would re-emphasise my belief that a variety of accents be encouraged. Personally I like to be able to identify where someone comes from by the way they speak - French, Chinese, American, Kenyan....whatever. I'd like to be able to do it better (i.e. which part of the country do they come from?). It enriches the language and our own experiences. However, this is not always shared by those who teach the language and who look for standardisation of oral production, just as supermarkets look for standardised apples and bananas......and I'd miss the variety just as I now miss the variety of apples available when I was a kid.

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