Politics, pronunciation and the pursuit of perfection

Tomorrow is election day here in the United Kingdom, and it looks set to be one of the most unpredictable results in many, many years. Depressingly, one of the key features of the political landscape over the last few years has been the rise of UKIP, a party for whom an exit from the European Union and massively reduced immigration is the solution to every social problem imaginable. They’ve also been responsible for billboard posters such as the one below that point the blame for the post-economic collapse situation in the UK (caused, last time I looked, by irresponsible and unregulated bankers, and not actually Bulgarian waiters) firmly on recent newcomers to these shores.

Now, it’s possible that many of you reading this are already starting to feel uncomfortable with such an overtly political post. It’s even possible that you may believe that politics and the teaching of English as a Foreign Language should not be mixed. If that’s the case, I’d suggest – with all due respect – that you’re wrong. Anyone still laboring under such illusions should meet Laszlo. Laszlo is a Hungarian student who’s enrolled on a course I’m currently teaching at International House, London, called FOCUS ON PRONUNCIATION. He’s clearly a very, very bright young man. He speaks five languages, works as a marketing manager for a large international company and has lived in the UK for the last eleven years, during which time he’s almost certainly ended up paying more tax than maybe who’ll be voting for his expulsion tomorrow.

His English is almost flawless, though he does have an incredibly slight accent, an accent which marks him out as not having been born on these islands. Now, this is the case with almost every super-fluent non-native I’ve ever met. Even the teachers I’ve met around the world who’ve spent years and years trying to ‘prefect’ their accent, as they see it, end up speaking in a peculiarly clipped RP that no-one British ever actually uses. Ironically, the lack of any regional trace is generally a sure-fire giveaway!

Living in London, it’s hard to believe that a slight accent of any kind would make any difference to anyone, but of course, accents matter not because they exist in some hierarchical order of (un)intelligibility, but because they are reflections of our fears and our prejudices, and our attitudes towards different accents is shaped by the socio-cultural and -political discourses of our times. Of course, this affects not only the way non-natives are seen by native,s but the way natives see each other. Every year, there will be a survey into public perceptions of regional accents and news stories that follow in the wake of this. For many many years, much to the chagrin of my co-author and co-founder of Lexical Lab, Andrew, the Birmingham accent would regularly come bottom. In recent years, though, this seems to have been replaced by a general loathing of broad Essex!

Awareness of – and antipathy to – the Essex accent has been fuelled by a reality TV show called The Only Way Is Essex – or TOWIE to its fans – which presents locals as glamorous but vacuous and not in possession of incredible amounts of world knowledge. So too are our attitudes to foreign accents shaped and moulded. This directly affects folk such as Laszlo, because he feels he’s not taken as seriously as he’d like to be, that his name and his (slight) accent stand between him and fully integrated professional success in this country. In short, he feels he’s struggled because of other’s perceptions of him, a feeling which is based on several conversations over the years that were presumably supposed to be funny, but were often little more than one step removed from the “Why aren’t you picking potatoes?” kind of jibes once saved for the Irish.

I’ve written elsewhere – and in far greater depth than I have time for here – about how hard it is to improve pronunciation, and how little benefit is gleaned from the endless work some folk are prepared to out into accent reduction. And of course, there’s a whole parasitical industry out there preying on fears and insecurities non-natives may have about their own accents. Many excellent foreign speakers such as Laszlo are also perfectionists, a quality which has stood them in good stead in their professional lives, and which has helped them attain the level of English they’ve reached. However, when it comes to accents, “perfect” is not an objectively attainable target; rather, it’s an unobtainable socio-political construct.

And this brings to me to the real point of all this rambling: what’s wrong with Laszlo and with many others like him is, in the end, not his accent or even really his English; it’s the attitudes of the speakers he interacts with. Rather than first and foremost focusing on the human being in front of them and the ideas they have, far too many native speakers still focus on names and nationalities and filter the human through these distancing devices. The sad reality is that far too many British citizens remain poorly equipped to deal with the reality of English as a global lingua franca.

Part of what improving pronunciation must involve in the greater scheme of things is arguing the toss every time the rights and lives of migrants are denigrated or demeaned. It must mean not laughing at attempts to mock the accents of others. It must mean agitating for a broader acceptance of a diversity of accents among all who speak English, native and non-native. And lastly, it must mean we never stop stressing the crucial importance of seeing – and hearing (!) – the person not the passport.

Of course, though, knowledge of this does not directly benefit Laszlo. It may well be that in the end, his issues have less to do with pronunciation or even, really, language, and more to do with developing coping strategies with what’s essentially a form of bullying. It may be he needs to front conversations by bringing possible prejudices out into the open – “Hi, I’m Laszlo. And before you ask, it’s Hungarian! I’ve been here over ten years now, though . . . working my way up from potato picker to waiter to . . . international marketing manager!” It’s not pretty and it’s sad that it may be necessary, but it’s a damn site cheaper than three thousand pounds spend shaving 1% extra of an accent that’s still going to leave you on the outside looking in.

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3 Responses

  1. […] Tomorrow is election day here in the United Kingdom, and it looks set to be one of the most unpredictable results in many, many years.…  […]

  2. EAPsteve says:

    From the outside looking in, its really shocking that such aggressive anti – immigrant feeling exists in a country as multi cultural as England. But knowing that is out there, it is understandable that so many students want to blend in and avoid being potentially targeted by disgruntled people whose ire has been misdirected.

    There are horrible double standards when it comes to accents. As an Irish man I can go to many other countries and people will look favourably on my accent. But other accents, not for any intrinsic quality, are looked down upon for what they represent.

    This policing of accents and ways of expression applies to women as well. It’s awful stuff – as if we would rather mock, sneer and judge rather than just listen to each other.

    I think it would be great if people accepted that different accents exist but I can also see where people like your student are coming from. I think as teachers part of our job could be to help students feel more confident about their English but that is hard to do in an industry that is sometimes guilty of preying on students anxieties about their “non-native” accents in order to sell courses/classes.

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Steve –
      Maybe I’m just a hardened cynic, but I didn’t find this news all that surprising, really. In essence, the bottom line is racism exists and there are some folk out with unsavoury – and often unchallenged – attitudes out there who like to have things to hold over others.

      I suspect that for many it’s not as simple as being an ‘anti-immigrant’ prejudice. For instance, I suspect a white woman with a French accent wouldn’t get such comments. A Geordie down south, on the other hand, might.

      The perception of accents in intimately connected with their dissemination through cultural products (witness the elevation of Essex English to most hated nationally in the wake of TOWIE!) and is steeped in the residue of global social, political and historical issues.

      As I said in that post, it’s fine to help students change their accents to match more closely the (often unobtainable) models they themselves may desire, but we sometimes also need to encourage them to fight the powers that be as well, and to address discrimination head on.

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