“Don’t laugh at me!” Understanding students’ attitudes to pronunciation

by | 24 March 2021

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” So said the playwright George Bernard Shaw in 1916. A century later, in 2017, Lorraine Reinbold, a researcher at the Faculty of Education at Hakuoh University, wrote about “a Japanese student, who, returning to Japan after having lived in the United States, spoke [English] with a native-speaker accent. After a few weeks, the student started to pronounce English with a Japanese accent in front of his university classmates.”

You probably don’t find either of these observations at all surprising: we all know people who have changed their accent to adapt to their environment or to avoid being mocked or looked down on. We are all very sensitive about the way we speak, about how our accent will influence the way others feel about us. But perhaps we don’t think enough about the implications this has for the teaching of pronunciation.

Teachers’ and students’ attitudes towards pronunciation differ. Teachers tend to be very practical, aiming for “comfortable intelligibility”. For students, pronunciation goals are much more tied up with their sense of self, and self worth. We will explore this tension, and look at research that validates both views.


Abercrombie (1991) defined “comfortable intelligibility” as “pronunciation which can be understood with little or no conscious effort on the part of the listener”. This basically means that as long as communication can be achieved without undue strain, then pronunciation goals have been achieved. Aiming for comfortable intelligibility is a realistic and practical goal for students to aim for, compared to the alternative of achieving a native speaker accent.

Until the late 1980s, the approach was that students should aim for native-speaker accents. That’s Received Pronunciation (RP) in British English, and General American (GA) for American English. Things changed in 1988 when Ronald Macauley wrote an article called “RP R.I.P.” He pointed out that less than 3% of the UK population used RP and that RP was actually quite a difficult accent to learn. Then Professor David Crystal showed that RP changes over time — if you have watched The Crown on Netflix you will have noticed that even the Queen spoke differently 60 years ago from the way she speaks now. So in fact if a learner wants an RP accent they are aiming at a moving target.

And we should put these native speaker accent goals into context. There are currently 378 million native speakers of English and 743 non-native speakers of English. According to intercultural communications expert Marianna Pascal, only 4% of conversations in English occur between native speakers. If it really is the case that English is primarily for communication between non-native speakers, then why aim for a native speaker accent?

As language teachers we know that aiming for a native speaker accent is an unachievable goal for almost all students, so a target of comfortable intelligibility seems both sensible and realistic.


Let’s turn to the student point of view. Here is some qualitative data gathered from migrants to Australia on why they wanted native speaker accents:
1. “It’s very important to get your meaning across. People can think you said another word from the one you want to say.”
2. “Gives a good first impression when you meet people, including getting a job”
3. “Even if I have a good Indian accent, people might not understand me (in a different place) in Australia.”
4. “Helps you present your ideas at work. People won’t be scared to be your friend.”

Some of this is transactional: we can probably agree that for the first speaker, “comfortable intelligibility” is OK. The important thing is simply “getting the meaning across”. But some are aspirational and a lot of it is about confidence. And consider the last one: “People won’t be scared to be your friend”. Why would people be scared to be your friend? Let’s look at some research from other fields to answer that question.

A great deal of research has been done on accent and employability, accent and career progression and accent and social interaction. Let’s look at some findings.

  1. The British Sociological Association on the effect of foreign accent on employability:
    “The results suggest that the managerial respondents actively discriminate in telephone-based job interviews against applicants speaking Chinese-, Mexican- and Indian-accented English.”
  2. The Association of Psychological Science on: Can having a foreign accent hurt your career?
    “English is increasingly considered to be the global language of business. But people who speak it as a second language are generally passed over for top managerial jobs and executive positions.”
  3. The European Commission on the impact of foreign accent on social interaction:
    “Overall, speakers with a foreign accent (FA) are judged as less trustworthy, less educated, less intelligent and less competent than native speakers.”
    Obviously people don’t want to feel embarrassed by their accent. People don’t want to feel uncomfortable because they perceive that other people might be laughing at them.

Clearly, we should add some caveats to these findings. We can certainly speculate that some of these outcomes will depend on intelligibility. Someone speaking with a really strong accent is likely to have a more negative experience than someone whose speech is only mildly accented. And it also depends on listener perceptions. If the interaction is taking place in a very cosmopolitan setting, then there is likely to be more acceptance and less discrimination resulting from accent than if it is in a small village in the countryside where everyone is a native speaker.

But let’s not play down the fact that accent can and does give rise to discrimination. So, while teachers may aim for comfortable intelligibility for their students, for all the reasons given above, it’s perfectly reasonable for learners to aspire to a native speaker accent.


How to square the circle? This blogpost is adapted from a webinar, delivered last month to TEFLIN (TEFL Indonesia) by Clarity’s Managing Director, Andrew Stokes. He discusses the arguments above in more detail, and goes on to explore some practical solutions to this dilemma. You can watch the full webinar by clicking here.

Further reading

Henry Woo, Editor, ClarityEnglish

Henry Woo, Editor, ClarityEnglish