Research article
Issue: № 7 (14), 2013

Лапина В.Е.

Кандидат педагогических наук, ассистент кафедры Романской филологии Института иностранных языков Московского городского педагогического университета



Межкультурная коммуникация на английском языке представляет ряд трудностей, одна из которых состоит в понимании речи, отмеченной акцентом, а также идентификации варианта языка. Умения различать акценты помогут узнать больше об участниках общения: из какой они страны или региона и социального слоя. Целью статьи является обзор проблемы и предоставление рекомендаций не-носителям английского языка относительно того, как развить научиться узнавать акценты. Результаты, представленные в этой статье, могут быть использованы в преподавании английского языка как иностранного.

Ключевые слова: акцент, узнавание акцента, социолингвистическая компетенция, культурная идентичность

Lapina V.E.

Candidate of Pedagogical Studies, Assistant Professor at Institute of Foreign Languages, Moscow City Teacher Training University



Intercultural communication in English presents a number of challenges, one of which being the difficulty in understanding accented speech and identifying variants of English. The skills of accent identification help to learn more about participants of communication: recognize their nationality, regional and social identity. The aim of this article is to give an overview of the problem and suggest some general recommendations to non-native speakers of English on how to develop sensitivity to accents. The findings presented in this paper can be applied in teaching English as a second / foreign language.

Keywords: accent, sensitivity to accents, sociolinguistic competence, cultural identity


Sociolinguistics appeared in the 1960s and most research work conducted in this field is focused on describing different kinds of links that exist between language and society. A lot of evidence has been found to prove that the way people articulate, choose grammar and vocabulary largely depends on their social background. As a result, various accents, dialects and pidgins were studied and classified. Now we have plenty of data about English and its variants spoken in different parts of the world [6].

Works of sociolinguists also show that for native speakers of English identifying the interlocutor’s regional or social accent is a common cognitive task [2; 3; 5; 7; 10]. Obviously, understanding who we are dealing with makes communication more predictable and also it helps to choose appropriate communicative strategies. Confusing people’s national and cultural identities is often a source of misunderstanding and even offence. For example, a non-native speaker of English fails to understand the meaning of a geo-synonym or confuses Canadians with Americans and the Irish with the English and so on.

So what about non-native speakers’ sensitivity to accents? In this article I am going to speak about the advantages of developing the ability to identify accents and how being sensitive to accents can improve intercultural communication between native and non-native speakers. We will also see how modern media (the Internet, TV, films and radio) can help to cope with this task.

Advantages of accent identification

The problems of accent (mis)identification in the world of native speakers have been thoroughly studied [2; 3; 10]. However, little has been done to apply these findings in the practice of language teaching and learning, which is an issue that needs further investigation as there is a number of typical challenges non-native speakers of English have. Learning English as a second language

  • EFL learners can usually understand only one type of English, i.e. of their teacher / course;
  • they can hardly identify speakers from different countries, regions and social groups;
  • they do not know how to make assumptions about the speaker’s background, which is a common mental operation in their mother-tongue communication;
  • EFL learners do not get a full understanding of what they hear;
  • they sometimes fail to choose appropriate communicative strategies because of the lack of information about their interlocutor’s cultural identity.

I am going to discuss possible ways of using sociolinguistic methods of speech analysis in English language learning. I believe that some means of sociolinguistic identification can facilitate real life communication through making it easier for the learner to understand what he or she hears and who he or she is talking to (nationality, social background), so that he or she could choose the best communicative strategies that fit the situation.

Most (if not all) scholars agree that English is not homogeneous and exists in a number of regional variations. Whether we consider American, Canadian, Australian and many other Englishes as a modification of one language or individual languages, we have to admit that the world speaks more or less the same language, but with a number of differences in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, the latter being the most evident.

We have to divide countries that use English as a first language (e.g. the UK, the USA, Australia) from those using it as a second language (e.g. India, the Philippines, the UAE) [6] and we also have to consider the countries where English is neither a first nor a second, but an international language for communication in tourism and business (e.g. Japan, Russia).

It would be naïve to expect all these countries to have a unified grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. But when somebody from a country where English is only used as a means of communication with foreigners wants to learn English, he or she usually has a very vague idea of the regional variation of the language. There is a tendency among speakers of other languages to assume that there is only one correct version of English and all the others are incorrect. They study one type of pronunciation as a model and then when it comes to using English in real life they often fail to understand others, because their interlocutors speak a type of English that was not studied as a model. These experiences can be rather frustrating for non-native speakers who were not prepared to deal with various types of English.

Another problem is that we have to bear in mind that even if people speak a more or less the same language it does not mean they belong to the same culture. In the modern world even with the high rate of globalization many cultures want to, so to say, stick to their roots. In this case it is becoming essential to be able to distinguish between speakers of different, sometimes even opposed, cultures. The ability to identify different accents may help here. It is especially important in intercultural communication, as people of various nationalities and cultures take part in it and it is not always possible to ask questions about their background.

Sensitivity to accents means sensitivity to differences in culture. While studying various types of pronunciation, we also learn about different peoples and social groups, their geographical location, lifestyle and values. So, we may conclude that by acquiring the skill of accent recognition, non-native speakers of English can get a fuller picture of the English-speaking world and become better prepared for intercultural communication.

Which accents should non-native speakers identify?

Now we have to choose what accents non-native speakers should be able to recognize. It is not easy to choose and there cannot be one way of answering this question. We should always take into consideration the aims of our EFL students, the conditions in which they learn and use the language, and the current sociolinguistic situation in the world. The latter changes quite fast as there are a lot of social changes and migration.

It is still possible to make a list of the most wide-spread accents by looking at the number of people who use them.

Let us start with the pronunciations of English by native speakers. The biggest number of people using English as their first language is in the United States (260 million) [8] and here we deal with General American pronunciation that helps to distinguish an American from all other speakers of English. It is worth noting that the United States is a country where culture and lifestyle is different on the East Coast and the West Coast, in the South and in the North. So, differentiating between regional accents used in the mentioned parts of the US may give the listener some clues not only to his or her national, but also to the cultural identity of the speaker.

The second largest number of people using English as their first language is in the United Kingdom (58.1 million) [8]. The pronunciation that shows that the speaker is from the UK is Received Pronunciation, but it is typical only of the so-called British elite and people who work in higher education, on serious TV channels, etc. Most people in Britain speak with regional accents that reveal their geographical origin. It is not recommended for successful communication to confuse the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish with the English, so being able to hear where the speaker comes from can be useful.

The third biggest number of native speakers is in Canada. Because of the geographical position and strong economic and cultural ties between the countries, Canadian version of English and especially its pronunciation shares a lot of features with General American. It makes communication difficult as a non-native speaker of English may easily take a Canadian for an American and that leads to cultural misidentification. Canada is often in the shade of its powerful neighbor, so distinguishing Canadian accent from American is essential for avoiding uncomfortable situations caused by misidentification.

There are other countries with a considerable number of people whose mother tongue is English. They are Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Singapore. All these countries are in the Southern hemisphere and accents used there derive from British pronunciation. They are closer to RP than to GA and also have their own distinctive features.

Then let us have a look at the accents of other speakers of English who use it as their second language. The number of people and countries here is enormous. So we have to pick up a few types of pronunciation that can give useful information about the speakers and make intercultural communication easier.

The first accent worth studying is Indian. There are 196.2 million [8] people in India who speak English and because of migration and social mobility we can come across Indian English accent in many places outside this country. The main problem for non-native speakers of English is to understand what is said by ethnic Indians, because their pronunciation is very different from RP, GA and any other standard. So here the sensitivity to accents is to serve adequate comprehension while listening [6].

As for the other accents used in Asia (the Philippines, and Malaysia etc.), Africa (Kenya, Nigeria, etc.) and the Caribbean (Jamaica, etc.), they certainly have local features caused by the influence of the first language. We should also bear in mind, that because of migration we can come across mixed accents. For example, if a family from Jamaica move to London their children are likely to have features of both Caribbean and London accent.

There is a great number of pronunciation variants in English, but whether to study a certain accent or not largely depends on the aims of the EFL student.

How to develop sensitivity to accents: some general principles

There is a lot of special literature for linguists where all the known accents are described. But if we deal with people who study English as a foreign language and have no special education that allows them to use transcription and phonetic symbols and terminology, we have to involve them in accent identification in various tasks.

It is no doubt, that one can learn how to recognize a specific accent by listening to a lot of samples of it. Sooner or later, his or her ear gets used to the accent and the target accent stands out from all the others. But this method is very time-consuming and not always productive unless the listener is naturally sensitive to differences in pronunciation in his or her own language.

To begin with, it would be better to draw the students’ attention to one striking feature of the studied accent. For example, if they want to learn how to recognize General American, the teacher may show them that /r/ is pronounced in the words like car, father and others. Then the students listen to a text pronounced with General American accent, then they are given a text where they have to underline all the /r/ sounds they hear. After that they can listen to another text, read with Received Pronunciation, and they compare the pronunciation of the same words in the two texts. Then other features of accents may be studied, but it should be done step by step.

Printed texts of what students listen to (or subtitles in case of video features) may be of great help here and switching the students’ attention from the meaning of what they hear to the form, the pronunciation, can make learning fast and well-structured.

Another technique that can help students to hear certain differences is imitation. We can easily hear only the speech sounds we can produce ourselves. So, trying to repeat a word or a phrase with a distinctive feature of the studied accent can help students to hear differences. Here scenes of movies can be helpful as actors there speak in an emotional way and that makes imitating exciting for the students. Songs can also be used for that purpose, especially if the students enjoy singing.

The use of films, TV and other mass media

Accent is sometimes used in films, theatrical performances and stand-up comedy for creating a character without giving explicit information about his or her background. On hearing the most outstanding peculiarities of the accent, native speakers usually identify the character’s geographic origin and sometimes his or her social class and age. In this case phonetic features of accents may be sometimes exaggerated in articulation. Thanks to the actor’s efforts in making the target accent easier to recognize, feature films, plays and stand-up comedy present a source of authentic material that can be used by non-native speakers of English for developing sensitivity to accents.

Apart from that, local radio stations are now accessible via the Internet. If EFL students want to practise in accent recognition and listening comprehension, they can start with the news programs where regional accents are usually reduced because of formal register. After that they can go on to listen to sports, gardening and cookery programs where the register is informal, the speech is often spontaneous, so the regional accents are well presented and therefore it is more difficult to understand the meaning.


It is worth noting that intercultural communication takes place between individuals who have a different command of English and also have their cultural identities reflected in the way they speak. Because of that, non-native speakers would have an advantage if they learn to distinguish various accents and consequently recognize regional and social status of other speakers of English.

Although it is stated by some scholars (Bachman and Palmer, 1982) that sensitivity to accents makes a part of sociolinguistic competence, there are no ready-made didactic materials for developing it. In the article I only give general recommendations on how to approach the task of teaching or learning the skill of accent recognition. Finally, I would like to say that there is still plenty of work to be done in the field of teaching English as a foreign language to make it possible for non-native speakers to develop sensitivity to accents and, consequently, cultural awareness.