What is best to teach English second language (ESL) students, to speak with a British or with an American accent? And, should ESL teachers force a particular accent on students? The short answer is no, the “perfect” or “best” accent is when English is spoken in a clear, easily understood manner.
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The decline of British influence
In countries such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, the preference is heavily in favor of American vocabulary, accent, and idioms to be taught, while the opposite is true in countries where the British had a stronger historical influence such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The sentiment in countries like China and Turkey is generally more neutral.
The dominance of British English came to an end after World War 2 with the loss of Britain’s political power across the globe, marked by the Partitioning of India and (now) Pakistan (in 1948), the end of the British Palestine Mandate in the Middle East (1948), the Suez Crisis (1956), the rapid decolonization in Africa and several island nations, ending with the expiry of the Hong Kong lease in 1997.
The rise of American dominance
The reasons American English became so influential since the 1950s can be summed up by naming two places of massive influence in particular: Wall Street and the might of the American dollar on the world of finance, trade, and the global economy; Hollywood on media and entertainment with the advance of technology from cinema, to television and pop culture, establishing an American worldview. America started to dominate the academic world with its prestigious universities, science, business, most industries, and the development of the Internet.
The combination of all these factors caused English to become more accepted as the primary language for international communication in business, science, politics, travel and many industries.
The Americanization of English is not only with new words and phrases, but in spelling and grammar due to the dominance of American computer software and AI leaning towards American spelling.
Best ESL practice regarding accent
The goal of ESL is for students to gain a good-sounding accent, to be clear, and to be understood when speaking English. So should we make our students adopt an accent?
Most students prefer an American accent because that’s what they see and hear in movies and in the media. Often students hope to travel abroad, study in one of the English-speaking countries, or even find work and immigrate to the West.
Young people think a popular American accent will make them sound more sophisticated and easier to understand, like The Avengers for example. The Avengers have a social impact on young viewers across the world, so many English learners want to adopt a similar accent.
On the other hand, about 10 to 20 percent of students actually prefer having a British accent. Especially students from the Commonwealth or Chinese students would like to adopt a British accent. In the USA itself, a clear “BBC-standard” British accent is regarded as posh.
A TV show that promotes the British accent is detective Sherlock Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch has a beautiful accent with received pronunciation, the “Queen’s English.”
Do not force a particular accent on students:
Our goal is to help our students develop a clear, understandable accent. It is up to them what accent they naturally develop or strive towards.
Many people discuss whether a bad accent is a bad thing – If you have an accent it could have a negative impression on you. Especially if you have to communicate or go for a job interview. Therefore we should encourage our students to move more towards a neutral accent.
Accents bring color to language:
The fact that people from around the world have different accents makes the language beautiful. I personally love listening to different accents from around the world. Indian, Russian or Korean English accents make life colorful and not dull. Even dialects within different countries add richness to the English language.
Teach differences between UK and US English:
Share your accent with your students and teach them the differences between the pronunciation of American and British accents. It is important that students learn that there is no “correct” or “incorrect” accent. It is said that the best English accent is that of the people spoken.
Teach the preferred accent:
ESL teachers are often instructed to speak and teach in an American accent because that is what the employer and students want. If they prefer a certain accent, do your best to help them achieve their learning goals.
Whatever your accent, teach the accent your learners want – the priority is being clear, understood, and fluent.
What about L1 in ESL class?
A question related to the practical side of teaching ESL is that of learners using L1 (first language or mother tongue) in the English 2nd language class. Most teachers, especially of more advanced ESL students, insist on zero tolerance toward L1 and it does have its merits. For example, that using L1 deprives students of the learning opportunity in the little time they have to practice L2.
Using L1 does have a LIMITED place in the ESL class, especially with younger learners to lower anxiety and create a positive attitude towards the ESL class at first. But L1 must then be used only to promote understanding, explain difficult concepts, or for example grammar rules.