ChapterPDF Available




Accent is central in how speakers express their identities and how they fit into some social groupings while not fitting comfortably into others. Accent is also a normal and varied feature of L1 and L2 learning. However, accent may also be used to promote ways of speaking as better or worse, and thus create advantages and disadvantages for native and non-native English teachers. This entry discusses how accents function in the English-speaking world and their relationship to intelligibility, or how well listeners and speakers understand each other. Accents can have an exaggerated importance in implying whether language learners have been successful and whether non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) are qualified, especially in whether they are qualified to teach pronunciation. Because of their social impact, accents cannot be ignored in language teaching and learning, but they should not determine ultimate success, either for learners or teachers.
The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching. Edited by John I. Liontas.
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Framing theIssue
Accent refers to distinct ways a language is pronounced, whether by native or
non-native speakers. English, a world language with many speakers in many dif-
ferent regions and of many different social groups, has many distinct accents.
Some are reference accents such as Received Pronunciation (RP) and General
American (GA). These accents are well known and provide implicit standards for
language learning and teaching, while other native and non-native accents are
little known or socially stigmatized. Although some accents have higher social
value, no accent is linguistically superior. Accents are not a characteristic only of
native speakers of English but are also characteristic of English users around the
world. In all contexts, English accents are varied. There is no American English
accent, for example, but rather many American English accents. The same holds
true elsewhere. Native accents in other inner-circle countries (such as the United
Kingdom) differ from region to region or even town to town. In the over 80 coun-
tries of the outer-circle countries (e.g., India, Singapore, Ghana), where English has
an official, institutional role in multilingual societies, distinct accents of English
exist and often have their own regional variations. Finally, among the over one
billion speakers of English as a foreign language in expanding-circle countries,
where English is a classroom language but otherwise has no official governmental
role, many distinct English accents exist.
Linguistically, accents are socially significant bundles of phonetic characteris-
tics. For example, features as diverse as the length of word-final stop consonants,
vowel length, pausing behavior, and the degree of dipthongization can character-
ize native accent differences. Likewise, the precise acoustic features for foreign
accents vary depending on many factors, including “age of L2 learning, length of
residence in an L2-speaking country, gender, formal instruction, motivation, lan-
guage learning aptitude, and amount of native language (L1) use” (Piske, MacKay,
& Flege, 2001, p. 191).
Accents are also heavily laden with social information. They can tell us where a
speaker is from, their social class, social identity, and whether they are native or
non-native. As Matsuda (1991) put it, “Your accent carries the story of who you
eelt0002.indd 1 1/11/2017 6:36:19 PM
are–who first held you and talked to you … where you have lived … the language
you know, your ethnicity … your class position: traces of your life and identity are
woven into your pronunciation” (p. 1329). Accents thus are a way speakers are
included in particular groups and given certain advantages, but accents may also
lead to exclusion and disadvantage.
Because of their social and acoustic saliency, accents often are associated with
stereotypes and value judgments about speakers and groups. Although foreign
accents are merely “non-pathological speech that differs in some noticeable respect
from native speaker pronunciation norms” (Munro & Derwing, 1995, p. 290), they
may also evoke negative reactions from native listeners and result in discrimina-
tion in areas such as general employment, hiring of English teachers or legal rights.
Learners may also find their own accents a source of stigma, leading them to
expect problems with communication and a lack of belonging (Gluszek & Dovidio,
2010). A perceived lack of belonging may also result in learners being inaudible to
others, resulting in loss of opportunity to acquire the language (Miller, 2003).
Accents may become particularly powerful markers for language teachers. Non-
native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs), in particular, may be marked by their
accents as not being a native speaker. In this way, NNESTs may, in different teach-
ing contexts, even be seen as deficient users of the target language.
Making theCase
Accents are powerful markers of nativeness or non-nativeness, but it is important
to know whether they are evidence of excellence in teaching or deficiencies in
linguistic or pedagogical knowledge. Do accents, by themselves, make a teacher
easier or harder to understand? Does an accent mean possession of broken or defi-
cient English? It does not appear this is true. Although foreign accents are easily
noticeable, research shows that they have a very indirect relationship with being
unintelligible or incomprehensible. Munro and Derwing (1995) established that
speakers can be judged as having a “heavy foreign accent” yet be fully intelligible,
which means that listeners often understood every word, even when spoken with
a heavy accent. Accented speakers can also be highly comprehensible. In other
words, the message that is communicated by a heavily accented speaker may be
easy to process and understand. Some researchers have taken the worldwide
spread of English into account in examining intelligibility. Smith and Nelson’s
(1985) World Englishes model of intelligibility does not even include accent as a
factor in intelligibility, assuming that intelligible speech occurs constantly across
accent boundaries, as indeed it does.
Are NESTs more effective teachers because they have native accents, or are
NNESTs who do not have native accents less effective teachers? There is no evi-
dence that either question should be answered in the affirmative. Good predictors
of teacher effectiveness do not include possessing a native accent.
Is a native accent a realistic goal for teachers or learners? A few adult learners
actually achieve a native-like accent, at least in limited social encounters. Most
eelt0002.indd 2 1/11/2017 6:36:19 PM
Accent 3
adult learners, however, have noticeable accents. This contrasts with achievement
in other areas of the foreign language. While ultimate attainment in pronunciation
is closely correlated to age, it is also related to social variables such as identity and
affiliation. For English, these social variables are particularly varied. English is
used in an official capacity in over 80 countries throughout the world, and in many
of these countries, accent means the local accent, not a native speaker reference
accent. Accent is also sensitive to context of use. Because a very large number of
interactions in English in today’s world take place between non-native speakers
(that is, without native speakers), native accent models are often a peripheral
Concerns about accent can be particularly uncomfortable for NNESTs, who may
feel a foreign accent reflects poorly on their achievement in language learning.
Such teachers may also believe native accents should be a priority in the class-
room. They may be also uncertain about the validity of their own accents for teach-
ing and may be reluctant to teach pronunciation. Students learning English may
prefer NESTs when they are learning conversation or pronunciation, but their
preferences do not make a teacher more or less effective. Indeed, attitudes toward
NNESTs tend to become more positive with greater familiarity with NNESTs, and
as learners themselves become more proficient in the L2 (Selvi, 2014). NNESTs
themselves may express less confidence about teaching pronunciation, but they
are not alone in this. NESTs and NNESTs both repeatedly have expressed lack of
confidence in teaching pronunciation. In addition, research into World Englishes
over the past 40 years has lessened the power of standard British and American
pronunciation as the only models for acceptable accents, even though the influ-
ence of these generally accepted native accents for teaching pronunciation remains
firmly entrenched.
Pedagogical Implications
The ordinariness of accent in foreign language learning, and the knowledge that
language learners can be highly intelligible with an accent indicate that a native
accent is not a realistic goal for most English learners. Nor is it realistic to talk
about accent ‘reduction’ or accent ‘elimination’. Instead, a more achievable goal of
teaching pronunciation should be to increase intelligibility. The Intelligibility
Principle (Levis, 2005) says that L1 and L2 English speech needs to be understand-
able rather than match a particular native accent. Even though a native reference
accent may be important in a classroom context, intelligibility should remain the
goal, not matching every minor feature of the accent.
Further, a knowledgeable view of accent does not mean that pronunciation is
unimportant in the language classroom. On the contrary, pronunciation is an
essential and unavoidable part of successful communication and overlaps other
language skills in a multitude of ways. For example, intelligibility, and thus pro-
nunciation, are critically important in speaking and listening. When native listen-
ers listen to non-native speakers, non-natives must pronounce intelligibly and
eelt0002.indd 3 1/11/2017 6:36:19 PM
natives must adjust to non-native accents as they do to other native accents; and
when non-native listeners listen to native speakers, native speakers must also be
understandable. Intelligibility is essential in both directions.
A further implication of the difference between accent and intelligibility is that
promises of accent reduction typically sell false hope. Accent reduction implicitly
promises that a change in accent (from what a speaker does now) will lead to
greater success in communication (because of increased comprehensibility) and
greater social acceptance. There is no evidence that either of these goals result from
a change in accent. Increased comprehensibility can happen without a perceived
change in accent, while social acceptance is dependent on many issues besides
accent, such as how speakers are able to express their identity and become audible
to listeners (Miller, 2003).
Foreign accents rarely disappear, but explicit pronunciation instruction can lead
to improvement in intelligibility, even for seemingly fossilized learners. Analyses
of pronunciation instruction across studies show that improvement is the norm
(Lee, Jang, & Plonsky, 2014). However, the native accents of teachers do not guar-
antee nativeness. They do not even guarantee improvement. Skillful instruction,
however, can make a difference. In some cases, the use of technology may be par-
ticularly important in putting pronunciation instruction within the reach of all
students. Using technology may even improve instruction by allowing students to
be exposed to multiple input sources beyond just their native or non-native teacher
and allowing them to direct their own learning.
Perhaps the most important pedagogical implication of a right view of accent is
for how teachers are educated about the importance of pronunciation. Pronunciation
is unavoidable in speaking a language, and must be addressed in language learn-
ing and teaching, but it is particularly prone to myths such as the superiority of a
native accent and the possibility of achieving it. Such falsehoods are damaging to
NESTs and NNESTs, promoting false superiority in one and false inferiority in the
other. Levis, Link, Sonsaat, and Barriuso (2016) found that students in two pronun-
ciation classes, one taught by a NEST and one by a NNEST, showed similar levels
of improvement and rated the two teachers equivalently. This suggests that the
supposed superiority of native accents in teaching pronunciation is merely a belief
not a fact. Changing this belief will require widespread knowledge of which fea-
tures of pronunciation are important, knowledge of how to teach pronunciation
effectively, knowledge of the social power of accent, and knowledge of the signifi-
cant strengths of non-native teachers.
Teacher education must recognize and celebrate the distinct strengths of all
teachers, native and non-native. While this is increasingly true, the role of accent
often remains unexamined. Native teachers may sometimes be considered quali-
fied for teaching, especially for teaching pronunciation, simply because they are
native. Although any teacher can be an expert guide to pronunciation learning,
NNESTs may be especially skilled at understanding their students’ articulatory,
perceptual, and attitudinal difficulties, yet because of accent may be considered
unqualified in teaching pronunciation. NNESTs’ ways of speaking may make
them a particularly good model if they are intelligible, successful L2 speakers. Far
eelt0002.indd 4 1/11/2017 6:36:19 PM
Accent 5
from being deficient native ‘speakers’ who speak deficient English, many NNESTs
are successful native ‘users’ who understand how to change and improve, even for
traditionally difficult language features such as pronunciation. For NNESTs,
accents have traditionally been granted far too much exclusionary power, eclips-
ing teaching skills, experiences, and a learning bond with their students. If we
accept the proposition that students should be provided with appropriate models,
non-native teachers can be both a learning model and an intelligibility model. We
should also not assume that because teachers possess native accents, they are able
to teach pronunciation. For all teachers, pronunciation teaching necessitates con-
scious effort and careful training.
In TESOL, accent is at the same time both unimportant and impossible to ignore.
In its proper place, accent can tell us much about social judgments. However,
accent has only a very indirect relationship to intelligibility. The tremendous vari-
ation in English accents is something to be celebrated and explored, with pronun-
ciation instruction being used to promote intelligibility across accents.
SEE ALSO: Challenges Faced by NNESTs; Comprehensibility; Discrimination and
Discriminatory Practices Against NNESTs; Native Speakerism; Teacher Education
Programs in Preparing NESTs and NNESTs; World Englishes
Gluszek, A., & Dovidio, J. F. (2010). Speaking with a nonnative accent: Perceptions of bias,
communication difficulties, and belonging in the United States. Journal of Language and
Social Psychology, 29(2), 224–34. doi:10.1177/0261927x09359590
Lee, J., Jang, J., & Plonsky, L. (2014). The effectiveness of second language pronunciation
instruction: A meta-analysis. Applied Linguistics, amu040. doi:10.1093/applin/amu040
Levis, J. M. (2005). Changing contexts and shifting paradigms in pronunciation teaching.
TESOL Quarterly, 39(3), 369–77. doi:10.2307/3588485
Levis, J. M., Link, S., Sonsaat, S., & Barriuso, T. (2016). Native and nonnative teachers of L2
pronunciation: Effects on learner performance. TESOL Quarterly, 1–38 (Early View).
Matsuda, M. J. (1991). Voices of America: Accent, antidiscrimination law, and a
jurisprudence for the last reconstruction. Yale Law Journal, 100, 1329–407.
Miller, J. (2003). Audible difference: ESL and social identity in schools. Clevedon, England:
Multilingual Matters.
Munro, M. J., & Derwing, T. M. (1995). Foreign accent, comprehensibility, and
intelligibility in the speech of second language learners. Language Learning, 45(1), 73–97.
Piske, T., MacKay, I. R., & Flege, J. E. (2001). Factors affecting degree of foreign accent in an
L2: A review. Journal of Phonetics, 29(2), 191–215. doi:10.1006/jpho.2001.0134
Selvi, A. F. (2014). Myths and misconceptions about nonnative English speakers in the
TESOL (NNEST) movement. TESOL Journal, 5(3), 573–611.
Smith, L. E., & Nelson, C. L. (1985). International intelligibility of English: Directions and
resources. World Englishes, 4(3), 333–42. doi:10.1111/j.1467-971x.1985.tb00423.x
eelt0002.indd 5 1/11/2017 6:36:19 PM
Accent is central in how speakers express their identities and how they fit into some
social groupings while not fitting comfortably into others. Accent is also a normal and
varied feature of L1 and L2 learning. However, accent may also be used to promote ways
of speaking as better or worse, and thus create advantages and disadvantages for native
and non-native English teachers. This entry discusses how accents function in the
English-speaking world and their relationship to intelligibility, or how well listeners and
speakers understand each other. Accents can have an exaggerated importance in imply-
ing whether language learners have been successful and whether non-native English-
speaking teachers (NNESTs) are qualified, especially in whether they are qualified to
teach pronunciation. Because of their social impact, accents cannot be ignored in lan-
guage teaching and learning, but they should not determine ultimate success, either for
learners or teachers.
Please note that the abstract and keywords will not be included in the printed
book, but are required for the online presentation of this book which will be
published on Wiley’s own online publishing platform.
If the abstract and keywords are not present below, please take this opportu-
nity to add them now.
The abstract should be a short paragraph upto 200 words in length and
keywords between 5 to 10 words.
Language Teaching, NNEST, Phonetics, accent, discrimination, intelligibility, pronuncia-
tion, social factors
eelt0002.indd 1 1/11/2017 6:36:19 PM
Author Query
AQ1 Please can you check and let us know if you are fine with your
affiliation as listed below or would you like to update the affiliation.
John M. Levis, Iowa State University, USA
Ziwei Zhou, Iowa State University, USA.
eelt0002.indd 1 1/11/2017 6:36:19 PM
... Accent refers to the different ways a language is pronounced, either by native speakers or by non-native speakers (Levis & Zhou, 2018). Even for native speakers, different regions can have different accents. ...
... Linguistically, an accent is a socially significant collection of phonetic characters. For example, the length of the final consonant word, the length of the vowel, the pause behavior, and the degree of dipthongization can characterize the difference between accents (Levis & Zhou, 2018). ...
... Hence, accents are also loaded with social information. They can tell us where a speaker come from, their social class, their social identity, and whether they are genuine or not (Levis & Zhou, 2018). ...
... At this stage, it is worth considering whether it is in fact useful to ask L2 learners to judge the accentedness of their own speech, because it has been repeatedly pointed out that the goal of an L2 learner should be intelligibility-which is defined as the addressee's comprehension of the intended words, similar to the word-error rate metric used in automatic speech recognition-rather than imitating a native speaker and that these two goals are not necessarily the same [20,21]. First of all, there is not "the native speaker" that may be shared as a goal by all learners. ...
Full-text available
Second language (L2) learners are often aware of the typical pronunciation errors that speakers of their native language make, yet often persist in making these errors themselves. We hypothesised that L2 learners may perceive their own accent as closer to the target language than the accent of other learners, due to frequent exposure to their own productions. This was tested by recording 24 female native speakers of German producing 60 sentences. The same participants later rated these recordings for accentedness. Importantly, the recordings had been altered to sound male so that participants were unaware of their own productions in the to-be-rated samples. We found evidence supporting our hypothesis: participants rated their own altered voice, which they did not recognize as their own, as being closer to a native speaker than that of other learners. This finding suggests that objective feedback may be crucial in fostering L2 acquisition and reduce fossilization of erroneous patterns.
Full-text available
Both native and nonnative language teachers often find pronunciation a difficult skill to teach because of inadequate training or uncertainty about the effectiveness of instruction. But nonnative language teachers may also see themselves as inadequate models for pronunciation, leading to increased uncertainty about whether they should teach pronunciation (Golombek & Jordan, 2005). Although studies have regularly shown that instruction is effective in promoting pronunciation improvement (Saito, 2012), it is not known if improvement depends on the native language of the instructor, nor if learners improve differently depending on whether their teacher is native or nonnative. This study investigated the effect of teachers' first language on ratings of change in accentedness and comprehensibility. Learners in intact English classes were taught one class by a nonnative- and one by a native-English-speaking teacher. Each teacher taught the same pronunciation lessons over the course of 7 weeks. Results show that native listeners' ratings of the students' comprehensibility were similar for both teachers, despite many learners' stated preference for native teachers. The results offer encouragement to nonnative teachers in teaching pronunciation, suggesting that, like other language skills, instruction on pronunciation skills is more dependent on knowledgeable teaching practices than on native pronunciation of the teacher.
Though courts recognize that accent discrimination can function as the equivalent of prohibited national origin discrimination, in practice, plaintiffs in accent discrimination cases almost never win. In this Article, Mari Matsuda explores recent Title VII litigation and the literature of sociolinguists to demonstrate that accent discrimination often hides other prejudices, since status assumptions rooted in racial, ethnic, and class subordination affect our evaluations of speech. Given this sociolinguistic reality, the author calls for an application of Title VII law that examines critically employer claims that accent impedes job performance. The author recommends that courts separately consider four issues in evaluating claims of accent discrimination: the level of communication required for the jobn; the fairness of the employer's evaluation of the candidate's speech; the candidate's intelligibility to the pool of relevant, nonprejudiced listeners; and reasonable accommodations, given the job and any limitations in intelligibility. The author argues that accepting this doctrinal reconstruction will promote linguistic tolerance, and that both liberalism and emerging progressive theories of law favor such tolerance. Accent tolerance promotes such liberal values as full participation in the democratic process and protection of individual identity. Finally, the author argues from the perspective of progressive, critical theories that accent discrimination plays an important part in the culture of domination, enforcing uniformity of accent in order to maintain boundaries. Linguistic tolerance promotes the dual critical goals of antisubordination and radical pluralism.
The goal of this study was to determine the overall effects of pronunciation instruction (PI) as well as the sources and extent of variance in observed effects. Toward this end, a comprehensive search for primary studies was conducted, yielding 86 unique reports testing the effects of PI. Each study was then coded on substantive and methodological features as well as study outcomes (Cohen’s d). Aggregated results showed a generally large effect for PI (d = 0.89 and 0.80 for N-weighted within- and between-group contrasts, respectively). In addition, moderator analyses revealed larger effects for (i) longer interventions, (ii) treatments providing feedback, and (iii) more controlled outcome measures. We interpret these and other results with respect to their practical and pedagogical relevance. We also discuss the findings in relation to instructed second language acquisition research generally and in comparison with other reviews of PI (e.g. Saito 2012). Our conclusion points out areas of PI research in need of further empirical attention and methodological refinement.
Parallel to the growing recognition of English as an international language, the fundamental premises of the TESOL discipline (e.g., the ownership of the language, native speakers as a goal and model of competence for learning and teaching, linguistic standards and language variety/ies to be taught, monolingual/monocultural approach to teaching) has undergone a serious challenge and reconceptualization over the past several decades. While this trend resulted in an unprecedented recognition of the issues surrounding nonnative speakers in the field of TESOL, it also meant the emergence of a series of unfounded ideas or false beliefs about nonnative English speakers in the TESOL (NNEST) movement. By discussing and problematizing these commonly held myths and misconceptions about the NNEST movement, the current article aims to clarify a number of important issues and shed a light onto the past, present, and future of the movement. Having a solid grasp of the movement in the context of global dynamics, changing times, and reconfigured fundamental premises of the discipline has a paramount importance for all stakeholders involved in TESOL who long for a professional milieu characterized by democracy, justice, equity, participation, and professionalism.
Whereas past research on nonnative accents has focused on the attitudes and perceptions of listeners, the current research explores the experiences of speakers with nonnative accents. Two studies investigated the role of nonnative accents and their strength in perceptions of stigmatization and discrimination, problems in communication, and feelings of social belonging. Study 1 demonstrated that individuals with nonnative accents experienced two different, but related facets of stigmatization: expectations of stigmatization and problems in communication. Study 2 extended this research by examining the effects of the experience of stigma and communication problems associated with nonnative accents on social belonging in the United States The results showed that speaking with a nonnative accent, but not a regional native accent, was significantly associated with feeling less belonging, and this difference was mediated by perceived problems in communicating.
This is a summary of the state-of-the-art research in international intelligibility with emphasis on English. It also suggests some directions for future research. It is argued that in future research it would be desirable to make distinctions between three key concepts: intelligibility, comprehensibility and interpretability. The selected bibliography of 163 items has been assembled to give the reader an indication of how widespread this literature is, and at the same time to indicate its limitations. The sources searched include publications across various disciplines. This indicates that intelligibility can be approached from a variety of points of view and interests. Since intelligibility depends upon so many factors of different types involved in a given speech event, it is difficult to find ways of integrating approaches and parameters. That is a challenge for future research.
This study examines the interrelationships among accentedness, perceived comprehensibility, and intelligi bility in the speech of L2 learners. Eighteen native speak ers (NSs) of English listened to excerpts of extemporaneous English speech produced by 10 Mandarin NSs and two English NSs. We asked the listeners to transcribe the utterances in standard orthography and to rate them for degree of foreign-accentedness and comprehensibility on 9- point scales. We assigned the transcriptions intelligibility scores on the basis of exact word matches. Although the utterances tended to be highly intelligible and highly rated for comprehensibility, the accent judgment scores ranged widely, with a noteworthy proportion of scores at the “heavily-accented” end of the scale. We calculated Pearson correlations for each listener's intelligibility, accentedness, and comprehensibility scores and the phonetic, phonemic, and grammatical errors in the stimuli, as well as goodness of intonation ratings. Most listeners showed significant correlations between accentedness and errors, fewer lis teners showed correlations between accentedness and per ceived comprehensibility, and fewer still showed a rela tionship between accentedness and intelligibility. The findings suggest that although strength of foreign accent is correlated with perceived comprehensibility and intelligibility, a strong foreign accent does not necessarily reduce the comprehensibility or intelligibility of L2 speech.
This article had two aims: to provide a thorough review of the existing literature examining overall degree of foreign accent in a second language (L2), and to present a new foreign accent experiment. The literature review suggested that a wide variety of variables influence degree of foreign accent. These variables include age of L2 learning, length of residence in an L2-speaking country, gender, formal instruction, motivation, language learning aptitude and amount of native language (L1) use. Age of L2 learning appears to be the most important predictor of degree of foreign accent. However, the relative importance of the other variables is uncertain. This is because many variables relating to subject characteristics tend to be confounded, and because of lack of adequate experimental control in some studies. The experiment presented here examined the influence of Italian-English bilinguals' age of L2 learning, length of residence in an L2-speaking environment (Canada), gender, amount of continued L1 (Italian) use and self-estimated L1 ability on degree of L2 foreign accent. As expected from the literature review, both age of L2 learning and amount of continued L1 use were found to affect degree of foreign accent. Gender, length of residence in an L2-speaking country and self-estimated L1 ability, on the other hand, were not found to have a significant, independent effect on overall L2 pronunciation accuracy.