The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching. Edited by John I. Liontas.
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
JOHN M. LEVIS AND ZIWEI ZHOU
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
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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.
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
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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
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
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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
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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:
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
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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
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Language Teaching, NNEST, Phonetics, accent, discrimination, intelligibility, pronuncia-
tion, social factors
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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.
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