Why accents matter

Our partners from Collins sent a new collaboration to our blog! Enjoy! We love accents! We make our living helping people learn a variety of different accents, and we celebrate all the different accents that exist. We also know that accents are a big part of our identities and who we are as individuals, so we definitely aren’t interested in teaching everyone to sound the same. However, there are certain occasions where accents can cause problems for understanding, and those are the times when we believe it’s important to work on your accent.

One of those times is when an accent means that a speaker isn’t distinguishing between minimal pairs. This means that there are two words that only have one different sound, but have completely different meanings. For example: ‘live’ and ‘leave’. Speakers of many languages have issues differentiating between the long vowel ‘ee’ /iː/ and the short vowel ‘i’ /ɪ/. This could make it hard to tell the difference between the exclamations ‘I just can’t leave here!’, and ‘I just can’t live here!’. There’s a big difference in meaning, but only one very subtly different vowel sound.

For speakers of English at a more advanced level, accents can still cause problems, but in other ways. For example, someone who has lived their adult life in the UK, but grew up elsewhere speaking another language may have no problem with being understood, but may find that their tone or intention is frequently misunderstood. This can be because so much subtext and subtle emotional meaning in English is conveyed through intonation (the musicality of speech). In English, a falling tone usually conveys finality or certainty, so if (as a non-native speaker) you’re always using falling tones, due to the intonation patterns of your mother tongue, listeners may think that you don’t want to chat any more.

So changing your accent doesn’t mean losing who you are - in fact you can change your accent in ways that allow your true intentions to be understood more easily.

Problematic sounds for many non-native speakers

One of the most challenging sounds for non-native speakers of English is actually the most common sound in the English language! That sound is The Schwa. The schwa is a very subtle, quiet sound - you may barely have noticed it, but without it, you can never hope to capture the rhythm of English. Any written vowel can be replaced by the schwa if it’s in an unstressed syllable. Examples can be heard in words like allow, or official: rather than saying the strong form of the vowel, it should be pronounced with a quiet ‘uh’ sound.

For non-native speakers this sound can really challenging, because when you’re speaking in your second language you want to be as clear as possible in order to be understood. Using the schwa can feel like mumbling or like you’re not fully pronouncing a word. However, in reality all native speakers use the schwa - even the Queen! And by not using it, you are are much more likely to be misunderstood.

The schwa is key to showing what’s important within sentences. The vowels in small grammar words like ‘to’, ‘as’, ‘at’, ‘can’ ‘was’ etc frequently reduce to schwas, and not using them will make those words stand out too much, and confuse listeners about the overall meaning of what you’re trying to say - the individual words may be clear, but the meaning of the sentence gets lost if you don’t unstress the unimportant words. For example, in a sentence like ‘I was waiting for you’, if you don’t unstress the word ‘was’ by using a schwa, it ends up sounding stressed to native speakers, and changes the meaning of that sentence from something quite neutral to ‘I WAS waiting for you’ which could seem argumentative.

So when practising English pronunciation, learning what not to say, is just as important as learning what to say.

Tips on how to use this book in the classroom