Tongue Twisted: Unraveling the Mysteries of Pronunciation with Robin Walker

As of this month, we initiate a column run by Robin Walker, teacher, teacher trainer and an expert in pronunciation. Robin maintained a blog ( for many years and fed it regularly until his retirement. He graciously accepted to share his posts with ELT NEWS readers.

Terminology is provided in alphabetical order. Obviously, we start with the letter ‘A’.  Enjoy reading!

‘A’ is for accent (1)

A’ is for accent. And given that accent is one of the core issues in pronunciation teaching, there is really no other place to start an alphabet-ordered pronunciation blog. Accent is what everyone has, what many learners tell teachers they want to lose, and what some unscrupulous commercial ventures claim they can ‘reduce’. (If you don’t believe me, type ‘accent reduction’ into your favourite search engine and you’ll see what I’m referring to. I’ve just come up with over 18 million results in less than a Google second).

In language teaching, accent refers to differences in pronunciation between individual speakers or groups of speakers. There are countless accents, and they are the result of where speakers are from. Here we can take ‘from’ in a regional sense or in a social one. Speakers from the working or lower-middle class suburbs of Newcastle in the northeast of England, for example, pronounce ‘bath’, ‘laugh’ or ‘class’ with the same vowel as in ‘cat’. Speakers from the wealthier parts of the city, on the other hand, generally make these words rhyme with the stressed vowel in ‘father’.

The acid test of your accent in Newcastle is, ironically, the name itself. For anyone born in one of the less privileged parts of the city, this is pronounced /njəˈkæsl/, with the stress on the second syllable and the stressed vowel rhyming with ‘cat’. This is quite different to more socially advantaged speakers who prefer /ˈnjuːkɑːsl/, with the stress on the first syllable, and the ‘father’ vowel in the second. This is the pronunciation given in English language dictionaries, and most people in the UK would regard it as the ‘right’ pronunciation. But to us as kids growing up in Newcastle, it always sounded incredibly ‘posh’, and now, over 50 years on, to me it still sounds wrong.

Did you detect a hint of prejudice here? Did my friends and I growing up in Newcastle call people ‘posh’ because of their accent? Did we (dare I say it?) dislike them because of their accent? Well, yes, you did. And yes, we did (on both counts). Of course there was prejudice. But it wasn’t just us who were guilty.

Accent prejudice in NE England is a two-way street, as it is everywhere around the country, and indeed everywhere around every country. Everyone who is the object of accent prejudice, will have prejudices themselves. This is what pronunciation expert Richard Cauldwell is referring to when he states that ‘every accent will have – somewhere – a social group which has a prejudice about it’ (Cauldwell, 2013: 210). And it’s what Rosina Lippi-Green discusses at length in English with an accent (1997), a highly recommendable analysis of accent prejudice in the US (although you won’t find it too hard to transfer what she says about her country of birth to your own).

Your accent reveals a lot of information about you, about your identity and about your background, and others will use that information in all sorts of ways, not all of which are ethical. Being thought of as not trustworthy, being taken off the shortlist for a job, not getting a promotion, losing your job, being made an outsider, being made an insider, having your words invested with extra value, having your words divested of any value – these are just some of the unethical practices that occur around accent. They occur around accents when speakers are using their first language with others who share the same L1, and they also occur around the accents of speakers using their additional languages, L2s they’ve worked hard to learn in order to communicate better in a globalised world. That is to say, they occur around the lives of the 1,000–1,500 billion L2 speakers of English around the world, many of whom are, or have been, or will be our students.

So what do we do about accents in the ELT classroom, the common ground that has brought us to this blog? Do we go for a neutral accent? Or for a standard accent? Or a prestige accent? Or even just a good accent? You’ll get my answer next month.


Cauldwell, R. (2013). Phonology for Listening. Birmingham: Speech in Action. Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent. London and New York: Routledge.

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