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What Accent?

“You have a nice accent. Where are you from?” asked the secretary with thick Spanish pronunciation. “What accent?” I thought. I don’t have an accent! I had just finished teaching one of my first business English classes with a telecommunications executive in one of Madrid’s many business parks. As her question caught me off guard, I simply replied “Chicago…thank you.”

It was a flattering compliment, yet I eventually realized that not everyone would agree with this sweet secretary’s opinion. Of course everyone has an accent, but I had rarely put much thought into analyzing it, or overanalyzing as I often do. Needless to say, the subject of accents has resonated with me for the almost two years that I have been teaching in Madrid.

Chicago River Sunset
Chicago, my kind of town

First and foremost I have an American accent and it’s blatantly obvious from the way I sometimes pronounce t’s like they are d’s (i.e. water sounds like ‘wader’ and butter sounds like ‘budder’) and the hard ‘er’ ending that has a Captain Jack Sparrow likeness just to name a couple. However many Europeans, especially Spaniards of an older generation, have grown accustomed to the British accent and pronunciation. No matter how hard I try to speak clearly and enunciate every intonation of a word, some students still claim I’m difficult to understand. Although EFL students have every right to a preference, it is a disservice to only expose them to one accent.

Changing of guard
Changing of the Guard in London

I typically explain the importance of exposure to and understanding of many English accents by asking students, “When your boss tells you that you need to speak English, can you respond saying that you only understand British English, American English, or Australian English?” This proves my point as they usually respond, “of course not!” Similarly if English is a noted skill on their CV, you should be able to communicate with anyone who speaks English. 

Parliament and Big Ben
Parliament and Big Ben

There is also a myriad of English accents, not to mention the various foreign accents that must be considered. Since English is the international business language, my students often find themselves in meetings or conference calls with native French, Italian, and German speakers using English as their second language.

Regardless of who actually spoke these famous words, the author is up for debate, the US and UK really are “two nations divided by a common language.” The significant differences in pronunciation, terminology, idioms and collocations, phrasal verbs, and spelling can cause confusion to even an advanced English learner, yet that’s for another post or many more posts, in fact.

phone booth selfie
My obligatory red phone booth selfie

Since I’m from Chicago, I speak and teach American English. That’s not to say that I champion American English over British English. Especially in Europe, it’s incredibly important that learners are simply made aware of the differences. Even though Europeans may have more exposure to British English due to its close proximity, pop culture and American business has created a need for practice with American accents, too. 

Have you discovered your English accent? What are your tips and tricks for stubborn learners with preference for a single accent?

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