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  • Yelena McCafferty

Accent Evaluation

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

The ITI Interpreters’ Development Network webinar on 15 September looked at accent reduction for interpreters, with Paul Carley from Pronunciation First as the speaker. Paul’s presentation was divided into three parts: common misconceptions,modern tendencies and social evaluation of accents.

Paul dispelled a myth that the difference between some pairs of vowels is in their length, for example as in “kit” and “fleece”, demonstrating that the difference lies, in fact, in their quality. He went on to explain how general British pronunciation had been changing over time, citing the development of /tj/ into /ʧ/ in words like tube, Tuesday, tuna etc., and /dj/ into /ʤ/ in words like due, duty, during and so on. It is now argued that the previous pronunciations are beginning to sound old-fashioned and over-careful, and that these pronunciations are unsuitable for teaching schoolchildren and students learning English as a foreign language.

For me personally the most interesting part was to do with attitude to accents and ways to work on one’s accent. The social evaluation of English accents has been studied since the 1970s with relatively consistent results. Accents were assessed for the speaker’s social attractiveness (sounding kind/nice) and prestige (being intelligent/educated). Over decades findings have been relatively the same: Received Pronunciation (RP) is rated positively for prestige, while foreign and regional accents are rated negatively. However, when it comes to social attractiveness, regional accents are rated positively, but Received Pronunciation and foreign accents are viewed negatively. The reason for foreign accents being judged negatively for prestige and social attractiveness lies in social psychology. Paul mentioned the terms ingroups and outgroups, a person with a foreign accent belongs to a different group, he/she is an outsider, a suspect, so on the psychological level such accents are treated with suspicion. Paul made a comment about the recordings of Received Pronunciation being judged harshly though, saying that such recordings are normally very old-fashioned upper class, whereas these days RP has a more modern sound to it. The tendency is now to refer to modern mainstream RP as General British (GB).

Paul’s conclusion for interpreters was clear: RP/GB is an obvious choice of accent for those who wish to sound educated and competent. The question then arises whether it’s feasible to neutralise a foreign accent if English wasn’t learnt from birth. Paul’s view is that a native-like accent is totally achievable and it’s not about how early one starts learning a language. The crucial part here, he argues, is giving pronunciation as much attention as you would to grammar and vocabulary. If phonetics is worked on from the very beginning, there is no reason why you can’t develop excellent pronunciation. On the other hand, the difficulty is if someone learns bad pronunciation to begin with, for example, from a teacher with a very strong foreign accent, so later students have to “un-learn”. Paul’s advice here is to practise and listen to as much authentic English as possible, and to read up-to-date books on phonetics.

The webinar speaker is also convinced that compared to grammar and vocabulary, pronunciation is an easy component of language learning. For interpreters he suggested using shadowing as a technique: listening and imitating. He drew an interesting parallel with “parroting” sounds and audio recordings to such an extent so that in the end you would be able to fool your captives in a prisoner of war camp, passing for a native speaker.

Paul also disputed an alternative school of thought claiming that the first step to mastering pronunciation was to get intonation right, and everything else would fall into place, which is the top-down approach. Instead, he believes in the bottom-up concept, focused on getting individual sounds right. And here another important factor to bear in mind is working with someone who has a good ear and can identify the learner’s specific problems and areas to work on.

The subject of this webinar was certainly unusual in that we tend to hear much more about marketing and technological solutions/tendencies when it comes to our continuous professional development. I have always believed that the way interpreters sound hugely affects our delivery. I have also discovered from some of my clients that they preferred to work with interpreters with a neutral accent as their utterance is received better that way. As a phonetician, Paul Carley confirmed that. Some may argue that by neutralising our foreign accent in English, we lose part of our identity. I don’t quite agree with that, our mother tongue with its own accent keeps that identity intact.

A version of this article has been published in the November-December 2018 issue of the Bulletin, a bi-monthly magazine of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

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