English as a Global Language – The Case for Teaching Different Accents and Dialects

By Johanna Kawasaki
July 24, 2020

When you think of the English language, do you first think of American, British, Australian, or Canadian English? Most people do! However, English is spoken in many other countries worldwide either as a native language or a second language. That’s why it is important for us, as teachers, to teach English as a global language and to incorporate different English accents and dialects in our ESL classes. 

What is the difference between an accent and a dialect?

There are two general approaches when it comes to distinguishing accents and dialects.

The first approach


The first approach is the most common and is used in linguistics:

  • An accent is a part of a dialect and refers to the way people pronounce specific words and phrases of the same language differently from each other. For example, an American person will say “Hello,” while a French person will say “ello,” omitting the first “H” due to their native French language.
  • A dialect refers to a variety of the language. It includes the differences in grammar, morphology, vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation among different versions of a language. For example, a Northern American person will say “Hey guys,” while a Southern American person might say “Howdy, y’all.”

Abhi, Indian Teacher in Hong Kong

Abhi, Indian Teacher in Hong Kong


The second approach


The other approach explains the difference between accent and dialect in that a dialect refers to the way people speak their native language and an accent refers to the way someone speaks a foreign language. For example, a Spanish person speaks English with a Spanish accent, but an Australian person speaks the Australian dialect.

What about slang?


If you’re teaching some slang words to your students, you might wonder whether slang itself counts as a dialect. The common opinion is that while different dialects have their unique slang words, slang is not categorized as a dialect. Slang is simply informal words used by a certain group of people or within a certain community, whereas a dialect is a more complex language system.

Should I incorporate accents and dialects into English learning?

You definitely should include some activities in your ESL classes that expose your students to different accents.

A group of multilingual English language students practicing their English between classes


Most people speaking English worldwide are not native speakers


Statistics show that the most spoken language worldwide is English, with almost two billion people being able to speak it, of whom only 375 million are native speakers. This means that your students are much more likely to speak English with someone for whom English is a second or foreign language than with a native English speaker. Due to this, your students who have not been exposed to different accents and dialects might have trouble understanding people, depending on where they are and who they are talking to.

Preparing students with real-world English skills


For you, as an English teacher, it’s a good idea to share this information with your students and prepare them for the real world. Keeping that in mind, if your students are learning English in order to work at an international company or travel abroad, you might want to be aware of their goals and perhaps start practicing listening to different kinds of English accents, especially the ones your students will be dealing with.

If you want to get into dialect analysis with your students, make sure that this will match their language-learning goals and that it will benefit them in the future. If you’re teaching English for specific purposes, you might find some linguistic students in your classes, or you may have a student who is planning to move abroad for a longer time and wants to familiarize himself or herself with the local dialect (such as a Southern US dialect).

Since the latter case is rather rare, we will be focusing our attention on accents from here.

What accents should I include in my lessons?

Some suggest that you should focus on teaching your own accent, whether you are a native or non-native speaker. You may also tell your students that there are many other English accents around the world and that you will expose them to some through the course materials, the Internet, and movies, and they can try them out too. Having fun with accents means having fun with pronunciation and gaining confidence!

What is Global English?


Incorporating different accents into your teaching prepares students to use Global English in order to interact easily with other English speakers. The descriptive name Global (also called International) English describes the spread, adoption, and usage of English across the world. Global English embraces both native and non-native speakers of the language. It includes communication between native and non-native speakers and between non-native speakers who use English as a lingua franca, in order to have a common language that can be used for communication.

Why is Global English important?


It is worth emphasizing again that most English language learners will not be speaking English only with native speakers, but they will be using English as a lingua franca, so they may hear various accents. This makes teaching English as a global language so important.

Brenda, an ESL teacher from the U.S., with her students in Thailand

Brenda, an ESL teacher from the U.S., with her students in Thailand


How can I teach different accents in my ESL classes?

The best way to expose your students to various accents is through audio or video activities. Exercises for intermediate to advanced students include them practicing their understanding of different English accents and answering worksheets or quizzes. For lower-level students, games like ‘Guess the accent’ are suitable.

Example Activity: Accents Around the World


This example activity is from the free Bridge Micro-credential course, Teaching English as a Global Language. (Click the link to enroll!)

The focus on this activity is to help your students learn more about the different types of accents. By paying attention to the variety of accents, the students will understand and appreciate the multifaceted sounds of English.

Students can work with a partner or in small groups. The activity can be adapted to suit all levels. Naturally, beginners will listen to a simpler video while upper-level students can listen to a more difficult video.

Objectives

The objectives of this activity are that the students will be able to identify different accents in English and that the students will be able to examine the features of different accents.

Materials

The materials for this activity are easy to find and straightforward. Simply search ‘Accents around the world’ or ‘English accents’ on YouTube, and you will find a variety of suitable videos. Depending on the level, beginners should watch easier videos than intermediate and advanced students. According to your choice of video, prepare a worksheet for your students.

Procedures

  1. Briefly have the students talk about the different types of accents they have heard.
  2. Write the nationalities on the board.
  3. Explain the activity. Put the students in pairs or groups.
  4. Tell the students they don’t need to focus on what the speakers are saying, but they should listen to the accents and take notes on what they notice.
  5. Distribute appropriate worksheets.
  6. Play the video and replay if necessary.
  7. Make sure the students are taking notes.
  8. Have the students work with their partner or group to complete the worksheet.
  9. Have the students share their answers with the class.

Interactive speaking activity during an English class

Interactive speaking activity during an English class


Other ideas for the classroom


In addition to the idea above, these are some other practical ways to incorporate teaching accents in your ESL classroom.

  • Teach your own pronunciation, and be upfront about it (whether you are a native or non-native speaker). Get students to demonstrate different accents of their first language. You can do this with monolingual and multilingual groups.
  • Make it clear that you give no greater value to one variety or another and that different accents exist in English throughout the world and within single countries.
  • Invite your students to name and imitate some major English accents.
  • Constantly expose your students to short clips of different accents through course materials, online resources, and accents of other teachers in the school.
  • Expose them both to well-known global varieties of English (for example, accents from the United States, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand) and to local accents of English from anywhere in the world (such as the accent of someone from Liverpool vs. Edinburgh, England).
  • Include your students’ ideas and interests in your lesson planning and let them do some research to provide ideas of accents they want to learn about. You’ll be surprised how many accents you will listen to by the end of your course! Also, this is a great way to decrease prep time.

How can we increase acceptance of accents in the global community?

In a truly global community, accepting English as a global or international language is to adopt the viewpoint that no one variety or accent is worth more or regarded more highly than another.

English is for everyone


This approach suggests that we as global teachers need to assure our students that English is a language for everyone and is no longer rooted in a particular culture. Additionally, we need to recognize that English is a global language without an official regulatory body, and therefore the boundaries between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” features of grammar, pronunciation, and word choice have been blurred. There is no right or wrong accent or dialect in English.

Focus on communication


Instead of focusing on minimizing small grammatical or pronunciation mistakes, we should try to ensure that our students can convey a message comfortably, confidently, and intelligibly to other people and that they can understand the other person’s message in return.

English is used by millions of people around the world. The people who speak it do not all sound the same, and real English rarely sounds like the recordings featured in popular published ELT materials. To be successful communicators internationally, students need not only to make themselves understood, but to be prepared to listen to and understand the truly vast variety of voices they’ll encounter in the world outside the classroom.

Interested in applying these ideas and others as a global teacher? Enroll in our free (yes, free!) Micro-credential course: Teaching English as a Global Language.