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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
- Briefly have the students talk about the different types of accents they have heard.
- Write the nationalities on the board.
- Explain the activity. Put the students in pairs or groups.
- 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.
- Distribute appropriate worksheets.
- Play the video and replay if necessary.
- Make sure the students are taking notes.
- Have the students work with their partner or group to complete the worksheet.
- Have the students share their answers with the 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.
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.