Standard American English? Whose standard?

When teaching English pronunciation, every teacher runs up immediately against the same question: whose pronunciation should we teach?

In Japan, the trend for the last number of years has been to try to teach “standard American English”, whatever that means. It wasn’t always that way. It used to be that Japanese English schools preferred British pronunciation, ages past, but trading partners and military alliances will tend to change priorities. Nowadays, there’s much more of a conscious effort toward exposing students to a variety of Englishes, including non-native pronunciations. Still, students want to learn to pronounce the language, and so as a teacher, you have to pick one particular dialect and stick with it.

If I’m teaching American pronunciation, which form should I use? Should I teach my students to sound like Wisconsinites, or Bostonians? Seattleites? Texans? I’m from the Pacific Northwest, and it’s often said that our accent is at least widely understandable. Take a group of teenagers from Seattle or Portland, though, and I think you’ll find a lot of weird phonological processes going on: diphthongs in weird places, unrounded /u/ and /o/ sounds, and as many different pronunciations of the word “bag” as there are people in the room at any given time. To my ear, west coast youths have an accent all their own. You can hear a lot of those features parodied in the SNL The Californians sketches.

When you get right down to it, there isn’t any one standard form of American English. The UK has Received Pronunciation as it’s “standard”, which I think may be spoken by a tenth of a percent of a single human being. Australian English isn’t much more uniform. What’s a teacher to do?

I think the only reasonable solution is to focus less on getting your students to use a particular kind of pronunciation, and more on being able to communicate with as many English speakers as possible. That includes non-native speakers, by the way–they outnumber native speakers, remember! To that end, they need to hear English spoken by people with many different accents, not just one teacher’s accent. They need to understand that, when I order a “bee-urh” and an Aussie orders a “bee-ah”, we both want the same thing.

Productively, we’ve got to focus on the elements that make a difference in comprehensibility. It turns out that dark ‘l’, like in the words “ball” and “hulk”, is not all that important for mutual comprehensibility, and it’s really hard for non-native speakers to make. Maybe we can chill out about that one. “Th” sounds are, surprisingly, also not all that important, and we can understand a French person’s “sank you” just as easily as he can understand our “bahn joo-urh”. A good teacher will focus on the sounds that are challenging, but important for clear communication. It’ll take a little homework on the teacher’s part.

And if you’re interested in a few of the changes and varieties in American English, here’s a great video to get you started:

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English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Phonetics and Phonology, Teaching Tips
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