English is a language where accent ‘matters’: socially, economically and regionally. Yelena McCafferty reports on an event looking at this
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.
The shifting sounds
Paul dispelled a myth that the difference between some pairs of vowels is in their length (for example, as in ‘slip’ and ‘sleep’), demonstrating that the difference lies, in fact, in their quality. He went on to explain how general British pronunciation has been changing over time, citing the development of /tj/ into /tʃ/ in words like tube, Tuesday, and tuna, and /dj/ into /dʒ/ 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 should no longer be taught to people learning English. 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 accents used in English 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 talked about the terms ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. 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. At the same time, Paul pointed out that 1970s recordings of received pronunciation are now considered old-fashioned and indeed more upper class; contemporary RP has a more modern sound. The tendency is now to refer to modern mainstream RP as General British (GB).
Accents for interpreters
Paul’s conclusion for interpreters was clear: RP/GB is an obvious choice of accent for those who wish to sound educated and competent. However, is it feasible for people who did not learn English from birth to achieve this? Paul’s view is that it is. The crucial part here, he argues, is giving as much attention to pronunciation as you would to grammar and vocabulary. If you work on phonetics from the very beginning, there is no reason why you can’t develop excellent pronunciation. On the other hand, a difficulty arises if someone learns bad pronunciation to begin with (for example, from a teacher with a very strong foreign accent) so that they have to ‘unlearn’ it later. Paul’s advice here is to practise and listen to as much authentic native-speaker English as possible, and to read up-to-date books on phonetics. He also argued that, compared with 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 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 which claims that the first step to mastering pronunciation is simply to get the intonation right, and that everything else will 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 prefer to work with interpreters who have 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.