As a teacher, does your accent matter?

A teacher’s accent shouldn’t have any bearing on their teaching, but studies suggest that many school staff feel pressured to change the way they speak. Here linguistics expert Alex Baratta tells Dan Worth that action may need to be taken at government level to stamp out accent prejudice in schools
13th September 2019, 12:04am
Does Your Accent Matter?

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As a teacher, does your accent matter?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/teacher-does-your-accent-matter

In July 2017, comments made by Labour MP Angela Rayner on Twitter made headlines. Not because it was a controversial post or an announcement about a major new policy - but because she defended her accent from online trolls who claimed it made her “sound thick”.

“Anonymous hard-right accounts attacking my accent again, saying I am thick, etc,” she wrote. “I will reiterate - I am proud of my accent and will not change!”

For Alex Baratta, the incident was a stark reminder that people in Britain still have hugely complex relationships with accents and that, despite social shifts towards equality on issues such as race, religion and gender, accents are still considered fair game for unjust stereotypes and criticism. And he warns that a potential hotspot for trouble is, perhaps surprisingly, schools, with accents impacting on job prospects, performance reviews and more.

A lecturer in language, linguistics and communications at the University of Manchester, Baratta has studied accents extensively and has focused in particular on the experiences of teachers with accents, how these accents have affected how they teach and the impact they have had during their careers.

This has led him to author several papers on the topic and he has written a book entitled Accent and Teacher Identity in Britain.

But does it really matter if you have a broad North Yorkshire accent and teach in Nuneaton, and is a Kentish lilt problematic in Porthcawl? It would appear that the Department for Education doesn’t think so. The Teachers’ Standards guidance has nothing to say on accents with regard to how teachers should communicate with a class, instead simply stating: “[Teachers must] demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject.”

While the reference to “articulacy” could be claimed to cover accents, Baratta says it is something of a “weasel word” that dodges the issue. “Of course, teachers need to be understood, but there is a discussion here about how should teachers be expected to modify their accent, if at all, if teaching in different parts of the country,” he says.

This silence on teachers’ accents, he believes, is a problem.

“From a linguistic point of view, speech is just sounds, and how can sound indicate intelligence levels, for example? But from a social-cultural view, how we speak is incredibly loaded,” he explains.

Often teachers choose to adapt their accent themselves, and for a range of reasons. A recent paper by Baratta, entitled “Investigating the notion of a standard accent in British schools”, reports research conducted in three schools in the Manchester area. One teacher, originally from the South West, explained that on arriving at his school in Manchester he made the decision almost immediately to change how he spoke to avoid any perceived negative connotations that his accent might carry.

“He said he felt he had to because otherwise he thought he would be seen as a ‘yokel who should be working on a farm’,” says Baratta.

A female teacher local to the area admitted that she modified her accent within school to make it sound “less regional” in order to be “a model to the girls [at the school]…[and sound] a bit more like RP [received pronunciation]”.

Meanwhile in other research Baratta has conducted, a teacher, originally from Southampton but who was working in Newcastle, was told by children that her southern accent meant she “sounded posh” and, therefore, “strict”. “Other teachers at the school also said she shouldn’t change her accent as a result because this gave her authority,” explains Baratta. “But she felt her accent made her distant to the pupils when she wanted to be seen as approachable and able to be there for them.”

It’s not just teachers moving across the country who have accent issues to contend with and then have to make changes. Baratta’s research has found that many teachers have modified their accent within that accent’s “home” region: “In places like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, for example, there is a local accent but within the area there are variations on it that have different levels of strength, so some sound very local and others don’t,” notes Baratta.

In all these instances, the teacher had control over how they spoke, but Baratta says this is often not the case. He cites the example of one teacher with a strong Lancastrian accent who was told during a job interview that he would have to change his accent because “parents would complain that their children were being taught by someone whose accent was affecting how they were learning English”.

“He was fuming and angry with himself for giving in, but he felt he had to in order to get through the interview,” says Baratta. “You may think the interviewer had a point, but when the teacher was speaking about the experience at a conference, he said at the end, ‘I’m happy to take questions but you have to ask them using my accent.’ And then he said, ‘Now you see how it feels to be told how to speak.’”

In another situation, a teacher from the Midlands was told by her mentor in the South that it was “best to go back to where she came from” if she chose to retain her natural pronunciation of words such as bath and bus. The teacher said she felt “affronted” by the comments, especially as they were made in front of her trainee group.

And in yet another example, a teacher from the South was told by a mentor to start writing out the word water with a capital T to help her avoid using the glottal stop of her more native pronunciation.

“The mentor told her he thought it sounded unprofessional and should not be how pupils should hear someone speak,” says Baratta.

He explains that it is often the same regional accents that come under fire in this way, and the same accents that teachers feel they need to adapt themselves. There is a hierarchy of accents, he says, and one still remains at the top of the list.

“If two people had an interview for a job and they have effectively the same type of CV and the right skills, then the person with a certain accent is very likely to be perceived more favourably,” Baratta says.

This “certain accent” is, still, RP, although a version of it that is not quite as posh and clipped as a 1930s’ BBC continuity announcer. Baratta says that now a broader type of southern accent - often dubbed “Estuary English” - is the most common “correct” form of accent.

Generally, people with these types of accents do not feel the need to modify their speech and are rarely told to do so. Conversely, those from the North or the Midlands often encounter people telling them that they should make changes - and this often comes from mentors at a school or during teacher training.

Is it ever acceptable to be told to - or to feel the need to - change an accent? The key here is understanding: can the students hear and understand clearly the key messages of the teaching? Achieving this clarity is arguably often less to do with accent and more to do with speed of talking, articulating clearly and being mindful of dialect.

Indeed, any attempt to force an adaptation of accent should, according to some teachers, be seen in a similar way to an attack on any other part of a person’s identity, and should be dealt with like sexism, racism or any other prejudice. And many teachers have told Baratta that they think it important that pupils hear a broad range of accents, just as they will in real life.

“I think if there was a standard English it would actually be boring,” said one teacher during the research, while another noted that children are exposed to many different accents via the media, “so to expect them to encounter only RP isn’t realistic and it’s not what they’re going to be growing up with”.

To achieve such inclusivity of accents in teaching, though, Baratta believes there needs to be more work in teacher training and in schools - and at a government level - to ensure an understanding of accents within the concept of good teaching. There also needs to be an understanding of how accents can be incorporated in a fair, inclusive manner - just like other elements of people’s personalities.

“If we are teaching diversity in most walks of life but there are people telling teachers that they have to modify their voice ...it’s something we need to understand,” he says.

Baratta is now planning to run a larger survey of around 1,000 teachers to gather more information about how teachers’ accents have affected their careers - for good or ill. The hope is that this large-scale survey will make it clearer if there is an issue here that needs more proper consideration at the highest levels.

“Should accents be made part of linguistic standards for teachers and, if so, how do we do that?” he asks. “To answer that question we need to understand if there is an issue and how it is being felt by teachers, so we really need to start a proper discussion on it all.”

Dan Worth is a content writer at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 13 SEPTEMBER 2019 issue under the headline “Tes focus on... Does your accent matter?”

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