Which is more important, confident speaking or accurate speaking – getting the accent ‘right’?
I gave a talk on this topic earlier this month to an audience of Chinese and British-born Chinese (BBC) professionals in London.
‘if I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.
When it comes to confident speaking, especially if English isn’t your first language, some people see accent as a shortcut: ‘If I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.
It doesn’t really work like that.
Correct pronunciation is important for making yourself understood, of course.
But the thing is, as long as the speaker is communicating effectively, most listeners can cope with a bit of an accent. What people find difficult to listen to is someone who doesn’t sound confident.
Someone who mumbles, or speaks too quickly, or hesitates a lot. And a flawless English accent won’t cure you of any of that.
And while we’re on the subject of ‘getting the accent right’… which accent?
What is the correct way to speak English anyway?
There’s still an assumption that there is a ‘correct’ accent, a sort of official form of English. You know the sound I mean? It’s not exactly ‘posh’: it’s not the Queen’s English, but it tends to be spoken by middle- or upper-middle class people in the south of England. Linguists call in Received Pronuncation or RP. It’s the kind of accent you hear from most BBC newsreaders.
As for whether that’s the correct way to speak, it’s interesting to look at the question in the context of English as a world language.
Heather Hansen, a Singapore-based voice and speech coach, uses some cold hard figures to get a sense of perspective:·
Worldwide number of native English speakers: 400million
Number of non-native English speakers: 1.4billion
English speakers in the UK: 57million
Native speakers of RP or standard English: 1 million
RP English is native to a tiny fraction of English speakers – even within England itself! Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the English spoken in the world at any given moment sounds like this – and yet all those other billions of English speakers across the globe, despite having the ‘wrong’ accent, manage to get by somehow!
When you look at it like this, it doesn’t make sense to think of RP, or BBC English, as ‘correct’ English.
As long as English is clear, consider it correct.
This was an especially relevant issue for a lot of the audience at this event: all fluent English speakers, if not bilingual, although most of them – whether Chinese-born or British-born – that I met spoke with a Chinese or Asian-sounding accent. Some of them talked about wanting to ‘improve’ or ‘speak with a better accent’.
Should they strive to sound more English? Hmm. There are around 300 million people in China alone who are learning English – five times the population of the UK (thanks again, Heather). Maybe it’s us Brits who should be learning a Chinese accent!
Instead of a crash course in how to do an English accent (see a previous post if that’s what you’re after) I took them through the first steps of my Effective Speaking program – simple techniques for for confident speaking, including how to use vocal tone, rhythm, pace and pitch to make your speech easier to listen to.
These techniques inspire confidence because they’re practical: if you understand HOW to speak effectively, you feel more in control of how you communicate, and that confidence will spread to your listeners. They’ll be more inclined to listen to someone who sounds confident in what she’s saying, and do you know what’s interesting?
The more confidently you speak, the less we hear the accent. The less trouble we have understanding you.
So I would say to anyone wondering about whether they need to get the English accent ‘right’ – what do you want? Do you want to sound English? Or do you want to really communicate?
I can help you to do either. But however you choose to sound, make sure you speak with confidence.
Contact me to find out more. Thanks for reading!