Which is more important for language learning: focusing on a good accent or good pronunciation? Some people think that the authentic-sounding or ‘native’ accent is like finding the ‘holy grail’.
Pronunciation is a key part of getting a high score in the speaking test. Therefore, it is natural for test-takers to worry about their accent and how it will affect their IELTS score.
However, pronunciation and accent are two different things.
The IELTS speaking marking scheme mentions accent for Band 8. But it doesn’t mention whether you should have a certain accent. You only have to make sure your accent doesn’t impede communication.
As such, trying to perfect an unnatural American, English, or Australian accent is a waste of the time that you should spend working on other areas that will improve your scores.
Pronunciations vs. Accent
I’m not saying having a decent accent isn’t important, or that your accent isn’t worth working on, but it definitely isn’t as important as the other 3 marking criteria on which your speaking performance is assessed. To clarify, the distinction I draw between an ‘accent’ and ‘pronunciation’ is as follows:
Your pronunciation is your ability to pronounce words in a way that makes them intelligible to other speakers of the language. One can have the strongest accent possible, but as long as they are understood, they will usually be pronouncing things properly. An example of incorrect pronunciation would be pronouncing ‘down’ as ‘dawn’.
Your accent includes things like your intonation and rhythm of speech. It is anything that makes you sound foreign. The classic ‘accent trap’ is pronouncing things exactly as you would in your native language, rather than actually listening to the way they are pronounced in the language you’re learning, and imitating it.
So, as you can see, while having good pronunciation is necessary for being understood, your accent doesn’t. You can have the biggest French (or whatever) accent, and people will still understand.
To see what I mean, take a look at this clip in which Brad Pitt uses a strong Southern accent:
Can you understand what he says? Yes? Great!
The Downside of Pursuing Accent
Hard-core language learners are extremely proud of their ‘native’ accents in the second languages they speak. And rightly so! It’s an impressive feat.
However, I think putting too much emphasis on the importance of a British, Australian, or American accent is actually doing language learners a disservice, as it tends to scare them off and instill in them a feeling of helplessness.
If you’re really that intent on pretending to be a native, and on impressing people with your impressive language abilities, then you should probably reconsider your motivation for learning another language. You have to be intrinsically motivated to learn a language, for more profound reasons than mere bragging rights, in order to learn it successfully.
Some people say that you should be working on your accent, and trying to achieve a native-sounding one, from the start of your language learning journey. Otherwise, they say, you’ll be learning bad habits that are hard to get out of. I actually have a completely opposite point of view about the matter.
What should you focus on?
1. Train your ear, not your tongue
In my experience, as long as you do enough listening practice, your ear will naturally attune itself to the sounds of the English language and you will have a decent accent without much extra effort. Once you’re at an intermediate or advanced level, you can focus on individual sounds that you have trouble with and slowly reduce your accent.
Also, in some situations, having an accent (but speaking well) is actually an advantage. I think it is impossible to speak a second-language 100% perfectly, every time. You’re going to make mistakes now and then. If your accent is native-like, then you will just sound uneducated or unintelligent when you make those inevitable mistakes. Whereas, if you have a slight accent, but speak incredibly well, you are likely to portray the opposite image – you will seem intelligent and educated, having taken the time to learn a second language to such a high level.
2. Improve your fluency and coherence
If you’re fluent, your language and speech flow like a river. So make sure your speech is not intermittent as if you are constantly buffering. If you’re coherent, then you can logically go from point A to point B. It’s like when you are on the ground floor and you want to get on the 10th. You either take the stairs or the lift (if there’s one). You’re not going to jump all the way to the top of the building, right? (well, unless you’re Superman).
3. Improve your vocabulary
Now vocabulary IS important and it’s mentioned in multiple places throughout the marking scheme.
There are actually a few keywords for each band:
Band 6 – a wide enough vocabulary
Band 7 – uses vocabulary resource flexibly to discuss a variety of topics
– uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary
Band 8 – uses a wide vocabulary resource readily and flexibly to convey precise meaning
– uses less common and idiomatic vocabulary skilfully
Band 9 – uses vocabulary with full flexibility and precision in all topics
– uses idiomatic language naturally and accurately
4. Improve your grammar
If you only use the present simple, past simple, and future with ‘will’ you’ll get a maximum band 5 for Grammatical range and accuracy. So, if you have that Michael Caine spotless Cockney accent but you use basic grammar or even make mistakes with basic structures and tenses, then that perfect accent will make you look ridiculous.
Final Thoughts: Accent vs Pronunciation
What I want you all to remember, is that it is silly to stress too much about your accent. As long as you’re understood easily, then I can’t see a problem. Eventually, it’s something you’d probably want to work on, however, you’re better off spending that time actually getting better at speaking the language until you’re at an advanced level!
I’m aware that a lot of people have different opinions on this topic and I’d really like to hear them. So feel free to share them in the comments below.
See you next time!
Your IELTS bestie,