“I have an accent. So do you. I am an immigrant who has spent nearly as much time in the United States as I have in my home country, Spain. I am also the director of Dartmouth’s language programs in Spanish and Portuguese. Both facts explain, but only partly, why I feel a special fondness for the FX drama The Americans, in which Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a husband-and-wife team of undercover K.G.B. agents living in suburban Washington…What interests me as a linguist is that the Jenningses are, as the pilot tells us, ‘supersecret spies who ‘speak better English than we do.’ Even their neighbor, an F.B.I. agent on the counterintelligence beat, suspects nothing.” R. R. Agudo, The New York Times
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
Excerpt: Everyone Has An Accent, by Roberto R. Agudo, The New York Times
“Living as I do, deeply immersed in the work of teaching and learning second languages, it was fun to watch a TV series in which the main characters’ aptitude for them was so central to the plot. Nonetheless, the premise that you can speak a language without any accent at all is a loaded one. You can’t actually do this.
Worse, when we fetishize certain accents and disdain others, it can lead to real discrimination in job interviews, performance evaluations and access to housing, to name just a few of the areas where having or not having a certain accent has profound consequences. Too often, at the hospital or the bank, in the office or at a restaurant — even in the classroom — we embrace the idea that there is a right way for our words to sound and that the perfect accent is one that is not just inaudible, but also invisible.
There is no such thing as perfect, neutral or unaccented English — or Spanish, for that matter, or any other language. To say that someone does not have an accent is as believable as saying that someone does not have any facial features… The standard accent is not necessarily the same as the highest-status accent. It is simply the dominant accent, the one you are most likely to hear in the media, the one that is considered neutral. Such judgments are purely social — to linguists, the distinctions are arbitrary. However, the notion of the neutral, perfect accent is so pervasive that speakers with stigmatized accents often internalize the prejudice they face. The recent re-evaluation of the ‘Simpsons’ character Apu provides an important example of how the media and popular culture use accents to make easy — and uneasy — jokes.
When you are learning a language, a marked accent is usually also accompanied by other features, like limited vocabulary or grammatical mistakes. In the classroom, we understand that this is a normal stage in the development of proficiency.
It’s certainly true that a marked accent can get in the way of making yourself understood. E.S.L. learners and others are well advised to work on their pronunciation… English is a global language with many native and nonnative varieties. Worldwide, nonnative speakers of English outnumber natives by a ratio of three to one. Even in the United States, which has the largest population of native English speakers, there are, according to one estimate, nearly 50 million speakers of English as a second language. What does it even mean to sound native when so many English speakers are second-language speakers? Unless you are an embedded spy like the Jenningses, it is counterproductive to hold nativelike pronunciation as the bar you have to clear.
Accent by itself is a shallow measure of language proficiency, the linguistic equivalent of judging people by their looks. Instead, we should become aware of our linguistic biases and learn to listen more deeply before forming judgments.”
Lesson Plan Everyone Has An Accent
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming
Directions: Place students in groups, ask students to think about what they already know about the topic. Next, have students look at the pictures in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the article. Regroup as a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use a brainstorming chart for assistance.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- Some people fetishize certain accents.
- Other people disdain many accents.
- This behavior can lead to discrimination.
- The author is an immigrant.
- The author is deeply immersed in teaching second languages.
- The premise that you can speak a language without any accent at all is a loaded one.
- Having certain accents can have profound consequences.
- We often embrace the idea that there is a right way for our words to sound.
- Many feel that the perfect accent is one that is inaudible.
- There is no such thing as perfect, neutral or unaccented English.
Word chart: Learnnc.org
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
If you look at the___ from a ___point of view, having no ___is plainly impossible. An___is simply a way of ___shaped by a combination of ___ social class, education, ethnicity and first language. I have one; you have one; ___has one.
WORD LIST: sociolinguistic ,everybody, accent, question, geography, speaking, accent,
Grammar Focus: Word -Recognition
Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.
To say/said that someone does knot/not have an ascent/accent is as believable as saying/say that someone does not/no have any facial features. We no/know this, but even so, at a time when the percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States is at its highest point in a centaur/century, the distinction/distinct between ‘native’ and ‘nonnative’ has grown vicious/vivacious, and it is worth reminding ourselves of it again and again: No one speak/speaks without an accent.
III. Post Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Discussion for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: Place students in groups and have them answer and discuss the following questions. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.
- Why are you studying English? (e.g., school, job or social reasons).
- Do you think accents are important in language study? Explain why?
- When studying English in class do you find it easy to understand your teacher?
- Do you understand native English speakers outside of the classroom?
- The author states, “It’s certainly true that a marked accent can get in the way of making yourself understood. E.S.L. learners and others are well advised to work on their pronunciation… My point is not that we need to forget the aim of easily comprehensible communication — obviously, that remains the goal. But we do need to set aside the illusion that there is a single true and authentic way to speak.” First, explain the statement in your own words. Next, do you agree or disagree with the statement? Why or why not?
Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading, two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.