When the Gershwin brothers wrote “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in 1937, accent variation was just as much a part of every day life as it is now, but talking about it was edgy, new. With the help of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers—on rollerskates, no less—people found themselves handily equipped with a way to acknowledge what we already know but haven’t always said: Each of us speaks English with an accent, and our accents vary.
“I say tomato” is pure diplomacy; it’s shorthand for saying, “It’s alright that we speak differently; no worries!” Indeed, even my mother and I say certain words differently: bought, egg, Tuesday. We get along even so. (Watch our short video.)
The question is: Does accent variation matter in the ESL classroom? Might my students benefit from the knowledge that I say [bat] (OLIVE)* and my mother says [bɔt] (AUBURN), or that I say [ɛg] (RED) and she says [ɛyg] (GRAY)? That’s interesting to me, but is it interesting—or useful—to them?
No. And yes.
No, not if my own fascination with accent variation compels me, the teacher, to deliver a meandering anecdote or, worse, an awkward imitation of “the British” or, say, U.S. “Southerners.” First, there’s the strong possibility that my impromptu performance will be flawed, confusing or even repelling to my students. (After all, who wants to watch their teacher act like someone they’re not?) Then there’s the likelihood that the subtleties I’m trying to highlight will be lost on my students anyway; after all, if [ay] (WHITE) and [ɛy] (GRAY) sound indistinguishable to a learner under normal circumstances, how can I expect them to appreciate my killer impression of Eliza Doolittle struggling with “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain”?
But most of all, though, it’s this: What I notice isn’t what English learners notice, and what I care about isn’t what they care about.
Juan, a native speaker of Spanish, described the frustration he felt whenever Meg, his supervisor, would say his name. Meg, who was from Texas, apparently heard Juan’s name a lot like the number “one,” and that’s how she said it. Every. Time.
She’d call out, “[wɑ:n]?, You can take your break now.” And “[wɑ:n]?, we need a price check.” She had even joked once: “[wɑ:n], you’re [wɑ:n] in a million!”
Unamused, Juan concluded: “She refuses to say my name.”
I explained to Juan that Meg might not be intentionally botching his name, that she simply doesn’t notice the special /hw/ sound that characterizes his name. I suggested he think of [wɑn] as his name said with an American accent.
What Juan said next surprised me: “But Meg says “when” as ‘hwen’ and “what” as ‘hwat’, so why can’t she say “Juan” as ‘hwan’?” (See our short role play video)
He had a point.
What started out as a complaint had suddenly produced its own solution. Meg’s /hw/ was a feature of her regional accent! We now had something to work with.
I asked Juan if he had shared his observation with Meg. He hadn’t. Because until now, he hadn’t realized that native speakers of English—indeed, of any language—typically are not aware of the way they speak.
I encouraged Juan to talk with Meg about her pronunciation of his name. The next time I saw him, Juan was happier. He had impressed Meg with his observation and, because of it, Meg was able to shift from saying [wɑn] to saying [hwɑn]. Not perfect, but suddenly much closer to how he wanted to hear his name said.
Sometimes, “I say tomato” just doesn’t go far enough. Accent variation matters, especially when it’s relevant to the words our learners care about and the people they interact with. The more we know about accent variation, the better we can help our learners make use of what they notice.
*Color words like OLIVE and RED in all caps refer to The Color Vowel™ Chart.