You Say “Tomato”: Is Accent Variation Relevant to ESL Students?

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.)

You say "eggs" (GRAY) and I say "eggs" (RED)

My mom says “eggs” (GRAY) and I say “eggs” (RED). Even so, we get along just fine.

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.

name

Juan teaches Meg (played by me) how to say his name

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.

About Karen Taylor de Caballero

Karen Taylor de Caballero
Karen Taylor de Caballero is an educational consultant and trainer. She holds a Master’s Degree in TESOL from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and BA in English Literature from Georgetown University. She has taught extensively in the Washington DC area, as well as in Namibia and Mexico, where she served as a Fulbright TEFL specialist. Karen is co-author of the Color Vowel Chart and co-founder of English Language Training Solutions, dedicated to empowering teachers, learners, and our society at large with sound awareness for mutual comprehensibility. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and 6-year-old twins. Visit Karen's personal blog at http://elts.solutions/category/blog/
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6 Responses to You Say “Tomato”: Is Accent Variation Relevant to ESL Students?

  1. denise ip says:

    My husband and I are constantly comparing each other’s accents…He says “Curry” like kerry…I say “Curry” like carry…our hope it to meet in the middle eventually haha
    Great job framing this debate/ phenomenon…

  2. Shirley Thompson says:

    Love the videos included in your blog, Karen.
    Another accent variation story: When my kids were growing up my husband’s sister (from southern Ohio) was Aunt (pronounced with the OLIVE sound) Verna, but my sister (from Michigan) was always Aunt (pronounced with the BLACK sound) Marty. I find it fascinating that they never noticed or commented on the difference but just accepted it. Both pronunciations were perfectly fine. But I remember my freshman year roommate (from Boston) saying, very judgmentally, “An ‘ant’ (BLACK sound) is something you step on; your mother’s sister is you ‘aunt’ (OLIVE sound).”

  3. Tanya Regli says:

    Really interesting stuff. I’ll make sure to connect some of our ELL teachers here in Philadelphia.

    Tanya

  4. Mike Aaron says:

    It’s amazing how impressed people are when I take the trouble to learn to pronounce their names correctly… even if I can’t. But I know that I have a good ear and a reasonable tongue for language. But I know people who don’t have a good ear, who can’t actually hear the subtleties. I’ve heard that once one gets older, the ability to hear and pronounce the subtleties of other languages can disappear. What say you, TESOLady?

  5. Neat observations, RAWB! Thanks for sharing. Your story about Rita reminds me of one semester when I had several Chinese students from various provinces. One student was from a province where the regional accent involved a merging of /l/ and /n/, which I figured out when the student recited his ID number as something along the lines of “lie-lie-fo, six-fo-lie-lie”. Each “li” was intended to convey the number nine. In a separate setting, two of his classmates suggested that the entire province had a speech impediment. These kinds of situations sometimes put us teachers in the position of needing to advocate for our students with respect not just to their English, but their L1 status as well. I think your decision to go with Rita’s pronunciation of her name was a good way to go, especially because she was alone in using that pronunciation. There’s nothing more powerful than validation!

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