Clarifying accent standards for British teachers
The linguistic standards for British teachers within teacher training, and for teachers’ future careers, are clearly outlined by the DfE:
‘demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject’ (DfE, 2013a, p. 11).
While there is research in the British context on the implications for non-standard English within the classroom (Snell and Andrews, 2016), my recent research has attempted to fill a gap in this policy by investigating what the suggested standards might be for accent. A speaker with any accent can use standard English and yet, might there be negative implications for certain accents in the context of teacher training? To assert a standard accent, however, would fly in the face of the support for equality and respect for diversity, but it seems that certain accents are indeed favoured. I base my claims on four studies, which involved the views of 41 teachers from both the primary and secondary levels, who represent a range of accents. Below are some of the findings:
- A teacher from Rossendale, Lancashire was told by the interviewer (on an interview for a place on a PGCE course) that the interview would be stopped if the teacher did not modify his accent; the rationale was that parents would complain that the teacher was not speaking ‘proper’ English
- A teacher from the Midlands was told by her mentor in the South that it was ‘best to go back to where (she) came from’, if she retained her natural pronunciation in words such as bath and bus for phonics teaching (i.e. she was told to use Southern pronunciation for these words)
- A teacher with a London accent was told by her mentor to write the word water with a capital ‘t’ (waTer), in order to avoid using a glottal stop (i.e. wa-er)
Specific phonological directives
For the most part, teachers with accents deriving from the North/Midlands were more likely to be told to modify their accents, even if teaching in their home region, as opposed to fewer such directives for teachers with accents deriving from the South/Home Counties. In terms of specific phonological guidance, below are some of the findings, with some perhaps relatively uncontroversial, others more so:
- Northern teachers told to avoid the monophthongs [o:] and [e:] as heard in words such as go and day
- Northern/Midlands teachers told to use Southern pronunciation for words such as bath/bus
- Glottal stops to be avoided – a reference to an audible release of the airstream in speech, so that water sounds like wa-er
- G- and h-dropping to be avoided, as in goin’ (going) and ‘ello (hello)
I propose that a nationwide survey be sent to teachers and mentors who represent the primary and secondary levels of teaching, as well as including parents’ opinions on this matter, in order to determine what the linguistic reality is, or should be, for British teachers. While there is no official standard accent, it is suggested that there are standard accents – varieties of regional accents (e.g. standard Mancunian, standard Liverpudlian and so on) which represent less ‘broad’ varieties of a given accent. While British people arguably have very intuitive notions of what these sound like, perhaps it is time to clarify them from a purely phonological perspective. Therefore, I believe that it is time to hear from mentors and teachers on this matter, in order to determine where we go from here. In doing so, we can address questions such as the following:
- Should Northern/Midlands teachers be forced to use Southern pronunciation if teaching phonics (e.g. for words such as bath/bus)?
- Should reductions in one’s speech (e.g. glottal stops) be seen as inappropriate for a teacher’s speech?
- Do any proposed accent standards apply solely to phonics teaching or are they to be applied to everyday teaching, to include the secondary level also?
The results of the proposed survey would help to establish accent standards and by allowing teachers a sense of agency in this establishment, it would help to address the perception that some teachers have of not having a say on this matter and thus, perceiving themselves as linguistic sell-outs.
For more information, please see my website: www.accentpride.co.uk