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Sandy Millin: Accent and identity
I never noticed my own accent or that of the people around me until I heard my voice for the first time. As part of our language GCSEs (exams at age 16 in the UK) we had to go into a room with a tape recorder and record a piece we’d prepared over the previous few weeks. Before we started it, we had to say our name, centre number and candidate number. I wasn’t sure if the recording had worked properly, so rewound it and listened back. I was so unhappy with my accent that I recorded it a second time, even though I knew it had to be me because there was nobody else in the room!
I’m from Wolverhampton in the Black Country, a group of four towns close to Birmingham that earned this moniker during the Industrial Revolution. If you mention the name of one of the other towns in the region, Dudley, to most Brits, they will generally repeat it back to you putting on the accent, and for some this accent is what delineates the boundaries of the Black Country, but for many, it has a negative connotation. Brummie and Black Country accents regularly appear at the bottom of lists of UK accents, have been described as a ‘drawback to business’ and have even been banned in one local school.
My family aren’t from Wolverhampton, and I’ve never felt a strong connection with the city, although I have to say it’s grown stronger since I moved away. I don’t remember ever using dialect words and don’t recognise a lot of the ones on the lists in the links above or in this video, but definitely used some of the grammar (‘caw’ or ‘kah’ for ‘can’t’ and conjugating ‘to be’ with ‘am’: I’m, you’m, we’m, they’m). I still sometimes use this in my head when I’m talking to myself: ‘What am you doing?’ and I pick bits of it up again when I’m visiting. Having said that, I started using ‘yous’, the plural form of ‘you’, with some people when I was living in Newcastle for a couple of years. I suspect that for me the changes in my accent have all been about fitting in wherever I am. Perhaps I’m trying to be less conspicuous, which is why I often pick up bits of accent or dialect when I’m somewhere for a few days. It could also be the language teacher in me, noticing the way that English is used around me.
I lost a lot of my regional accent when I was on my gap year with people who were mostly from the south east of England. The most noticeable feature that remained, use of /ʊ/ in words like ‘bus’ and ‘much’, disappeared during my year abroad from university, when I was teaching English in Paraguay. I spent a lot of time with somebody from Guildford and somebody from Newbury, both firmly in the range of ‘prestige’ accents. Apart from their influence, I also wanted to change this part of my accent because I couldn’t hear the sound /ʌ/ in a lot of words. I didn’t use it at all, and still occasionally have trouble differentiating which of these two sounds is ‘correct’. It was the only part of my accent I ever consciously changed, and it’s still the bit that comes back first, particularly when I’m tired. My accent now is probably what you’d call ‘Standard British English’, with slight Midlands overtones, but most people can’t pinpoint where I’m from. For a lot of my adult life, I tried to distance myself from Wolverhampton and the changes in my accent, whether conscious or unconscious, reflect that part of my identity.
My brother, on the other hand, is completely different. He still lives in our family home in Wolverhampton and feels a strong bond with the city. He has what many would consider a strong Black Country accent, and I know it could be difficult for some people to understand him if they hadn’t grown up in the area. Our identities are reflected in the way we speak.
On a purely intellectual level I know that other people’s opinions of your accent shouldn’t affect the way you speak, and I try very hard not to judge people based on their accent. Despite that, I can’t help what my unconsciousness has done, partly due to the negative stereotypes I heard about as I was in my late teens and early twenties – I don’t think I was really aware of them before that, and this was the first time I was exposed to lots of different ways of speaking English. I have to admit that having a more neutral accent does make it a lot easier for me to teach and for my students to understand me when I first meet them. When I speak foreign languages, I try to lose my English accent, although I never have a particular model in mind to aim for. I’m lucky that I seem to be able to pick up sounds fairly naturally, although I’m rubbish at imitating accents, and find it very difficult to put on an accent on demand.
Hearing a Black Country accent reminds me of home, and now I enjoy listening to it much more than I did when I was in the process of losing it. I also like introducing students to the richness of accents we have in the UK. I hope it’s something we don’t lose any time soon because it tells a story of our history, and I’m very happy to see evidence that actually some regional accents are growing in use rather than shrinking.
When I’m teaching pronunciation, I focus on intelligibility rather than accent reduction. I’ve only ever had a couple of students who wanted to get rid of their accent but were having trouble, and these were generally the ones who felt the closest to their country, with their identity wound up in their accent when they speak English. Maintaining a non-native accent is no bad thing unless it impedes intelligibility, and this is highly unlikely to happen.
Ultimately, we need to encourage our students to speak in the way that best reflects their identity as a user of English, and to help them on the way by being aware of our own attitudes to accents, both our own and those of other people. Do you agree?
By Sandy Millin