America’s loveliest accents: Boston

Josef Fruehwald has some well-thought-out criticism of Gawker’s latest hate-fest, “America’s Ugliest Accent.” He concludes: “At the risk of coming off as a slacktivist, I’d encourage you all to be the change you want to see in the world, and say something nice about an accent today, even if it’s just your own.” I was actually thinking, as I looked at the Gawker bracket, how much I like some of these accents. So I’m going to try to say something nice about all sixteen of the ones they chose, with some of my thoughts about the whole shebang, and maybe throw in a few more accents at the end.

Boston

There are lots of voices you may hear when you think of a Boston accent: President Kennedy, Mayor Quimby, “Park the car in Harvard Yard.” I think of Philip from American Tongues, but mostly I think of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as “Click and Clack, the Tappit Brothers,” from National Public Radio’s Car Talk. They are masters of the Boston accent, which is sort of a Bizarro version of my family’s New York accent with a lot of the same dropped “r”s, but we raise the “o”s in some places where they don’t, and they front the “a”s in some places where we don’t. It’s all good.

You might be one of those who think Tom and Ray are annoying, and their banter can be hard to listen to if you’re not in the mood for it. I suspect that for years someone has been editing in extra chuckles to pump up the jolly mood, and it’s unnecessary. You might dismiss them as a pair of know-nothing car mechanics with working-class accents, but they’re actually well-educated technophiles, and they do great things with language and sound. I don’t own a car, and I don’t much like cars, but I listened to their show regularly for years. Just their fake end credits, like Statistician Marge Innovera, are worth tuning in for. And they sound better in a Boston accent.

Nextly: Scranton.

Choose your Own Speech Role Model

In a couple of recent posts I talked about the idea of speech role models for language learning, specifically on fluent, clear non-native speakers providing more accessible models for students learning after the teenage years. I ended with a caution against “cloning” a single non-native speaker, raising the specter of a class of students who all come out speaking English like Javier Bardem. I believe this can be avoided by giving students a greater range of options for role models, and a greater role in choosing them.

Again, I can speak from personal experience in this area. As a second-language learner of French and later Portuguese I chose a variety of speech role models. No one has ever said I sound like Jacques Dutronc or Karl Zéro when speaking French, but I was motivated to reach for those goals because I believed I could sound kind of like them.

Thinking back on my speech role models for French, and even for my native English, it was clear that my unique voice is a result of having a diversity of speech role models, and my comfort with my voice was due to the fact that I had chosen all those role models. I sound like me because I sound like a combination of several people that I have admired over the years.

As language teachers, we owe it to our students not to turn them into Javier Bardem clones, or to discourage those who feel like they could never be Bardem. John Murphy’s study of reactions to Bardem is valuable because it establishes that a non-native speaker can be an acceptable role model, but we can’t stop at him, or even at the other fourteen that Murphy lists in his Appendix A.

With sites like YouTube at their fingertips, students have access to millions of non-native English speakers. We need to give them the opportunity to choose several non-native speakers, and be prepared to evaluate those speakers as potential role models, so that they can sound like their unique selves, but speaking clear, fluent English (or French or Hmong or whatever).

Non-native speech role models

In a recent post, I talked about using speech role models to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). In my class at Saint John’s University I told my students to find a native English speaker that they admired and wanted to sound like, but some of the students seemed discouraged and the distance between their accents and the accents of their role models was very large. I guessed that they may have felt that the gap was insurmountable.

I wondered if non-native English speakers might make better role models, so I asked the students to find online video clips of people who were from their country and native speakers of their own language, and who they felt spoke English well. For examples, I showed them clips of interviews with native English speakers speaking other languages, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Spanish (this was before the El Bloombito nastiness, which deserves its own post) and John Beyrle, then US Ambassador to Russia in Russian.

The students’ answers revealed two problems with the assignment. The first was that some of the speakers were too good, and for a specific reason: they had the unfair advantage of living in the United States as teenagers, which made them almost native speakers. Some, like boxer Oscar de la Hoya, were from immigrant families. Others, like tennis player Maria Sharapova, were sports stars who moved to the US as teenagers for training camps. The English of these role models was as inaccessible to my students as those of people who had lived in the US their entire lives.

The second problem was that it was simply hard to find examples of non-native speakers with accents who were not stigmatized. Some of my students found good examples: Columbian singer Shakira, Russian tennis player Elena Dementieva, Chinese television presenter Rui Chenggang, Serbian tennis player Jelena Jankovic and Chinese basketball star Yao Ming. For students who were unable to find an acceptable role model, I found UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon from Korea, Salvadoran computer scientist Luis von Ahn and Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro. The students readily accepted these speakers as role models.

I followed this up with transcription tasks and two further assignments: “Your Second Speech Role Model’s Accent,” where the students identified a feature of their role model that marked them as non-native, and “Outdo your Second Speech Role Model,” where the students recorded themselves trying to say the same sentences without that marked feature. I have the impression that this was valuable for the students, but I did not have a chance to study it systematically.

In my own searches, I came to appreciate the difficulty of finding good non-native role models, and of second language acquisition in general. I was simply unable to find a single non-native speaker who had achieved nativelike pronunciation in English without being immersed in English during the critical period of adolescence. Discussions with other ESL faculty confirmed this. I had already prioritized clarity over correctness, and this confirmed that I was on the right track. I took this into account when grading the students’ in-class presentations and assignments.

While it is difficult to find non-native speakers who express themselves clearly in English and have prestige, the existence of people like Yao Ming, Guillermo del Toro and Ban Ki-Moon shows that they are out there. It would be valuable to introduce non-native role models like these earlier, to help the students with setting goals and to give them perspective on the second language enterprise.

I was a bit disturbed by the term “cloning” coined by Joanne Kenworthy and Jennifer Jenkins and used by Robin Walker, because to me it implies copying another person’s accent wholesale, leading me to imagine an ESL program where every graduate sounds like Javier Bardem. There are two elements that can counteract this: having a variety of role models and allowing the students to participate as much as possible in choosing their role models. I’ll talk about those more in a future post.