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Essex school gives pupils elocution lessons to lose their accent

An interesting experiment at an Essex primary school has been trialling elocution lessons in an attempt to help school pupils with their spelling. The idea is that speaking with an Essex accent is somehow detrimental to pupils’ ability to be able to spell correctly, primarily because how certain words are pronounced in Essex English are not reflected in Standard English spellings. A few examples are given in the article, including ‘sport’ as <sbort> and ‘well’ as <wellw>. Both of these spellings, however, aren’t necessarily indicative of slipping standards, but instead might be considered as evidence for their ear for phonetic detail.

In a word like ‘sport’, which has a voiceless plosive [p], sometimes this can be heard as the voiced variant [b]. This is partly the result of the following vowel ‘bleeding’ its voicing to the preceding consonant, and although might be more accurate to transcribe it as a devoiced [b], it’s not entirely inappropriate to transcribe ‘sport’ as [sbɔːt]. This is the difference between fortis and lenis consonants, which refers to consonants produced with greater or lesser energy (so not just a simple split between voiced/voiceless). With that in mind, it’s kind of understandable for a pupil who hears and produces [sbɔːt] to write <sbort>. Similarly, with <wellw>, what we seem to be getting is an orthographic representation of L-vocalisation with the high back vowel common in words with final <l>, like bell, sell, hell and so on.

I was also particularly taken by the following comment by one of the teachers:

‘[This programme is] about helping the children to speak properly so they can improve their reading and writing and obviously have a better education. I really wanted to get someone in because I noticed the children weren’t saying words correctly and were therefore misspelling them.’

There’s a lot going on here, but first, a caveat: I appreciate any attempts to help students improve their spelling, which seems to be the main aim of this programme. When we start bringing in language attitudes into the mix, however, I can’t help but start to be suspicious of the intent.

First off, the presupposition that people who don’t “speak properly” are somehow unable to secure a good standard of education. Countless sociolinguists have made the point that speaking non-standard English doesn’t mean that the speaker is cognitively impaired, and attitudes such as this further denigrate non-standard varieties of English and marginalises them to the side line.

The second thing that I want to bring up is the idea of the pupils “saying the words incorrectly”. Now, I’m not sure what “speaking correctly” might mean, but I’m going to assume for the purposes of my discussion here that it’s “speaking with an Essex accent”. This isn’t a massive leap of deduction to make since later on in the article the teacher mentions the pupils’ “posh voice”, a judgement which is often not levelled at Essex English. But unless the meaning here is some sort of language impairment, it’s impossible to argue that a word is pronounced ‘incorrectly’. It might not be pronounced according to the conventions of  Standard Southern British English, but that’s not the same as an incorrect pronunciation. The conflation here of ‘correctness’ and Standard English and ‘incorrectness’ with non-standard English is obvious, but the teacher treats it as unproblematic.

My last point is actually to do with the headline of the article. The term ‘accent’ refers to pronunciation, so if you speak, you have an accent. You might be able to replace your native accent with another accent (and there are numerous debates about the age at which speakers are able to do this and not have any trace of their original accent), but you can’t ‘lose’ an accent in the same way that you lose your keys or your wallet. I think the idea here is that the accent the pupils develop in these elocution lessons will prevent them from being identified as coming from Essex, in addition to facilitating their progress into world-class spellers. The wonders of elocution never cease to amaze.

The Social Linguist

NB. If you missed Paul Kerswill’s write up of Essex English in The Only Way is Essex, here’s the link.

  1. a.d.p.h
    February 1, 2012 at 9:02 am

    Slightly at a tangent, I missed Kerswill’s article in The Sun (unsurprisingly!), but this bit is interesting:

    “Catchphrases are the prime way television influences our language”

    I’ve noticed that the accent that someone I work with, who watches TOWIE and models herself on one of the ‘characters’, has slowly become more Essex-like. She doesn’t just use “catchphrases” or specific lexis. It seems, to me at least, that television has affected her pronunciation. Given television’s influence on pronunciation as a supposed “myth”, its perhaps unsurprising that Kerswill doesn’t mention it.

  2. Hannah
    April 2, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    I’ve noticed that on Facebook, a small amount of adolescents from Shropshire are spelling ‘you’ll’ as ‘ur’, e.g. ‘ur be sorry.’ This could be because of the way they’re pronouncing it as well. (I would go into the differences in articulation, but I’ve only studied linguistics for two years, and that was a year ago! Brain for a sieve you see.)
    The most recent case of this was done by a 21 year old female, and she too is a fan of TOWIE. Perhaps the way the cast are pronouncing their /l/’s are having an influence here.

  3. April 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    I teach elocution in Dorset and I agree we all have accents but I do find that children who speak badly do spell incorrectly, a couple of examples are ‘different’ which they spell ‘diffrent’, ‘every’ spelt ‘evry’ and then putting in extra syllables so that ‘athlete’ becomes ‘athelete’. ‘Our’ also becomes ‘are’.
    All these can be corrected one the children know how to say the words correctly – with or without a strong accent.

    • April 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm

      Hi Serena and thanks for your comment. It’s quite surprising, though, to read an elocution teacher argue that someone can ‘speak badly’. Any linguist would argue that it is impossible to ‘speak badly’ given that we make no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English. Moreover, the examples you cite are perfect examples of how writing is a poor representation of speech. I mean, who says ‘diff-er-ent’? In many ways, then, children who spell those words so that they closer to their pronunciation have a very good ear.

      It’s also the case that it’s relatively easy to educate a child by saying ‘ok, you say X word in Y way, but actually, the spelling for that word is Z’. Children who speak non-standard varieties of English are no more at a disadvantage in terms of learning Standard English spellings than children who speak ‘more standard’ varieties.

      I would strongly suggest that you read Peter Trudgill’s excellent book ‘Accent, Dialect and the School’ (1974). It’s a bit old, but it will offer you detailed commentary on why your arguments don’t really hold any water.

      • April 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm

        I have always said ‘diff -e- rent’. The ‘e’ in the middle is very quick and unstressed but it is there. I would say that about 70% of people I teach say it the same way as me (this is before they’ve had any lessons). The same applies to the word ‘every’ and agin about 70% of people I come across say it with three syllables.

      • April 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm

        I’m sorry, but I simply can’t accept those figures. We’re notoriously unreliable about reporting our own usage, particularly when it relates to standard and non-standard variants (again, Peter Trudgill has written at length about this), so you’ll forgive me if I take your comments with a pinch of salt. In spontaneous conversational speech, unstressed syllables end up simply being elided completely, and I’d be very skeptical that someone would say say ‘ev-e-ry’ or ‘diff-er-ent’ in everyday discourse, even someone who speaks a ‘standard’ accent (although there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ accent).

      • April 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm

        I’m sorry you feel I don’t know what I’m talking about and feel it is a little disrespectful to me.. I’ve been teaching elocution for nearly 20 years and stand by what I say. It is one thing to disagree with me but you imply I do not know what I am talking about.

      • April 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm

        I’m sorry that you feel as though I’m being disrespectful, but that’s not my intention. Unfortunately, though, your comments demonstrate that being an elocution teacher does not make one a qualified linguist. Comments such as your first one have been roundly rebutted within linguistics for years, and yet outside linguistics there is a continual and pervasive ideology that because a person speaks a non-standard variety that it is somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ English, an ideology which you (rather unfortunately) perpetuate. Such comments are misguided, unfounded and bear no relation to sound linguistic research.

        I sincerely hope that our discussion today hasn’t merely entrenched your views and that instead you go beyond your training in elocution and engage with the myriad research which would give you a more rounded understanding of some of the issues I’ve touched on. As I’ve said, Peter Trudgill’s book ‘Accent, Dialect and the School’ is a wonderful starting point, as is Labov’s work on African American Vernacular English. There is also lots of work on non-standard Englishes more generally.

        – The Social Linguist

  4. Rebecca Wright
    May 8, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    Hi Social Linguist,

    I have just discovered your blog and had to write a response to your article. I am not a linguist and I know nothing about the subject – I know of Noam Chomsky, but that is for other reasons. Anyway, I was so infuriated and angry when I found out that they were teaching kids to speak ‘properly’ with elocution lessons under the guise that they would have better spelling. I am from Essex, I was born in East London but grew up in Essex. I was educated in a school in essex, a very good one actually, where they actually taught us how to spell correctly. And that’s the thing – when we spelt something incorrectly we were corrected – if it could be explained, it was explained – that is what teaching is all about. When I saw the news article about this I kept screaming at the screen ‘just bloody well teach them’…Simples 🙂 They definately do not need to be taught that they are speaking ‘badly’ – It is like saying they have a learning difficulty because of their ‘thick’ accents and not because they have incompetent teachers who can’t be bothered to teach them.

    Oh and in response to Serena – Out of interest do you say wed-nes-day (emphasising the ‘d’)or wensday. I say the latter. Its not a really a short ‘d’ is it? The only person I know who says wed-nes-day (well actually it is more like wud-nes-day) is my Arabic mother, who incidently rolls her R’s ‘n all.



  5. May 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    Hi Rebecca and thanks for the comment. I think that some of what you say definitely touches on why I was annoyed by the whole exercise. Accent doesn’t really map onto spelling ability in the way that it’s assumed to and assuming that it does can have a really detrimental effect on the kids who are being ‘treated’.

    ‘Wednesday’ is one of those words which has really quite variable pronunciations which depend on the level of formality, familiarity with your interlocutor and even your interlocutor’s own pronunciation. I very rarely hear ‘Wed-nes-day’ and 99% of the time hear ‘Wed-ens-day’. It might be a regional thing though.

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