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Essex school gives pupils elocution lessons to lose their accent

January 31, 2012 10 comments

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.