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Teaching English: Mastering the regional accent

By Jon Green

01 May 2013 - 16:44

Can you tell a cockney accent from a Geordie one? Regional accents and dialects can be difficult enough for native speakers to understand, but to English language teachers, they present an even greater challenge, explains teacher Jon Green.

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As a long-time English teacher, you get to realise which lessons will give you brownie points and which linguistic challenges simply fall flat on their face. In a country such as Poland where there are only a handful of regional accents, one sure crowd-pleaser is to concentrate on English regional accents and dialects.

Students are probably aware that English is spoken in many different ways, but they have no idea how each one sounds. I could walk into the classroom and say, ‘The bairn’s gan tae school, man.’ Stunned silence, followed by a few giggles and puzzled looks. Would they have any idea where people could say such a thing? Of course not – it’s Geordie!

I have practised many an hour trying to nail certain accents, sometimes getting them right and sometimes way off the mark. I can’t do Geordie, but I can do a good Australian accent. Get the students joining in and it becomes hilarious.

Playing them podcasts is a great way to expose them to different accents, and playing short listening extracts and asking students to work out what the people are saying is also good practice. I often use regional vocabulary to play Call My Bluff or play a game called Wordly Wise, in which you listen to the word and you have to guess which definition is correct out of three choices. Students find this very challenging but fun, as it is purely guesswork based on their instinct and knowledge of words.

On the one hand, the students will probably not remember these words, and they won’t be of any use to them outside of, say, Lancashire. On the other hand, it is important to make them aware of the regional differences, and it could certainly help them in listening comprehension activities.

One eternal problem the English teacher is faced with is that the teacher your student used to have does not sound like you. I say the vowel sound in castle like ‘car’ but Pawel’s ex-teacher said castle like ‘cat’. What can you do about it? Not a lot but just point out the difference. The vowel sound in bus can sound like ‘puss’ or ‘us’. So when that student says that they want to speak standard English or they want to sound British, maybe they should just say they want to sound like you!

Jon is an English teacher at the British Council in Warsaw and one of the stars of ‘The Five Gentlemen‘ series of English language teaching videos.

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