I am an ESL teacher working in China. During lessons, I am occasional interrupted by students or parents who point out that my pronunciation of some words is incorrect. They then produce a dictionary or text book and point to the IPA guide or pull out a electronic dictionary and play the rather tinny sounding, low quality, usually American, recording of the word.

Usually I am unable to discern any significant difference in pronunciation. If there is a difference, it will be in the vowel sound which in English is highly variable from one region to another. However the student/parent will argue adamantly that their book or dictionary is correct even though I am a native English speaker with an middle class, albeit regionally slanted, accent.

I think the situation is exacerbated in China as they have a concept of Putonghua or 'Proper Speech' in their native tongue. My university students have to take Putonghua exams to show that they can speak Chinese in a correct, standard, style. They thus extend the same concept to English. They know that AmE and BrE are not the same but they fail to understand that within these, there are large variations in accent and that nobody speaks a truly standard accent.

So with that background, on to my question.

I am looking for explanation and/or resources that can assist me in explaining English accents to students and parents who query the correctness, or rather validity, of my pronunciation. Does anyone have any ideas on how to teach students about accent differences within English?

  • 2
    Get a bigger dictionary that shows variant pronunciations.
    – Robusto
    Aug 24, 2011 at 16:59
  • 8
    Can't you explain to them what you just explained to us? :)
    – jtbandes
    Aug 24, 2011 at 16:59
  • Would some video/audio recordings of different pronounciations help make the point? Aug 24, 2011 at 17:03
  • 3
    Can you give examples of specific words you have had this problem with?
    – nohat
    Aug 24, 2011 at 17:13
  • Your students seem quite well aware of regional varieties as a concept; they'll still want to know why the way you speak is not the 'correct' variety', why you are saying things 'wrong'; they want to know the standard pronunciation, not some dialect however slightly different. If you tell them that your variety is not standard, then they'll want you to stop speaking your variety if it is not standard.
    – Mitch
    Aug 24, 2011 at 18:12

4 Answers 4


OK, there are a couple of things that you need to tackle initially:

  • if students have it into their head that there exists one single accent that is "the correct" one, then you need to start by educating them on that point: explain to them that no two people have a precisely identical accent, that the associations we attach to different accents are purely arbitrary, and that even within what is perceived of as a "standard" accent (e.g. among TV newsreaders) there is actually variation -- as an exercise, maybe you could have the students listen to some different newsreaders and look out for differences, e.g. in the vowel used in "path" etc, whether they pronounce the first syllable of "decided" with a schwa or a [I] vowel etc;
  • given that, they need to understand that hearing one example recording gives them a typical pronuncation "within certain parameters, subject to some variation";
  • students need to understand that a phonetic transcription is an abstract analysis, where the transcriber attempts to give "the main features" of an utterance, and in the case of a dictionary, not even an actual utterance but an imagined one; they can't expect to even glean all of the details of an actual pronunciation from a transcription, let alone then use that as a judge for all utterances of a given word/phrase.

Things that may help you:

  • the Speech Accent Archive -- as an exercise, get the students to listen and note differences of various pronuncations deemed to have a given "accent" (some have phonetic transcriptions -- these could also be used as support)
  • work by Peter Trudgill on perception of accents (sorry, don't have exact ref to hand, but he compared foreign speakers' reaction vs native speakers' reaction, showing that perceptions of accents are arbitrarily learnt rather than inherent)
  • the book "Urban Voices" by Foulkes et al
  • a little bit technical, but if you don't mind paying for it or local library has access, Emmanuel Ferragne & François Pellegrino's article "Formant frequencies of vowels in 13 accents of the British Isles" in the Journal of the IPA (2010, vol 1) -- even if you/they don't understand all the technical details, it may serve visually to say "look, there are quite a lot of differences between accents"
  • I agree with everything here...except the first point. The language student is having a hard enough time trying to figure out -one- way to do something, let alone multiple accents. In the much later second-language-learning situations accents come in to play, but before then, there is right and wrong and anything else is crazy-confusing.
    – Mitch
    Aug 24, 2011 at 19:39
  • 1
    I think you misunderstand me: I'm not saying that the student should learn all the different details of different accents. My point is that there's no objective sense in which any given native speaker's accent can be "wrong". The exercise I mention is simply to say: "look, native speakers of English generally perceive these different speakers of having a 'standard' accent, but in reality, if you listen, they have differences". It doesn't necessarily matter at this stage what those differences are-- the point is to recognise that there are differences. Aug 25, 2011 at 4:52

It seems to me that the most sensible way to head off these problems would be to explain to the class before doing any spoken English work that there is no such concept as "Putonghua" for English. While it may be OK for China, which has traditionally strived to be a rather centralized society, English has its major cultural centers diffused all over the globe.

There isn't even really a kind of "central accent" you can work on. Probably the best thing you can do is to try to give them yours. So even if your students manage to copy your accent perfectly, they will sound like they have an accent to native speakers who aren't from your country. So just tell them up-front that they are learning British English (or whatever dialect). Your students may not be happy to hear this, but at least they won't go through the entire class with impossible expectations for themselves (and you).

On the plus side, I think native speakers can be a bit more forgiving of English spoken with a fairly clear accent of another English-speaking country than they are of an imperfect attempt at their own accent. So this could work for them.


I've had this exact experience teaching students abroad myself. In almost all (if not all) countries, there will be regional variations in accent in the native language.

China is no exception. The easiest way would be to point out those parallels. Possibly something like how a Fujian accent is different from Guangzhou is different from Beijing.

You're right, in that when students are aware of such differences, they will have a sense of which one is "preferred," because that's also a fact of life in most countries. Probably in China the "Beijing standard" is the prestige accent.

For language teachers abroad, it's usually helpful to not have a strong accent of any sort. For Americans, that means a Midwestern style of speech. For Britons, BBC standard.

  • 2
    I actually like this answer, except that the OQ already said that they consider (presumably non-Beijing) dialects inherently incorrect in Chineese, so the concept of different dialects not being "incorrect" may have to be explained carefully.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 24, 2011 at 22:43
  • Pointing out parallels in Chinese pronunciation can complicate things. There is a whole kettle of worms that you don't want to touch on. For example many people would say that Guangzhou's Cantonese and Fujian's Minyu are separate languages from Mandarin Chinese though I can argue for months with some students who pertain that these are just dialects. Then add on that Beijing Chinese is not standard Putonghua - a concept that my students, who associate New Readers with Beijing and have never traveled there themselves, find difficult to accept. Aug 25, 2011 at 1:13
  • @Rincewind342 - Yeah. This is due to the fact that written "Chinese" isn't an alphabet. When symbols can represent entire words or phrases, it isn't too difficult to apply your writing system directly to completely different languages. This also allows people who can't communicate at all in speech to correspond. That's probably why they stuck with it when the rest of the world switched to Alphabets.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 25, 2011 at 11:39

There is a same kind of problem again... there are lots of languages and lots of accents but one official language which is taught in schools. as it is said in Uk it is midland dialect and in America it is... If you are a teacher you should teach and use this official language..This will be acceptable. What you teach should be found in dictionaries..there is one way of saying in them..This is American,that is British and so on.. I believe that teaching is one of the most important jobs in every aspect. And methods and ways of teaching can change and may be arguable but what you teach should be validated in every sense.

You may find some series,CDs of the text books, the dictionaries online etc.. and have them listened, They will probably realize ...your policy about official language works and stops every kind of reaction! if there is...

  • There is no official language. There is no one American English, no one British English -- if there were, there would be no accents in the first place.
    – user10893
    Aug 25, 2011 at 7:57
  • 3
    Sorry A.Uysal but I don't quite understand your answer and think you have perhaps misunderstood some of the discussion above. Let me try to illustrate the problem with the word "Kite": /kʌɪt/ British OED /kīt/ American OED [kahyt] Dictionary.com \ˈkīt\ merriam-webster /kɑɪt/ American Cambridge (kīt) thefreedictionary /kīt/ google dictionary /kaɪt/ macmillandictionary \ˈkīt\ wordcentral /kaɪt/ Brittish Cambridge [kaɪt] Collins COBUILD: English learner’s My pronunciation is none of the above but all are correct English. Aug 25, 2011 at 8:09
  • Sure lots of things change so the language does..There are lots of words/accents all over the world.There should be, too. I have never used an igloo word so far..I have never understood a cockney or Harlem language..They had to make it clear for me..or I have never used and realized street language even if you may hear it in some Series..
    – A.Uysal
    Aug 25, 2011 at 8:25
  • When is your language valid for auniversity or a job? Why do they insist that your language must be perfect..When will it be perfect? why are there TOEFL,IELTS,TOEIC,Schprache Diploma exams..? In schools You learn one type and have its exam if you get a good mark you can be accepted.why are there text books with CDs you may hear an Irish or Scottish but they use a standard sentence and you are told sth about accent.Look at BBC Englih teaching programmes They are very careful about the usage/rules etc.So it means that you should learn written/official language..
    – A.Uysal
    Aug 25, 2011 at 8:26
  • 1
    Telling them to look it up in dictionaries is the exact problem I think @rincewind42 is running into. Just telling him to look in more dictionaries exacerbates the problem that he needs to explain accent variations. Reading more words will give more pronunciations, but will not explain why the variations exist.
    – user10893
    Aug 25, 2011 at 9:12

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