Does Social Mobility Require Accent Mobility?

Posted in: Culture and policy, Education, Evidence and policymaking, Public services

Dr Alex Baratta is a Lecturer in Language, Linguistics and Communications at the University of Manchester.

The issue of intergenerational social mobility, that is movement in occupational status between the generations, has dominated public policy debate for decades. Social researchers have grappled with questions around whether social mobility is declining, why those from the most privileged backgrounds continue to hoard the top jobs, and what explains the lack of movement between social class groups. The issue of place has often figured in these debates, with attention paid to ‘hot spots’ and ‘cold spots’ of social mobility as well as the geographic mobility and social mobility, including London as an ‘escalator region’ for social mobility. We also know much about the qualitative experiences of those who have been socially mobile in their lifetime, including the challenges faced, questions around identity, and sense of belonging. Sociologists describe the way in which socially mobile individuals are often ‘caught’ between two worlds.

Intertwined within these debates is the question of accent. A person’s accent and speech, grounded in the place where they grew up, can also be an important signifier of social class. It provides social mobility researchers with a lens from which to view and interpret the origins and destinations of individuals. It opens up new questions, for example, does a move up the social ladder necessitate accent mobility? Simply put, are broad varieties of regional accents in the UK essentially deemed unprofessional for certain professions? What are the implications for speakers of such accents within the teaching profession, an example of a middle-class career path that might appear to be at odds with accents deemed broad and by extension, working-class. Having obtained the views of 41 teachers, both trainees and established teachers, the results point toward Northern and Midlands teachers being more likely to be told to modify their accents to varieties deemed less broad and in turn, more ‘fitting’ for the teaching profession.

For example, a teacher from Lancashire being interviewed for a PGCE was told by the interviewer that the interview would be stopped unless he modified his accent. The interviewer told him that he would be required to correct his students if they spoke like him, and that parents would complain that someone with his accent had been hired to teach English. Likewise, a Midlands teacher teaching phonics in the South was told that if she wanted to teach phonics, it would be best to ‘go back to where you come from’, having been told to adjust her pronunciation to Southern speech in words such as bath and bus. A secondary Art teacher was told by her mentor to write the word ‘water’ with a capital ‘t’, in order to change her pronunciation by virtue of not skipping her t’s in such words, which her mentor found ‘unprofessional’. Finally, an EFL teacher from Rochdale was told during an interview that her accent was ‘too Northern’ and would ‘create the wrong impression’. This might be a reference to the fact that many EFL students, historically at least, are most familiar with British accents representative of RP. However, this is not the linguistic reality for people in the UK, given that RP is a minority accent. On a purely practical level, albeit tied specifically to the EFL context, how are students being prepared for real world communication if they have never been exposed to regional accents? The class-based connotations that are often part of these accents are, fortunately, lost on foreign students; the communicative-based need to hear such accents, however, is entirely relevant to the classroom.

This is not to suggest a linguistic conspiracy; clearly, the mentors’ views, while sometimes expressed bluntly, might be that there is a need to be understood as clearly as possible. This certainly makes sense for phonics teaching. However, are more broad realisations of regional accents, especially when being used in one’s home region, really hard(er) to understand? Or, is the issue, implied though it might be, more to do with the desire for an accent deemed less regional for the teaching profession, what, in layperson’s terms, might be designated as ‘neutral’ (i.e. you can sound regional, but not too regional). Moreover, while all teachers must use standard English – as made clear by the Teachers’ Standards – this can be spoken in a variety of accents. The only potential reference to accent in the Teachers’ Standards is seen with the broad word ‘articulacy’; but who decides what is or is not an ‘articulate’ accent?

In terms of the clash between accent perceptions held by the teacher and those in authority, this is illustrated with the Lancashire teacher. He believes that his accent signals him as working-class, the connotations of which to him are that he is ‘hard-working and straightforward’; for the PGCE interviewer, however, his accent was deemed inappropriate for the teaching profession. Likewise, the Art teacher believes that her broad South London accent marks her out to her students as being more authentic and real, which in turn allows her to be more approachable. To her mentor, her accent was deemed ‘unprofessional’.

Accent is a proxy for categories, such as race, ethnicity and indeed, class. Whatever the connotations are, positive or negative, of said categories, these are then placed onto the accent and subsequently, the speaker. Given that there might be a certain expectation for the use of language in the teaching profession, that which goes beyond phonics teaching, it might in turn be suggested that for this career path, there is an expectation that broad realisations of accents should be left at the school gate. This can go beyond the need to be understood by one’s students and instead point toward de facto standards for accents in British teaching, those that by all means can be regional, but not too regional, as mentioned. As a result, an upwardly mobile profession such as teaching is reflected in the accents of its teachers, which, while varied, display a realisation that does not suggest the negative connotations of a class level deemed perhaps unsuitable for the teaching profession.

This blog is based on the article, 'A Sociolinguistic Perspective on Accent and Social Mobility in the UK Teaching Profession', by Dr Alex Baratta, Dr Michael Donnelly, and Dr Sol Gamsu. Read the full article online.

Posted in: Culture and policy, Education, Evidence and policymaking, Public services


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