Not having a native English accent, is it an impediment?

by Hergit "Coco" Llenas


by Hergit Penzo Llenas

Today, sixty percent of all the nations on Earth speak English (Oliphant, 2010), 335 millions of whom are native English speakers (Lewis, 2015). The rest, which are estimated to be over 2.6 billion people, are considered non-native English speakers (NNE).  I am a NNE, also known as an L2 learner, or English as Second Language (ESL) learner. As in my case, most L2 learners primarily learned grammar and vocabulary in school, and had limited to no exposure to pronunciation training and instruction, especially during the early stages of learning where it is needed the most (Derwing, 2010). A vast body of evidence suggests that oral proficiency can only be achieved through targeted instruction (Saito, 2011). Phonological instruction greatly impacts the L2 overall intelligibility. Even after achieving a high degree of proficiency, if the L2s’ pronunciation is lacking, he or she may not be able to make themselves understood (Atli & Su- Bergil, 2012). The lack of pronunciation teaching contrasts with the L2 learners’ desire to achieve a native like speaker pronunciation (Pourhossein, 2011). On one hand, teaching pronunciation remains largely neglected, and on the other, data demonstrates that a large percentage of English as Second Language (ESL) students seek to achieve a native-like accent (as cited in Murphy, 2013, p. 259). Should it be the goal of L2s to aspire a native-like status, or should it be to become a proficient bilingual speaker?

Understanding pronunciation

What is pronunciation? It can be defined as speech articulation or a “sub-skill of speaking” (Pourhossein, 2011), it is also considered “one of the most complex human motor skills” (Hu et all, 2012), and Canarajah describes it “as the linguistic feature most open to judgment” (as cited in Murphy, 2013, p. 260). It is so complex because it is a very dynamic process, one that engages many neural resources at different stages over a stretch of time. (Hu et all, 2012) This process entails, among other things, to be able to connect a sound to a symbol, then this symbol has to be stored in the memory, later is has to be retrieved from the memory and replicated or mimicked verbally in the form of a sound, all of which involves a network of neural mechanisms such as the left insula, the temporal areas, the cerebellum, the basal ganglia and other articulator and auditory organs like the tongue, the lips, the teeth and the ears (Hu et all, 2012). If an adult L2 learner accomplishes some of the previous steps with a high degree success, there is still a great chance that the sound s/he mimics will not be the same as the one produced by a native speaker (Hu et all, 2012). For the purpose of the present work, we will use Crystal’s definition of accent, who defines it as: “The cumulative auditory effect of those features of pronunciation that identify where a person is from, regionally or socially” (2003). The question remains: is this inability to reproduce native-like accented speech an impediment to effective oral communication?

 Comprehensibility, intelligibility and accentedness

According to many second language acquisition theorists, L2 speech should be judge based on the concepts of accentedness, intelligibility and comprehensibility (Atli & Su-Bergil, 2012). Accentedness is the degree of difference between the pattern a listener expects to hear from an utterance and the actual delivery of that utterance in a pattern that differs from such expectation (Saito, 2011). Intelligibility refers to “the degree to which a listener understands a speaker” and comprehensibility is “a judgment of how easy or difficult an individual’s pronunciation is to understand” (Derwing, 2010). All of these concepts are technical terms that describe facets of L2 pronunciation.

Murphy meets Bardem: The importance of supra segmental features


In the winter of 2010, the linguist John M. Murphy (2013) watched an interview with Javier Bardem, the award winning movie star. The interview was aired without close captions on the Public Broadcasting System in the United States. Javier’s first language is Spanish. His speech exhibits a marked non-native English accent. The linguist was intrigued by Bardem’s mix of accented, but intelligible and comprehensible pronunciation. Motivated by this interview, he sought to determine if Javier’s speech could be used as a supplementary model to teach pronunciation to ESL learners. The following were the four research questions:

  1. “Is Javier Bardem an intelligible, comprehensible non-native English speaker (NNES)?
  2. What are some of the qualities contributing to the intelligibility and/or comprehensibility of Bardem’s speech? What is he doing well?
  3. What are some of the qualities impeding the intelligibility and/or comprehensibility of Bardem’s speech?
  4. What are some of the qualities contributing to the non-native accentedness of Bardem’s speech?” (Murphy, 2014, p. 262)

In order to address the question, a group of 34 ESL professionals were chosen to complete a 16 question questionnaire.  The group consisted of faculty members, researchers, ESL teachers, administrators, recent graduates, coordinators, and pronunciation tutors. The participants were asked to indicate various levels of agreement or disagreement regarding a set of statements. The results showed that 100% of the respondents agree or strongly agreed that Javier’s accent is different from native English Speakers. At the same time, 100% of them also agreed or strongly agreed that they found him very easy to understand.


An analysis of their responses revealed key characteristics that made Javier’s speech easy to understand. For one, he made an effective use of paralinguistic features such as facial expressions, and hand movements (94%). He also efficiently used linguistic features such as  intonation (88%), rhythm (88%) and sentence-level stress (82%) -which are known by the technical term of supra segmental features-.  Seventy percent of the judges agreed or strongly agreed that his word endings were very clear; though he did commit some other segmental errors (individual sounds), for example, when pronouncing “banity” instead of “vanity”, “especific” vs “specific”, or “theengs” vs “things.”

Yet these errors did not seem to lessen his intelligibility.

Others concur

Murphy’s findings were similar to those published by Abbas Pourhossein (2010). In his study, it is revealed that supra segmental features are more important than segmental ones as they constitute a crucial component of understanding and training L2 speakers. He claims that “Individual sounds are not in themselves very important to intelligibility (…) a learner with good stress and intonation and poor pronunciation of, say, ‘th’, is very easy to understand”(75).

 Professor Saito’s study: Awareness of segmental features

Nevertheless, while Pourhossein and Murphy both speak of the importance of the paralinguistic and supra segmental linguistic features, Saito (2011), focused on the segmental aspects of L2 learning.  His study was based on twenty adult native Japanese speakers (NJs) of English in ESL.To conduct this study, Saito randomly selected 20 native Japanese speakers. All but four participants had just arrived to upstate New York. The others had been living in the United Stated a bit longer, an average of 2.3 months. The twenty students were taking regular university level classes as well as two to three ESL classes per week. They self reported to be highly motivated to learn, and used many daily opportunities to practice English. The group was divided into two, with 10 participants belonging to a control group, and 10 belonging to an experimental group. The control group, unlike the experimental group,did not receive instructional treatment, although the control group was not informed of this. The study consisted in exposing the experimental group to four-hour explicit phonetic instruction: one hour every week for four weeks. In the meantime, the control group read in the library. Every participant had to take a pre-test and a post-test, including a sentence-reading task and a picture-description task.  The chosen sentences were loaded with problematic individual -or segmental- sounds for a Japanese native speaker, for example: f,v,w,l, ɹ,ð,æ,θ. The post-test took place two weeks after their last lesson. Four raters were assigned to listen to the recorded data. The listeners were experienced instructors of phonetics and/or ESL at the university where it was conducted. Their job was to rate the speakers in a scale from 1 to 9 on accentedness and comprehensibility (for the first rubric:1 being = native like, and 9= heavily accented;  and for the second rubric:1 = no effort to understand to 9= very hard to understand).


The results showed no significant difference in the context of accentedness, either in sentence-reading nor in picture-description. However, there were significant gains with respect to comprehensibility, particularly in performing the sentence reading task. The experiment confirmed that with feedback and targeted instruction, ESL learners do not necessarily lose their accent, but do exhibit “general improvement in comprehensibility.” Saito, concurring with Murphy, concludes that although some features of accent may be very marked, they don’t interfere with intelligibility.He also urges teachers to develop L2 phonological awareness, and stresses the significance of making the L2 students consciously aware of the difference between their own individual sounds and those produced by a proficient speaker.


One could argue, then, that acquiring a native speaker pronunciation is not essential to become a successful multi competent speaker, since many studies demonstrated (Saito, 2011; Atli, 2012; Murphy, 2013) that native-like speech is not essential for comprehension and intelligibly.  Furthermore, only 5% to 15% of adult ESL learners ever manage to reach accent free speech (Hu et all, 2013). In fact, according to Saito (2011), those non native speakers who have achieved native-like accent are to be counted among the exceptions, not the rule.  By shifting their focus towards supra segmental proficiency, non native speakers can improve their oral communication, which may result in becoming more intelligible speakers. Instead of favoring some assumptions that make L2s believe they ought to sound like a native English speaker, Second Language learners should aim at raising their own level of awareness of the phonetic alphabet, which can be achieved through instruction as recommended by Saito. In addition, they should learn basic linguistic features, such as rhythm, intonation, and word stress. Ultimately, when it comes to L2 pronunciation, the importance of producing native-like speech is second to being easily understood.







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