Talking Accents in The Coast

This one’s from the hometown files. Halifax’s alt-weekly, The Coast, published an article last week entitled Dalhousie’s Accent Clinic Sending Mixed Messages. The sub-heading of the article sums up the piece well: “Improving” a person’s speech by making them sound more like a local assumes a lot about class, power and nationality”. It contains commentary from international students from Kuwait and Nigeria studying in Halifax, along with a Dalhousie University social anthropology prof and a Saint Mary’s University linguistic anthropology prof, along with the director of the Accent Clinic, about several massive and intertwining issues around language and power, race, imperialism, and opportunity.

Overall, I thought it was a good article, and I agree with everything everyone in the article had to say. However, this is such a massive issue, and I think the article showed some gaps that could have been filled in by talking to a few more select people. One major point of view missing from the article is that of choice, opportunity and access to social capital (which I’ll talk about below).

(Full disclosure: in my professional role in the English language programs at Dalhousie we collaborate with the Accent Clinic, giving their info to students who may show speaking and pronunciation issues in English that stem from more serious cognitive, fluency, articulatory or speech problems that are best addressed by a speech-language pathologist. Similarly, if they get someone coming to their clinic wanting to improve their pronunciation, but that person would benefit from simply more instruction and comprehensible input and output in English language in general, they will let them know about the English language and academic English courses and workshops we offer.)

Anyway, so first, yes, all the people interviewed in the article identify the fact that in Canadian society (and other Anglophone societies) there is all kinds of discrimination that happens via language: discrimination against users of different regional and social varieties of English, or users of non-standard English or those whose English proficiency is developing. There is blatant racism against racialized first-language/proficient users of English from countries such as Nigeria that white first-language/proficiency users of English from countries such as England do not face.  Judgements around someone’s English ability and variety plays a well-documented role in employment and educational opportunities. In academia, “linguistic bigotry is among the last publicly expressible prejudices left to members of the Western intelligentsia”, according to linguist Deborah Cameron,; this bigotry doesn’t even seem to be hidden in many cases, and is often veiled in discussions about language standards or aesthetics.

There is a sorry lack of public visibility (audibility?) of different regional and social varieties of English in the media, and this is one contributing factor in a widespread lack of ability of some people in man parts of the country to deal with any other English than their local variety. As one of the folks quoted in the article says, “Haligonians should be more patient with people who may not speak English as a first language. Instead of an accent modification clinic, she says, we need an “accent listening clinic.” I wholeheartedly agree.

There are lots of measures that need to be taken taken to counter discriminatory linguistic attitudes in society, and to increase the general population’s intercultural and multilingual/plurilingual competence; on other words, their ability to deal with different accents and Englishes. The media is one place to start, and articles like this one do a a great job of opening the conversation. Another example from the Coast is their featuring journalist Raja Salim, who seems to be a proficient user of English as an additional language, whose perspective and voice adds a lot to the paper. I think the CBC could do a WAY better job in this area. Linguistic discrimination needs to be addressed in school, in the workplace, and in society in general. And monolingual English speakers in all parts of the world should just learn more languages, in my opinion; that would do wonders for improving attitudes.

Thankfully, there are lots of educators, linguists, academics and activists across Canada and around the world working on these issues (too many to link to here!), doing the hard work to change attitudes and behaviours. This is good work, but it’s hard work and it’s slow work. It’s good to want to change the world, but what about the meantime?

In the meantime, while attitudes and behaviours are being influenced and changed for the better, as long as certain linguistic varieties or elements carry more social prestige and allow access to more social and economic power, people have to be given the choice to access this social capital if they so desire. So if in the current context of 2017 Halifax a certain accent will help you get a better job, or more dates, or get better marks on their in-class presentations, for example, someone should have the opportunity to choose to access this economic and social capital via the Accent Clinic if they want to. Not be forced to, but to be able to choose it if they would like. An English speaker doesn’t just speak one English, they have a repertoire of different styles, dialects and varieties and they can pull out, put on, and play up in different context depending on their goals. I use one variety of English in an academic lecture and a completely different one down at the pub. A user of English as an additional language is no exception; if they want to acquire the particular variety of English they will at the Accent Clinic and employ it in different contexts, why shouldn’t they?

And this was an aspect of the issue missed by the Coast article. Why not talk to an actual student who had chosen to use the Clinic’s services and talk about why they did so? Why not talk to someone at ISANS to comment on the link between accent/pronunciation and the job market in Nova Scotia? ISANS and others are doing great work locally to try to change attitudes, but once again, we’re not there yet, so people have to be given choice and agency in the matter.

There were other aspects of the issue that were missed by the Coast article. One was the distinction between language proficiency, fluency, pronunciation and accent, all of which came up in the article and all of which come into play in terms of social attitudes and potential discrimination, but not all of which are dealt with by the Accent Clinic. The other was the assumption by both the author and several of the people interviewed, that the Accent Clinic uses an approach based on Canadian native-speaker models of English. I don’t know what approach the Clinic uses, but there are many approaches to pronunciation that aren’t based on emulating native speakers, such as English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), or approaches that centre around concepts of mutual intelligibility and functional load. 


More Language Awareness!

Part of the reason I love using Twitter in my professional life is coming across newly published articles that might not make it onto my radar otherwise. This article by Veronika Koller (@VeronikaKoller), Language awareness and Language Workers, showed up on my feed the other day, and it’s a very interesting read.

Her argument is that language awareness–“an enhanced consciousness of and sensitivity to the forms and functions of language”–and skills should be more widespread among language workers.  Language workers are those who  produce language as the primary goal of their work, such as communications professional, copywriters, translators and interpreters, journalists, branding professionals, etc. Language awareness in general can “[increase] the quality of language work” while critical language awareness, which acknowledges the role of societal power and privilege and the role of language in creating and maintaining structures of power and privilege, can in addition have “empowering consequences for customers, employees and other stakeholders”. However, in terms of how to raise levels of language awareness in language workers, she finds that communications textbooks don’t adequately do the trick, and there is currently a gap between applied linguists in academia and language workers in the business world in terms of teaching and learning.

I totally agree with this article! More (critical) language awareness in the population in general would be a great thing. There might be fewer ill-informed non-stories in the media about language, featuring non-experts blathering on about their linguistic preferences and passing them off as “rules”, or giving flimsy arguments that don’t hold linguistic water in defense of not wanting to keep up with language change . Maybe if more marketers were sensitive to sociolinguistics, they’d be less likely to launch embarrassing social media campaigns appropriating the language of social groups not their own. 

Increased language awareness in the general population would benefit us as language teachers as well. I have to spend time in the classroom dispelling myths and common beliefs about language, language varieties, language learning and language acquisition. I also do a lot of quashing of folk linguistic beliefs, standing up for of language varieties that don’t have an army and/or navy, and defending socially stigmatized language behaviour at parties and social events, come to think of it.

I agree that better communications textbooks and transmission of knowledge between academia and the business world would help, but I also think that linguistics education in high school or required courses or linguistic content in writing or language courses at the undergraduate level in all subject areas would be beneficial. The more (critical) language awareness, the better!


Language and the Immigrant Wage Gap

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconI recently came across this article in MacLean’s: “New figures show just how big Canada’s immigrant wage gap is“. It was the sub-heading that caught my attention: “Even many second-generation immigrants earn much less than native-born workers. How speaking English impacts wages.”

After describing and discussing trends in the gap in wages between first and second generation immigrants to Canada and those who have been in Canada for several generations, the author talks about the role of English language proficiency and this wage gap. More specifically, the author focuses on whether English is spoken at home, and how this plays a role in the wage gap:

The latest census data says the native-first generation immigrant wage gap is 16 per cent at the national level. Once we examine whether immigrants speak English at home, things change — the wage difference is just 5.8 per cent. But for first-generation immigrants who don’t speak English at home, the gap jumps to 27.3 per cent.
For second-generation immigrants, there is barely any gap for those who speak English at home (0.7 per cent) but it’s still a significant gap for those who don’t speak English at home (a whopping 45.7 per cent).
This pattern also holds in the major metropolitan centres in the English-speaking parts of the country, which attract the most immigrants.

This article is written by an economist; he is just taking the statistical data that’s out there and analyzing it in different ways and seeing what interesting findings emerge. (It seems like there were no linguists, language teachers, people that work with immigrants, etc. involved in this article.) But I find the article dangerously close to leaving readers with the conclusion that all immigrants should abandon their L1 if it doesn’t happen to be English, and speak English at home, in order to close the wag gap.

Now, the author does acknowledge that there isn’t a causal relationship between speaking English at home and earning higher wages:

Though these patterns are striking, they should not be interpreted as causal – immigrants can’t necessarily start speaking English at home and expect to see their future earnings increase. There are unobserved qualities of individuals that may correlate both with the tendency to speak English at home as well as with labour market earnings potential. Without holding these fixed in some way, we can’t say whether there is a causal relationship between English skills and the gap in labour market outcomes.

I definitely agree; this is far from a causal relationship. First, neither the data nor the article define whether when they say an immigrant family “speaks English at home” are they referring to families who have immigrated from other countries where English is the dominant language and/or speak English as a first language? Or are they referring to immigrants who may have a different L1 but choose to raise their children in only English? It seems very obvious to me that if you’re talking about immigrants who may have English as an L1 and have come from the US, the UK, Australia, Ireland, etc. the there could be a host of socioeconomic and cultural advantages they would have over immigrants from other places that may give them a leg up in the job market. These are the “unobserved qualities of individuals” that the author mentions.

The author goes on to speculate.

But supposing that the findings here are suggestive of a causal relationship, why does speaking English at home matter so much?

One obvious answer is that individuals who speak English at home speak better English in general — and this would mean better communication at work. […] Or perhaps individuals of foreign descent that speak English at home tend to have other important skills on average.

But another possibility is the labour market discriminates against individuals with weaker English skills even when English is not important for productivity.

The author makes some important connections between English proficiency, the workplace and language-based discrimination in the workplace. His third point–that the labour market discriminates against “weaker English skills”, accents, non-standard Englishes and varieties of English that are different from the local variety even when it’s not an important for productivity–is a particularly important one. Anecdotally, I see this all the time in both my broader workplace, as well as around the city, in society in general, and even in pop culture.

Yes, the link between language skills and the workplace is real and important. But rather than leave folks with the idea that they should abandon their L1 when they arrive in Canada, why don’t we provide more funding and resources for different linguistic support and development mechanisms, so that people who want to continue to improve their English proficiency, and reap the benefits that may make on their wages, can do so if they wish? Also, initiatives to change attitudes in society in general, making people more understanding and accepting of linguistic diversity and bi- and multilingualism would also more helpfully contribute to closing the wage gap, I think.

EAP Reading: Defining the Relationship

Here’s an interesting article that could make for a great reading for a class of EAP students about to enter their degree programs. As summarized by

Students need to better understand the role of a professor, writes CHE contributor

“I wonder if college students today truly understand the nature of their relationship to professors,” writes Rob Jenkins for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jenkins argues that over his 31-year teaching career, he has seen the lines defining the professor-student relationship become increasingly blurry. In response to this shift, Jenkins lays out several points that he thinks all postsecondary students should know: a professor does not “work for” a student; a student is not a customer; and a professor is not a high school teacher, boss, parent, BFF, or adversary. Jenkins concludes by laying out point-by-point what he is willing to do for students before adding, “All in all, that’s not a bad deal.”

It’s written from he American perspective, so those using this in another context might have to explain/adapt some of the terminology (university for college, etc.). But I think it could make for a good reading and some great ensuing discussion. (Particularly brave teachers might even want to wade into the comments section on the article for added debate).

Defining the Relationship – The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Rassias Method

I’d never heard of the Rassias language teaching methodology before an American-trained colleague brought it up recently. It’s like some in-your-face audiolingual/communicative language teaching hybrid.

It seems like Rassias himself was quite the character:


(from Stansfield, Charles, and Jeanne Hornor. “The Dartmouth-Rassias Model of Teaching Foreign Languages.” ADFL Bulletin 12.4 (1981): 23-27.)

I’m not sure our raw meat and egg budget is big enough to get all staff on board with this method. Alas…

[Note: I’d been meaning to write this little blog post for a while, and then I do, and only then realize that John Rassias had just died a few days earlier…]


Exploring EAP at TESL Canada 2015

TESL Canada LogoThe article below is my round-up of sessions from the recent TESL Canada conference in Lake Louise. It appeared in the TESL Nova Scotia newsletter.

Exploring EAP at TESL Canada 2015

The TESL Canada conference in Lake Louise could most likely go down in the books as the one of the most scenic teachers’ conferences ever. Getting to attend talks from EAP practitioners from across the country while taking in the breathtaking views of the mountains, snow-dusted forests and that turquoise lake was an absolute pleasure. It didn’t distract me from checking out several sessions on teaching English for Academic purposes, though. Here are some highlights:

Teaching EAP Students Academic Behaviours: Dianne Tyers, Christina Musa

This was a very participatory workshop where we brainstormed together with the presenters to come up with tips and techniques for developing seven non-linguistic academic behaviours (time management, self-efficacy, participation in seminars, collaboration, academic honesty, respectful communication, individual responsibility for learning) to complement the linguistic content of our EAP classes.

Complexity in L1 and L2 student writing: The development of Discourse styles: Douglas Biber

This talk fell more under the umbrella of applied linguistics rather than classroom practice, which was a nice counterpoint to a lot of a sessions at TESL Canada. It was an interesting demonstration of how we tend to describe academic writing as “complex”, although it’s not complex in the way we general define the term: in terms of frequency of dependent clauses. Academic English is complex in terms of a high frequency of dependent phrases, while non-academic discourse which tends to have a higher incidence of dependent clauses. In very simple terms, academic discourse is focused on the noun and complex noun phrases, as opposed to dependent clauses built around verbs. He explored these definitions of complexity across disciplines, and over time. He didn’t delve too far into the implications for teaching and materials development though it was a lot of food for thought.

Exploring the Rationale for Task-Based Language Teaching: Jane Willis

This wasn’t a specifically EAP-focused talk, but since many EAP teachers draw on task-based language teaching (TBLT), it was quite relevant to our interests. This opening keynote presentation was a nice review of the history, principles, and essential elements of TBLT, with some participation as demonstration.

Student Input and Curricular Alignment in EAP: Marcia Kim and Gregory Tweedie

In this talk the presenters shared the results of some recent research they’ve done where they interviewed graduates of their EAP program to see how well the content of the EAP courses aligned with the language demands of their first years of undergraduate study. It was very interesting to hear which areas aligned (group work, writing) and which areas didn’t (reading, lack of informal speaking, assessment style) and those present had a very lively discussion as to why these misalignments may have occurred and what was to be done about it. This type of research should be an important part of the systematic review of any EAP course.

Building L2 writing skills using Vocabulary and Grammar Resources: Randi Reppen

This was a practical talk, in which the presenter drew on the Grammar and Beyond series that she authored to give lots of ideas for activities for EAP writing and grammar that were informed by corpora and grounded in real language use.

Getting real about paraphrasing and anti-plagiarism instruction: John Sivell

One of the highlights of the conference was this talk by John Sivell, a faculty member at Brock University. His talk revolved around the assertion that the act of paraphrasing is a substantial linguistic, cognitive, academic and cultural challenge. However, on most university campuses, despite the fact that paraphrasing is a major obstacle for both English L1 and L2 speakers, the teaching and learning of this skills is relegated to the sidelines—an online course, writing centres or in EAP courses with crowded curricula. The session ended with both the presenter and the attendees sharing strategies, tips and ideas for anti-plagiarism instruction.

To Read: Toward Better Teaching of Pronunciation

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconMan it can be hard to find the time to blog in the summer! My goal in the next few weeks is to find a few more moments of quality time with WordPress, and also to read up on the state of pronunciation teaching. I’ll most likely be teaching a speaking and pronunciation course for graduate students in the fall, and want to have it focus more heavily on the latter than the former. So I thought it could be a good moment to see if we’ve progressed past the days of “popsicle-stick in the mouth to feel the difference between /l/ and /ɹ/”. (Maybe we haven’t! And I’m ok with that.)

I’m going to start by checking out the following:

Towards Better Teaching of Pronunciation: Review of Literature in the Area


The present paper aims at establishing the need to focus on the importance of teaching pronunciation to language learners. The study is descriptive in nature. It traces out the body of research concerning the weightiness of pronunciation within linguistic, psychological, and sociocultural domains as well as through the eyes of the language learners. The findings highlighted the knock-on effects of pronunciation on the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). In addition, pronunciation instruction was found to be the learners’ priority and a field in which they need more coaching. As an illuminating study, the paper is useful to teachers, researchers, and material writers to consider the language learners’ needs in the English language teaching and learning context.

Seyedabadi, S., Fatemi, A. H., & Pishghadam, R. (2015). Towards Better Teaching of Pronunciation: Review of Literature in the Area. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6(4 S1), 76.

I will let you know how I fare! And then the search will begin for good pronunciation teaching resources…though I’m sure there’s no shortage of those.

Lexicon Valley: How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Speak Much English

logoA post I wrote for the Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Speak Much English, was posted today. It’s labelled as “Language Travel Tips”, but it was actually originally conceived of as a series of tips for people in countries where English is the dominant language to keep in mind in their interactions with non-native English speakers. It could be of use to ESL/EFL teachers trainers as well, especially those who work with primarily native speakers on their initial certification. Enjoy!


By chance, two articles I had been working on lately came out this week. And they couldn’t be more different.


Alcohol Really Does Make you Better at a Foreign Language (Sometimes) appeared on the Lexicon Valley blog on It was challenging writing about language learning for a generalist audience, as I’m used to talking shop with other teachers or linguists–see article above. (Though I admit it was fun to let loose with the clickbait!) As of today it’s been shared 10,000 times on Facebook, so that’s also a novelty.

TESL Canada Logo

I wrote  a review of Scott Roy Douglas’s EAP text Academic Inquiry which appears in the latest issue of TESL Canada journal. It’s interesting going back and reading this article, which I wrote and submitted during a busy time this summer. In hindsight, I would tighten up the wording a bit in the first paragraph at the top of page 95, where I refer to the genre approach as a “current trend in EAP research” (and promptly support this with a definition of genre from Swales from 1990)! I realize the genre approach isn’t new, and what I was getting at here was that several newer EAP textbooks incorporate genre (Pearson’s LEAP series, etc.). I probably should have swapped out the word publishing for research! In any case, I maintain my point that more EAP texts need to break out of the constraints of the 5-paragraph essay.

Addendum: Scott Roy Douglas has let me know via Twitter that there are genre-based writing resources available in the book’s online teacher companion website (pic below). (I was unaware of this when I wrote the review, as I only had access to the book itself.) This is good to know, as it does make the textbook a more well-rounded offering. The question still remains, though: why did the publisher choose to put the genre-based writing tasks online, and give a privileged position to essays in the physical book, and not vice versa? It looks like a really well thought-out sequence of genres, and its inclusion in the book would have made it an EAP text that really stands out.

It raises the question: what is a textbook nowadays? There could be the book, the teacher’s book, the online resources, the CD-Rom, the companion VLE… for the sake of reviewing purposes, or for a course leader who’s choosing a course text, what’s the core, and what’s the frill? Should reviewers get full access to all resources outside the book? 


Linguistics on Lifehacker

imagesLifehacker, one of the web’s most visited productivity blogs, regularly features articles on language learning. Most of them tend to be of the brainhack variety; they focus on how to use technology or other tricks to learn a language faster.

While catching up on the blog today, three articles related to language jumped out at me.

Learn a Foreign Accent By Watching Films With Subtitles

This is something I have always regularly advised my students to do, mostly based on my own language learning experiences, so it’s nice to have some research to back up the anecdotal recommendation. Once you obtain an intermediate level of proficiency, watching films in your target language with the target language subtitles (as opposed to subtitles in your mother tongue) has a positive influence on your acquisition of the target language accent. I also find it does wonders for your listening comprehension, as it closes the gap between the written language and what it sounds like in quick, connected, real-life speech. I’ve found that many of my students are surprised to be told that watching a movie with subtitles is beneficial, as they believe watching a movie in the target language without subtitles is the gold standard they’ve been striving for, even if the percentage of what they understand overall is quite low.

Use Text-to-Speech Functions for Better Proofreading

This is an interesting one that I’ve never tried before. It seems like it would be most useful for picking up on missing punctuation, as TTS engines use punctuation as cues to add pauses and intonation. I do wonder about how well this trick would work for learners who have yet to master the relationship between punctuation and intonation in English sentences. If an expert speaker of English writes a sentence that’s missing a comma and listens to a TTS engine read it, they are going to notice the missing downward intonation and pause before where the comma should be. If a lower-level learner listens to the same sentence, will they “hear” the incorrect sentence contour, and know how to fix it?

Pace your Speech By Slowing Down at the Vowels

This is really great advice. In general, for learners of English, it is rarely problems with the consonants of English that lead to misunderstandings; it is the vowels. (There are a few noteable exceptions to this, for example if someone has trouble with the /r/ vs /l/  or /z/ vs. /Z/ vs. /dZ/, etc., but we’re talking in generalities here.) And it does seem to be making the tense/lax distinction in the vowels of English, as well as fully realizing both tones in diphthongs to their full extent that poses a challenge for learners, so the advice for speakers to slow down, emphasize and draw out certain vowels could be quite helpful. The other advice given in the article for public speaking, is also solid.