17 July 2010

Pronunciation Norms

It is fascinating for me to spend time in Germany, and thereby to appreciate the different approaches to norms for English pronunciation.

In 'outer circle' places like Singapore and Brunei, where English is used as a second language by many and also as a first language by some, there is an increasing acceptance that a localised style of pronunciation can be acceptable. Note that this is not suggesting bad pronunciation, as there are many speakers in Singapore who speak excellent English but who still sound distinctly Singaporean. Nowadays in Singapore there is a belief that you don't have to immitate people from Britain or the USA all the time, and indeed Singaporeans who try and pretend they come from England can sound a bit ridiculous.

The situation is very different in 'expanding circle' places such as Germany, where English is generally a foreign language and there are alomost no locals who speak it as their first language. Again, this is not connected with standards of pronunciation, as many Germans speak excellent English. But it is still regarded as a foreign language, and in Germany, there is a strong belief in adhering to either a British or American pronunciation norm.

Indeed, in the University of Regensburg, where I am based for the current month, students of linguistics are required to indicate whether they are aiming for a British or American accent, and then any deviation from this target is regarded as an error.

Put another way, people in Singapore and (to some extent) Brunei feel that they have some ownership of the language; they can develop their own styles of pronunciation and also create new words and ways of using words (though of course there is always the pressure to ensure international intelligibility). In contrast, in Germany there is little feeling of ownership of the language. Indeed, some of the staff in Regensburg have said they are flattered if someone mistakes them as coming from England or the USA.

It is really interesting and valuable for me to have the opportunity to appreciate these distinctions and to gain a greater understanding of the different approaches to English around the world.