What is the difference between accent and pronunciation?

More and more, we have requests to include or to address the reality of various accents, or to have a certain pronunciation in our conversation classes. I believe that it's a good idea to clarify our position and address any preconceived notions out there.

As this subject is valid for several languages, we will focus on English and a little further on French. I think similar conclusions can be drawn for Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages.

When a client tells us that one of the learning goals is to "speak like an English speaker", what does that mean?

Of course, we understand that there are elements of fluidity, vocabulary, idioms, and sentence structures in this remark. But there are also elements of accent and pronunciation. We often see Francophones who speak English very well wanting to have a more "English" accent.

But what does having an "English" accent mean? English is an official language in 67 different countries (see), of which here are some of the more "popular" accents in North America.

  • British accent.

  • Irish accent.

  • Scottish accent.

  • Australian accent.

  • New Zealand accent.

  • South African accent.

  • Indian accent.

  • Caribbean accent.

All these regions have a particular way of pronouncing certain words and will have certain idioms of their own. To complicate matters, there are also 'regionalisms'. English spoken in New York is not the same as spoken in Atlanta.

The same goes for English spoken in Kingston (Jamaica) and that spoken in Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago). And so on.

Generally, when we talk about an "English" accent here in North America, we are referring to the Canadian-English accent or the general accent of the United States. This accent is neutral (at least, to our ears) and serves as a foundation in the teaching of English as a second language.

However, with our little preamble, there are several ways of speaking English. And having a "French" or other accent is not a problem, as long as you can make yourself understood by your interlocutors.

Another important component that we work on in our language courses is pronunciation. For example, we address certain consonant and vowel sounds:

  • The "th" sounds.

  • The "s" at the end of words and verbs.

  • The different sounds of past tense verbs ending in "ed".

  • Etc.

To an English speaker, certain nuances that may not be perceived by a francophone, can make all the difference as to tense or, when an action took place.

But there is a difference between being able to communicate well in the target language -- using the appropriate sounds, reducing pronunciation errors, and addressing/isolating a specific or regional accent.

Learning the different accents of another language is a specialty. You can see some videos on YouTube that show the different accents used in some movies by famous actors (see). A trainer can help you work on aspects of the phonetics of a language or accent, how to make a nasal sound, the place or position of the tongue in the mouth to produce a certain sound, the position of your jaw when talking, etc. Working on accents is a much more physical discipline than one might imagine.

A few years ago, we had a French-speaking oratory expert, and all the classes were face-to-face because the postural element was very important in her training.

The emphasis at Langage d'ici is to get you to speak your target language as quickly and clearly as possible. We are aiming for "neutral" Canadian and/or American English. If you speak very well but with a French accent, there is no real problem.

The other side of this reality is in listening comprehension. We talked about the accent during speaking, but we also have learners who come with specific needs, this time, at the level of the "Quebec" accent. Many of these clients are Europeans and have an excellent level of French, but since they live in Quebec and the French here has many peculiarities, they feel lost.

The French used in Quebec is indeed different from that used in France. Our idioms are sometimes very different, our vocabulary is also unique, sometimes in a funny way. Some words exist in France as well as in Quebec, but they have a different meanings. An example? The word "cartable". In France, it is used for "sac à dos" or "sac d'école". While in Quebec, the word "cartable" represents a "classeur" in France.

The pronunciation of some words is also very different. Some of our abbreviations are very pronounced, such as "chu" for "Je suis" used as "chu tanné" or "s'ton" for "c'est ton" used as "s'ton char". To get acquainted with these different language levels in Quebec, there are several resources available.

One that I like a lot is the author Michel Tremblay who wrote the spoken Quebecois in plays and books. Here is an example.

There are also movie classics like Bon Cop, Bad Cop. A very good film for Quebec accents. Online radio stations also provide an opportunity to listen to a more familiar level of French. Generally, radio stations talking about sports will be informal, including slang and local jargon. They will be preferable to those speaking about cultures or businesses which generally use neutral or international French. And of course, there are language courses which help to sort things out and guide the learner in this world of effective communication.

But remember; while having an accent is normal, good pronunciation is key to being understood in the target language.

If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me.