Accent and identity - Are some non-native speaker accents of English ‘better’ than others?

Beinhoff, Bettina

University of Cambridge, Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics, United Kingdom


A person’s identity is determined not only by personal but also by social identity. Social identity includes ethnic identity and originates from group membership which is established by self-categorisation (Tajfel 1978; Turner 1987). Accent and language are considered to be major determinants of social identity although recent research raises doubts as to whether NNS always regard their accent to be part of their identity (Derwing 2003).

There has been a lot of research on the expression of social identity through people’s native speaker (NS) accents and their attitudes towards other NS accents (e.g. Coupland & Bishop 2007; Hiraga 2005). Research on attitudes of non-native speakers (NNS) of English towards their own (ingroup) NNS accent and other (outgroup) accents of English has been largely neglected. Due to the spread of English as the global lingua franca it is increasingly used for communication among NNS; and NNS of English outnumber NS of English by far. In this lingua franca context NNS of English need to establish their social identity through the medium of their L2.

The present study looks at attitudes towards accents, with particular interest in the solidarity dimension (i.e. how much a person identifies with an accent) and status dimension (i.e. how much prestige is assigned to an accent). In a perception task German and Greek NNS of English and southern English NS of English rate German and Greek NNS accents (using accents with stronger and weaker L1 influence for each accent) and southern English and Scottish NS accents of English with respect to the above two dimensions. The speech samples have been constructed so that they highlight specific linguistic traits such as the pronunciation of certain consonants.

The results of this study suggest that there is no straightforward answer as to whether NNS of English identify with their own NNS accent of English. NNS’ attitudes towards accents of English seem to be much more an issue of status rather than of identity, i.e. NNS of English do not necessarily identify with their own cultural group through their L1 accent in English but they rather assign a high status to southern English accents and to some of the NNS accents of English that show a weaker L1 influence. These results explain issues related to linguistic stereotypes and autostereotypes within the context of English as a global language and are the basis for my further research into matters concerning the acceptability of NNS accents.

Coupland, N. & Bishop, H. (2007) Ideologised values for British accents. Journal of Sociolinguistics 11/1, 74-93.

Derwing, T.M. (2003) What do ESL students say about their accents? Canadian Modern Language Review 59/4, 547-566.

Hiraga, Y. (2005) British attitudes towards six varieties of English in the USA and Britain. World Englishes 24/3, 289-308.

Tajfel, H. (1978) Social categorization, social identity and social comparison. In: Tajfel, H. (ed.) Differentiation between Groups. London, 61-76.

Turner, J.C. (1987) Rediscovering the Social Group – A Self-Categorization Theory. London.

Session: Paper session
Attitude 1
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 09