Global English vs. Native English – Does Accent Really Matter?

Have you ever said that you want to sound just like a native English speaker?

Do you feel like you have to eliminate all traces of your native language in order to be understood by other people?

Or do you wonder if it’s really necessary to sound like a native in order to be taken seriously when speaking English?

In this video, we’re going to talk about how English has become a global language of communication.

We’ll discuss global English, also known as world English, or international English, or even global Englishes.

We’ll also talk about “native” English, or the many varieties of English that are spoken by native speakers in dozens of countries where English is a primary or an official language.

We’ll consider that big question: Does accent really matter?

Finally, we’ll talk about which aspects of your accent to focus on if you want to be understood by other non-native English speakers.

You’ll also learn how to speak more clearly so that native English speakers understand you as well.

My goal is to give you food for thought so that you can make better decisions on where to focus your time and energy when you’re thinking about your accent and your pronunciation.

Let’s get started!


What is global English?

First things first, what is global English?

Global English is the variety of English being spoken by non-native speakers who haven’t learned English as a first language.

As I mentioned, global English is also called world English, international English, global Englishes, or world Englishes because of the many, many influences on the language.

Global English often refers to English as a shared language of communication among other non-native English speakers, as well as native speakers.

As a lingua franca or a common tongue, global English doesn’t have any specific cultural reference.

Instead, it’s influenced by all of the characteristics that English speakers bring from their native languages.

You’ll hear people importing grammar structures and vocabulary choices from their native languages, and you’ll also hear how their native accent influences their pronunciation.

Beyond that, you may have learned one variety of English in school, but then you picked up characteristics from other English dialects, either from the media, or your professional environment.

When I lived in Argentina and Chile, I noticed that my friends often learned British English in school, but then they picked up American English from movies, music, TV, and, of course, the internet.

All this to say that global English includes all of the characteristics you pick up from interacting in this very connected world. 🌏

For more perspective on how global English has evolved, check out David Crystal’s work. This presentation on World Englishes is a great place to start.


What is native English?

Now let’s consider this question: What is native English?

When people talk about “native” English, they’re usually referring to how the language is spoken by native speakers whose first language is English in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.

However, there are many, many other places where English is a first language, including South Africa, Nigeria, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, The Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda, and many more.

Then there are many, many other countries where English is an official language like Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, Gambia, Namibia, India, Pakistan, Belize, the Philippines, Singapore, and many, many, many more.

With so many speakers of English all over the world, we have to ask the question, what is native English anyway?

When you say that you want to sound like a native English speaker, what does that even mean?

There are so many regional dialects and local accents of English that have their own unique characteristics.

Sure, when we talk about American English, we’re talking about the general American accent, a more “neutral” version of American English.

However, even when someone speaks general American English, regional influences on their accent still slip in as well as local vocabulary, slang, and other cultural references.


Does your accent in English really matter?

So if there’s no such thing as native English, does your accent in English really matter?

If you’re deciding whether to work on your accent, consider where and with whom you’re speaking English.

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Do you mostly communicate with other non-native speakers from different countries?
  • Do you interact with native English speakers who live in your country or region who are used to how your native language influences your accent in English?
  • Or do you live in a native English speaking country and want to sound more like the people you interact with every day, to fit in better at work or in your community?
  • Do you speak global English?
  • Or would you like to sound more like a native English speaker from a specific region or country?

Because you and your life circumstances are unique, the decision of whether to work on your accent is personal.

If you mostly interact with other non-native English speakers or native speakers who live in your home country or region, then you may be perfectly fine speaking global English.

However, if you live in a native English speaking country, or you regularly work with native English speakers, you may want to speak a specific variety of English in order to be more easily understood.

You may want to fit in better in your adopted country.

Or you may choose to work on an American accent, a Canadian accent, a British accent, an Australian accent, a New Zealand accent, an Irish accent, and so on, because you want to.

The decision is personal and it’s completely yours.

If you decide it IS necessary to work on your accent, remember that clear communication is much more important than perfection.


Which Aspects of Your Accent Should You Work On?

Now let’s talk about what you need to work on in order to be better understood by other non-native English speakers, as well as native English speakers.

According to Jennifer Jenkins, another expert in the field of global English, here’s what you need to work on in order to be understood when using English as a global language of communication.

If you expect to mostly interact with other non-native English speakers or native speakers who have trained their ear to understand non-native accents, that means you can focus on these things:

  • consonants, except for those “th” sounds;
  • consonant clusters in the beginning and middle position;
  • the contrast between long and short vowel sounds, so that it’s clear which one you’re using; and
  • focus word stress, or the word that you’re emphasizing most in a sentence.

But if you also want native English speakers to understand you more easily, that means you also need to work on additional aspects of your accent and pronunciation.

In addition to what we just mentioned, you’ll need to work on the following.

You’ll have to master the “th” sounds (/θ/ and /ð/) in “think” and “then.” They’re an essential part of many English dialects, so you will have to practice them.

You’ll also need to focus on the vowel quality, or the difference between vowel sounds that isn’t related to length. In other words, you’ll need to work on the distinction between short vowel sounds.

Besides that, you’ll need to pay attention to word stress, or emphasizing the right syllable of a word so that people can understand and identify which word you’re using.

You’ll also need to focus on sentence stress, or emphasizing the right syllables of the most important words of your speech.

The contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables gives English its rhythm and melody, which is also called stress-timing.

In order to clearly communicate that contrast between stress and unstressed words and syllables, you’ll also need to work on weak forms and reductions.

For example, you’ll need to use the weak forms of prepositions. Instead of saying “and” as /ænd/, you’re going to say /ən/. Instead of saying “of” as /ʌv/, you’re going to say /əv/.

You’ll also reduce the vowel sound in some syllables to the schwa sound /ə/ or the /ɪ/ sound.

Eventually, you may want to put some finishing touches on your accent by focusing on connected speech or linking.

You may spend some time working on contractions, informal contractions, assimilation, and other aspects of fast speech.

Last but not least, you’ll also need to focus on pitch changes and intonation.

You’ll notice pitch changes when you stress a syllable, as well as at the end of thought groups or sentences, because they communicate additional meaning.


Identify Which Accent You’re Working Towards

In order to focus your time and energy working on your accent on the right things, be sure to identify which accent you’re working towards.

In other countries where English is a primary or official language, some of these features may not be that necessary.

In some varieties of English, stress-timing works differently, because of the influence from other regional languages and dialects. (West African English dialects and Singaporean English are some examples.)

This can also affect the pronunciation of vowel and consonant sounds.

You may have noticed that intonation works differently in other varieties of English, too!

If you decide you want to sound more like a native English speaker, you need to decide which variety of English you’re going to focus on.

For more insights from Jennifer Jenkins, check out this interview that she recorded with Christian from Canguro English.


Why I Focus on Clear Communication and the American Accent

You’ve probably noticed that I talk about all of these aspects of the American accent here on my channel.

Remember, I primarily work with non-native speakers who live in the US or Canada who want to sound more like the people who live in their community.

What I share can help you speak more clearly, be more easily understood, and feel more confident about the way you sound when speaking English.

But if you choose to speak global English instead, some of what I teach may not be that necessary.

As you’ve heard me say again and again, your focus should be on clear communication.


Native English Speakers Need to Adapt to Global English

Remember that if you decide to work on your accent, you’re actually helping out native English speakers.

Native English speakers are frequently criticized for being bad communicators of global English who don’t make an effort to adapt to other varieties of English.

As English becomes more common as a shared language of communication, native English speakers are going to have to adapt and accommodate people who speak English clearly, but differently.

Non-native English speakers already outnumber native speakers.

And this means that accents are going to become even more common.

If you want to be able to communicate effectively in global English, you should spend time listening to other non-native English speakers who may have different influences on their accent in English than you do.


Your Turn

Now that we’ve talked about the differences between global English and native English, leave a comment and let me know which variety of English you’re going to focus on, and why.

Do you think accent matters?

Want my top tips to help you be more easily understood by native English speakers? This free email course will help you sound more natural and speak more clearly.

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