As a Middlesbrough head teacher advises parents to help correct their children's strong Teesside accents, Lisa Salmon asks elocution teachers whether it's important to tackle regional accents, and how parents can do it.
By Lisa Salmon
A regional accent can sometimes be endearing in a child - but it may not always enhance their chances of success in life.
Nevertheless, elocution lessons aren't part of the national curriculum, so any accent smoothing may need to be tackled by parents themselves.
That's certainly what head teacher Carol Walker thought earlier this month when she sent pupils at Middlesbrough's Sacred Heart Primary School home with letters advising parents how to correct their children's Teesside accents.
The letter featured a list of 11 words or phrases which can cause problems with grammar or pronunciation, including the word "Yous", about which Walker explained: "The word you is NEVER a plural."
The head stressed that the aim wasn't to wipe out the Teesside accent, but to teach children standard English and help them avoid being at a disadvantage in later life, especially in the jobs market.
It's a view shared by elocution teachers, who stress that being able to speak clearly when necessary is vital in later life.
Certainly, even Cheryl Cole has found her North East accent to be a barrier to success in America, when TV executives reportedly decided to replace her as a judge on the US version of The X Factor because of fears that US viewers wouldn't understand her Geordie accent.
Robin Wooldridge, who runs the Birmingham School of Elocution (www.schoolofspeech.co.uk), helps people achieve a "more neutral" way of speaking.
He says he sometimes gets calls from parents of children as young as two who don't like the way their child sounds, but he points out that children should be at least seven before elocution lessons are considered.
Wooldridge says a lot of the children who come for elocution lessons have middle-class, professional parents, and are often privately educated.
"I've tried desperately to get established in economically and socially deprived areas, and it just failed," he says.
"I think the problem is that within working-class areas there's little emphasis placed on articulation and speech confidence.
"There seems to be a belief that if children get the right exam results, that's sufficient to get them into a top university or a top job.
"But the interviews are vital - you have to sound confident and articulate, that plays a huge part."
Wooldridge points out that as spoken English isn't part of the national curriculum, speech isn't corrected at school.
"I can sympathise with what the headteacher in Middlesbrough is saying," he says, "and I'm sure a lot of parents will sympathise too, but if you just pick out a few words, I'm not sure it's going to make that much difference."
Wooldridge admits he's in a "constant battle" with parents because they don't know what's the correct way to speak themselves, and he explains: "Very few people know what to do, and in the end they decide it's best to leave it - but when the children start work and need to become the voice for that company, it matters."
He says that while parents can certainly correct some basic speech problems, such as leaving consonants off the end of words, it may be difficult for them to completely change their child's accent themselves, sometimes because they may not have a thorough knowledge of the correct way to speak themselves.
The correct way to say the word 'glass', for example, is with a long 'a', says Wooldridge, but many British people use a short 'a', and he explains: "Children often don't want to say it that way because they think it makes them sound 'posh'."
He says the idea of accent coaching is to teach what's correct - not to completely replace original speech patterns with one default way of speaking, but to show how to speak in a clear voice when the person wants/needs to.
"Ultimately, it's about confidence," he says.
"If you can get the confidence to stand up and speak publicly, knowing full well that you're articulate, clear and what you're saying can be understood, that's marvellous.
"The way you sell yourself is through your voice."
Andre Gottshalk, who runs the websites Elocutionlessonsforkids.co.uk and AccentSoftening.com, highlights the fact that a child's accent immediately informs listeners about their social background, and he points out: "While the concept of class isn't as important as it once was, it's still the case that one is easily stereotyped."
He says children often use abbreviation and slang, and when a young person is entering work life, bad speaking habits have been formed, and this can make it more difficult for them to fit in when studying for a university degree or pursuing a professional career.
Speaking properly, he says, is to have a clear diction, and to know how to enunciate vowels, consonants and other sounds well.
The idea, he says, is to speak with a neutral accent, and to understand nuances such as intonation and rhythm, without using slang, abbreviations and colloquial expressions.
"This then makes it possible to communicate in a much more dynamic and persuasive manner," he explains.
Gottshalk also points out that speaking properly can help with spelling, as a child is much more attuned to identifying how certain sounds are spelt. This may be particularly useful for children who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia, he says.
If parents don't want to/can't afford to pay for private elocution lessons for their child (www.elocutionlessonsforkids.co.uk online lessons start from £35 per hour), repeating the correct way to say particular words is helpful, says Gottshalk.
"Speaking with a neutral accent requires forming a new speaking habit," he says, "so repetition is very important."
He stresses that children pick things up very quickly, so parents don't have to annoy them with constant enunciation practice, and suggests another idea is for parents to listen to BBC Radio Four programmes, so their child subconsciously learns how to speak properly.
Ask the expert Q: "My 13-year-old son's room is so untidy that he loses everything, including his school books, tries to get me to find them, and then says it's my fault he can't do his homework. How can I persuade him to take better care of his belongings?"
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