Which accent?

I’ve been working on an English pronunciation project recently, and we came up against the age-old (well, not really) question of American (AmE*) vs British (BrE*) English pronunciation. This particular project is required to use BrE, and the standard UK IPA symbols. I realised that if and when I need to create an AmE version, I will need to use a different set of phonetic symbols (notably for vowels), and teach some words in completely different ways. For example, AmE doesn’t really use the sound /ɔ:/ (the first syllable in the British ‘water’), but pronounces a whole lot more r’s than its British counterpart.

This led me to the question of choosing an accent. When you’re about to learn a new language, do you consider which dialect or accent you will be picking up, and will it matter in the future? Can the complete beginner even tell the difference? If you are learning English, should you pick a North American, European, or even Australasian accent? Apparently Canadian is the easiest to understand. If you’re learning French, do you want to speak like a Parisian or a Montrealer?

I know that when I was trying to improve my Cantonese, I preferred a Hong Kong accent to a country accent, and similarly I would rather have a Beijing or Shanghai accent than that of a small town that nobody’s ever heard of.

Of course this may sound like snobbery, but it basically boils down to increasing your chances of being understood. If you do your best to emulate a standard accent, people will be much more likely to understand you. I don’t think it matters if you choose American or British English, or American or European Spanish, as long as you try to learn a dialect that is commonly understood. If you go to a village an learn their particular accent and dialect, not only will you be an anomaly, but it will be much less likely that you will achieve the goal of learning a language – communication.

So if you’re making this sort of decision – just pick an accent and run with it.

*To prevent confusion, I am using American English to mean the standard or General American (GA) accent, and British English to mean a standard accent from England, sometimes referred to as BBC English or Received Pronunciation (RP). Not many people actually speak with either of these accents, but they are taken as a frame of reference. Please don’t leave me angry comments about how I should just call it English. English English is too confusing a term to use. As is Spanish Spanish.