Masked Accents and Muffled Sounds: Teaching Behind the Mask

Woman holds books and smiles with face mask on

My first introduction in front of students in an American college classroom went like this: “I am Nancy Achiaa Frimpong, a Ghanaian who writes British English and has an accent just like everybody else in the world. So, when I speak and you have difficulty understanding me, stop me in my tracks and I will gladly repeat myself—or come see me privately and we will work something out. Do not be afraid or hesitate to ask me to repeat myself, because this is the first time you are meeting me, and you are not accustomed to the way I speak.” Despite this openness about my accent, I had one student comment about their inability to understand or hear me because the mask made the online portion of hybrid teaching impossible for them. This comment reinforced my awareness of language varieties and particularly the concept of “accent,” which, in the words of Rosina Lippi-Green, “is a loose reference to a specific way of speaking.” But more importantly, it made me reflect on the question, How do masks reshape teachers’ ways of speaking?

Teachers’ language skills have heightened throughout the pandemic; most likely related to the protocol of wearing a mask. Instructors have been asked by their institutions to adapt their teaching practices to multiple modes of teaching (face-to-face, hybrid, online), all while fostering inclusive learning and teaching. While wearing a mask may not be a concern for students and teachers in online classes, for hybrid and face-to-face modes, mask wearing is non-negotiable. Unfortunately, this practice presents a challenge for effective pedagogical communication for both native and non-native English speakers in the college classroom.

Upon reflection, I have realized that years of teaching outside of my linguistic home has allowed me to develop strategies to foster an accent-inclusive classroom. While many can use these tips in the era of mask-wearing, I believe they will remain useful for anyone working with linguistically diverse student populations.

Make accents explicit

I have always been transparent with my students about the way I speak. One of the tenets of inclusive pedagogy is that the instructor acknowledges the social identities of their students and themselves as significant to shaping teaching and learning in order to devise equitable support strategies and accessibility to learning materials. For this reason, as an international graduate student and teaching assistant, I have always been upfront about how I speak and write with my students. I have done this in all my classes, and I see the audible and physical relief and smiles on my students’ faces every time. Since the pandemic, I have also intermittently asked my students during class sessions whether they could hear and understand me—the answer was almost always in the affirmative

Foreground visuals and redundant communication

I also incorporate numerous visuals, PowerPoints, and written texts in my classroom. One of my teaching mantras is that if you cannot hear me, you can read it. As much as possible, I strive to make my teaching materials accessible to all students and not leave any student behind in regard to course content. Sometimes this means my PowerPoint slides are text-heavy and my speech is repetitive, as I try to say the same thing in different ways. However, this method prioritizes inclusivity and equity while ensuring that all important points and instructions are put into writing.

Work on your own comprehension skills

I am not only conscious about my language skills but my students’ as well. Over my teaching career, I have taught international students in my classroom, and while I have never asked any of my students to speak in a certain way, I have ensured they do not feel offended or discriminated against if I ask them to repeat what they say. Although so far, I have only needed students to repeat themselves when they speak too quietly for me to hear. This nevertheless opens up a conversation about the importance of recognizing that we are all accustomed to certain modes of listening and sometimes we need a little help to understand our interlocutors.

Furthermore, I actively pursue opportunities to learn about how others speak. For example, I watch foreign movies to acquaint myself with other speech communities and ways of speaking, and to better understand the stress in words and intonations. If movies aren’t your thing, try music or other popular culture texts. This can help you experience how people speak your language with the rules of their language.

How to introduce accents in the classroom

If you have a difficulty introducing this concept in your classroom, here is Trevor Noah’s standup comedy titled “Don’t Lose Your Accent / Learning Accents.” He offers some great points such as, “An accent is not a measurement of intelligence. An accent is just somebody speaking your language with the rules of theirs.”

Being aware of my accent and my students’ relationship to this has allowed me to foreground my identity and facilitate student’s introspection of their own identity in the classroom. I was able to introduce the myth of “non-accents” among native speakers, where speakers belonging to a particular speech community believe they have no accent. Lastly, I realized that instructors and students must be exposed to the concept of accent as a key part of pedagogical practices. Not only do languages and accents form a core part of an individual’s identity, but most classrooms are becoming more diverse and fostering cultural differences. Being aware of these differences is important because it creates an opportunity for open dialogue about who we are and our relationship to one another in the classroom.


Nancy Achiaa Frimpong is a PhD student at Colorado State University. She teaches public speaking, popular culture and communication, and gender and communication. She researches global media discourses and the role of language in postcolonial media systems. Across her research and teaching, she engages with all kinds of texts including film, political discourses/speeches, images, news reports, and literary texts.

Reference

Rosina Lilli-Green, English with an Accent: Language Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2012.