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Is my accent hurting my IELTS score

Published on August 3, 2019

This blog is about accents, but first I’d like to show you a few number IELTS has more than 1200 testing locations across the globe. You can find test centres in more than 140 countries. IELTS is recognized in more than 10,000 organisations worldwide. Finally, it’s the test with the highest standards for rating the English language. Now, let’s think about that. You can go to almost any country in any corner of the world to do an IELTS test. You can also use your IELTS mark in thousands of applications in these places. So, my question is this – is IELTS looking for just one “perfect” English accent? In other words, do you need a specific accent if you want a Band 9 score? The answer is NO.

A perfect accent would be convenient for people who mark the test. But how can IELTS have just one accent with such a globalized test? Even if there was just one standard accent, which accent would be best? Compare Hong Kong English with English from Florida. Think about someone with a Scottish accent and someone with a Singaporean English accent. They’re all very different. Here are four considerations about how your accent could affect your IELTS band score.

World English

Did you know there are more second language speakers of English than first language speakers? With that in mind, more people learn English than have English as their mother tongue. Because of this and because it is a global test, many have termed IELTS a “World English” test. World English basically means that English belongs to the whole world and has developed across many countries and cultures. This is especially true when we think of accents. As mentioned above, just compare a Singaporean English speaker to a Floridian English speaker. However, the rule when IELTS rates your score is not about where your accent is from, but how clearly the examiner can understand you. Is your “World English” accent clear?

Intelligibility

Intelligibility is an academic word that means the ability to understand someone or something. As we saw above, a key part of your speaking grade is being understood. The key part of intelligibility in speaking is to use your voice to communicate meaning. If you have a strong accent but the examiner understands you perfectly, you will score high. However, if the examiner has trouble because you mis-pronounce words and have unusual stress patterns in your sentences, you will probably get a lower score. This is another reason everyone should be sure to practice lots of speaking with others before your IELTS test. It’s about successful communication, not sounding like you’re from New York or London.

Be natural

In my experience with IELTS test takers, some people become very nervous about their accent. To make-up for this, test takers might speak very loudly, quickly, slowly, or strongly. Speaking in this way might be good vocal exercise, but it can make it difficult for others to understand you. A tip I tell all those who are preparing is to “be relaxed and be natural”. Imagine you are speaking with a friend in a coffee shop. Speak at a normal speed. Speak so others can understand you. Don’t distract yourself by over-thinking your accent.

Airport English analogy

As you may know, an analogy is using one thing to explain another. An analogy I like to use when explaining accents on the IELTS test is airports. Airports work well as a comparison. Let me explain. Just like IELTS, there are thousands and thousands of them around the world. The language used at airports is most commonly English. Airport English reaches across many cultures and many countries to deliver specific and important messages. As you travel from place to place, the messages are always clear and in English, but the accents change. Different accents producing the same accurate English. So, the next time you think that your accent is a negative thing and it hurts your English, just think of how successful airport English is.

After reading this blog post, you might get the idea that pronunciation isn’t too important. That is far from the truth. Remember, it takes the average language learner thousands of practice hours before their speech is clear and precise. Many expert English language learners still confuse words like ship & sheep, lice & rice, and Jung and young. So, stay aware of speaking clearly and be an English language expert. And lastly, be proud of your accent! English belongs to all of us.