IDP IELTS Blog

IELTS and Accents, What’s the Deal?

3 Jan 2020
IELTS and Accents, What’s the Deal?

This blog is all about IELTS and your accent. Before we get to that, I’d like to give you some background numbers. There’s more than 1200 IELTS centres worldwide. IELTS is in more than 140 countries. It’s accepted by more than 10,000 organizations. And finally, IELTS is known as THE test with the highest standards for rating the language of English. Impressive, eh? But what does this have to do with accents?  

Imagine trying to agree on just one standard accent for all those test centres in all those countries. Sound impossible? Well, you’re right. It is pretty much impossible. It doesn’t matter if your accent is in Singaporean English, Scottish English, or Canadian English – you can still get high scores on the test. The reason is that IELTS doesn’t rate you on knowing and using a “perfect English accent” they rate you on your ability to communicate in English. Let’s look at four reasons why. 

English and Airports 

airport worker with passenger's passport

I teach a lot of IELTS courses and meet a lot of students who are preparing for the test. I often am asked the question, Tony, what accent is on the IELTS?. The best way to explain it is by using the Airport English analogy. An analogy is using one thing to explain another thing. So yes, what English accents are on the IELTS? Airport English! 

Think about it. There are airports in every country and major city around the world. The common language for these airports is English. On top of that, airports are places where accuracy is very important. You must communicate with people like pilots, passengers, immigration officers, and air traffic controllers. There is very little room for mistakes. So all these people are communicating and making things work, but think about how many different accents they have. When you arrive in New Delhi, do you think everyone will have a smooth Hollywood accent? No, they’ll likely have a very clear Indian English accent. 

My point is this, IELTS is like the international airport. Accurate communication is the goal, not the accent you may be speaking or listening to. 

You do you! 

Smiling Man Dancing

You do you basically means to be yourself. I have seen so many test-takers try and change to a different accent. When it comes time for the speaking test, they get nervous and try and modify their accent to sound more British or more American. This can result in strange pronunciation and higher levels of stress. Of course, you should always try and pronounce everything as clearly as possible, but don’t try and be someone you are not. Just relax. Imagine you are speaking English with a friend at a café. This will result in a more fluent conversation and probably a higher score. You do you! 

Intelligibility  

Intelligibility image

Intelligibility is an academic word that means the ability to understand someone or something. We have touched on it above a few times, but I want to emphasize this point. It is not your accent that matters, it is how intelligible your communication in English is. If the examiner understands 99% everything you say, your accent shouldn’t matter.  

Now, it is important to make a note here. There is a difference between pronouncing something wrong and having an accent. Just because you have a Japanese accent, doesn’t mean you won’t lose points for confusing the /l/ sound and the /r/ sound – compare /lice/ and /rice/. And just because you are an Arabic speaker, doesn’t mean you can mispronounce the /b/ and /p/ sounds. Compare /big/ and /pig/. As you can imagine, these could cause some confusion.* 

Try and be sure all words are pronounced correctly so they’re understood. But don’t worry about sounding like the Queen of England! 

World Englishes 

A final point I want to make concerns “World Englishes”. As we already learned above, English is spoken in every country around the world. A few hundred years ago, it might have only belonged to the United Kingdom, but now, English is truly worldwide. In fact, there are now more second language English speakers, than first language English speakers. Some countries may establish a formal style of English, like Standard Australian English, but there is no true global standard. Enter World English. This is the idea that we all use English, but there is not one strict style that all people must follow. Considering World Englishes then, we can think about accents. There is no right or wrong English accent, but simply a “World English Accent”. To keep it simple, IELTS uses World English. 

So remember that on the test, you don’t have to sound perfectly British or American, you just have to relax, be yourself, and exercise your World English accent! Best of luck on test day

*The sounds /l/ and /r/ are commonly confused sounds in Japanese, while /b/ and /p/ are commonly confused for Arabic speakers. 

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