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Accent matters in the speaking test

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Accent matters in the

speaking test

How will having a Thai accent

affect your pronunciation score?

Benz, from Bangkok, asked me about the speaking test in IELTS (International English Language Testing System):

“I read on a website that people doing IELTS shouldn’t worry about having an accent as a candidate’s accent is not evaluated by examiners. Is that true?”

Here’s my reply: In the IELTS speaking test, test takers are assessed in four areas: “Fluency and Coherence,” “Lexical Resource” (the words and phrases used), “Grammatical Range and Accuracy” and “Pronunciation.” An accent can definitely affect a candidate’s score for “Pronunciation.”


Let’s define a couple of terms:

·          Pronunciation refers to the way a word or a language is usually spoken, or the manner in which an individual says a word.

·          “Accent” refers to the way in which people pronounce words in a particular area, country or social group. Individuals and groups can say words in different ways, depending on factors such as:
          the area in which they grew up;
          the area in which they now live;
          speech defects;
          ethnic groups (e.g., Thai);
          social classes; and

The official IELTS website states that pronunciation scores relate to a candidate’s “ability to produce comprehensible speech to fulfil the speaking test requirements. The key indicators will be the amount of strain caused to the listener, the amount of the speech which is unintelligible, and the noticeability of L1 [native language] influence.”
(See .)

To put it simply, examiners assess how easy it is to understand test takers. The easier the examiner can understand the candidates, the higher the score the candidates receive for pronunciation.

Marking scheme

This is clearly shown in my simplified version of the official scoring scheme for pronunciation in the speaking test:

·          Band 1: Any English that the test taker tries to produce is impossible to understand.
·          Band 2: The candidate’s English is often impossible to understand as pronunciation is so poor.
·          Band 3: The test taker’s pronunciation shows some of the features of Band 2 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 4.
·          Band 4: Although the candidate uses a limited range of pronunciation features, his or her overall control of spoken English is poor. There are often pronunciation errors that make it difficult for the examiner to understand what the candidate is trying to say.
·          Band 5: The test taker’s pronunciation shows all the positive features of Band 4 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 6.
·          Band 6: The candidate uses a range of pronunciation features with mixed control, and can only produce some pronunciation features effectively for a short while. Although individual words or sounds are occasionally pronounced incorrectly, causing brief difficulty for the examiner, the candidate can generally be understood throughout the test.
·          Band 7: The test taker’s pronunciation shows all the positive features of Band 6 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 8.
·          Band 8: The candidate uses a wide range of features
of spoken English with only occasional errors. The test taker is easy to understand throughout the test (even if there’s an accent from his or her first language).
·          Band 9: The test taker uses a full range of pronunciation features with great precision and skill. The examiner can understand the candidate without any effort.
Visit to see the public version of the grading scheme. Always use the official version to estimate your own speaking test score.

Effect of Thai accent
The phrase given in the official IELTS website“noticeability of L1 influence” – refers to how candidates’ native language interferes with their ability to speak understandable English. This interference may make it difficult for an examiner to understand what’s being said.
Here are some of the more common features of a Thai accent that can cause problems for native speakers of English who are listening to them:
·          Stress on the final syllable of words.
For example, it’s common for Thai speakers of
English to say com-pu-TER instead of com-PU-ter, and cof-FEE instead of COF-fee.
·          Problems in pronouncing certain final consonants and consonant clusters.
For example, cen-tral becomes cen-tan, smoke becomes sa-moke, and ap-ple becomes ab-bern.
·          A staccato effect. Thais tend to give equal weight and timing to each syllable in the Thai language.
However, when transferred to English, this produces a rather unnatural, staccato effect: a series of short, sharp and separate sounds.
You should be able to see how a strong Thai accent might affect the pronunciation score. For example, a Thai candidate who often mispronounces words, causing difficulty for the examiner, would receive less than band score 6 for pronunciation – maybe a band 5 or 4.
Nevertheless, having an accent is not usually a problem. It’s possible for candidates to speak with a foreign accent and still get a very high mark for pronunciation.
Even if candidates occasionally pronounce words incorrectly, they can still get a band score that’s good enough for entry to most university courses or for migration to another country.

©Copyright David Park 2012. Reproduction in whole or in part,
and in any formwhatsoever,is not permitted without
the prior and express permission of DavidPark.

This article was written by David Park, a highlyexperienced IELTS teacher. Ajarn David teaches at Paradigm Language Institute.

If you have anyquestions about IELTS that you would like Ajarn David to answer, or if you wish todo an IELTS preparation course, write to:


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