Does accent on pronunciation create a land of the bland?

EVEN though I’ve never really had a strong accent I’ve always been fascinated by the way one shared language can sound so varied – the fact you can drive 20 miles down the road and speak to people whose voices sound completely different from where you’ve just come from.

But whereas accents, like the football or cricket team we follow, can give us a sense of identity, it seems some people are increasingly concerned about the way they talk and don’t see it as a badge of honour that marks where they come from, but as a hindrance that is holding them back.

Just as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady hoped that repeating “The Rain in Spain stays Mainly in the Plain” would transform her from a cockney flower girl into a well-spoken lady, so more people are taking elocution lessons in a bid to better themselves.

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A study by thetutorpages.com, the UK’s leading private tuition website, suggests that a growing number of anxious Britons are turning to elocution tutors to help them tone down their regional accents and improve the way they speak. The report, Elocution in the new Britain: trends in private tuition, found that the largest number of enquiries came from people living in the West Midlands, with many looking to soften their Black Country accents, followed by London and the South East.

“The main reason why people are turning to elocution lessons is insecurity about jobs and unemployment. People want to try and improve their voice and speaking skills for interviews and presentations in order to get that scarce job or precious promotion,” says Henry Fagg, director of thetutorpages.com.

Last year, the site received over 600 enquiries from people seeking elocution lessons – more than double the number for 2010. But while some regional accents, like Scottish, Yorkshire and Geordie for instance, are often seen as warmer and friendlier, some still dislike the way they sound.

One person from Hull, who describes himself as a “successful businessman”, sought help because he was worried about the impact his accent might have on his two children.

“I feel my children’s speech will deteriorate over the years with me as an example because I have a terrible east Hull accent and it rubs off on the children. I desperately do not want this to happen because being in business I know the importance of speaking well.”

One woman contacted the site, saying: “I am hoping you could help me work on reducing my Yorkshire accent. My accent and voice has always been a real concern and I feel it is time I did something about it.”

Organisations like thetutorpages.com are seeing an increase in the number of people from overseas who are trying to improve their English-speaking voice, as well as a growing number taking private lessons in Chinese.

But Mr Fagg points that although the idea of “Received Pronunciation” does still exist, elocution lessons aren’t about speaking the Queen’s English.

“They aren’t about going back to the days of My Fair Lady, they are more about teaching people not to lose their regional accents but to speak clearly and confidently. It’s perfectly fine to speak with an accent and speak clearly at the same time. The two things shouldn’t be in conflict, it just comes down to good communication.”

Voice expert and author Caroline Goyder believes the surge in demand for elocution lessons isn’t just down to the economic situation. “I think films like The King’s Speech and The Iron Lady where you see voice coaching and shows like The X-Factor, that have voice trainers, have made a difference.

“People now see their voice as another thing to work on in the same way they use a personal trainer to help them stay in shape,” she says.

You might have thought that the plummier the voice the better, but that’s not necessarily the case. The broadcaster Joan Bakewell said this week that she had been told her voice is “too posh” for the BBC. The 78-year-old made the remark while describing how she dropped her Stockport accent in order to fit in better as a student at Cambridge University.

“You can stand out by the way you sound as well as how you look. But it’s not about sounding posh, people like David Cameron and George Osborne have to tone down their accents,” says Goyder.

“For most people it’s not about losing their accent, it’s about speaking clearly and being heard and we seem to be moving towards a more classless, standard English which I think is a good thing.”