Juliet Dunlop: Comprehension test we need to pass

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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It’s funny isn’t it, how most of us hate the sound of our own voice? It’s a bit like catching a glimpse of yourself in the mirror on a bad day and wondering, “Who the devil is that?”

It’s you alright, unless someone bearing a remarkable likeness has broken into the house – which is unlikely – only somehow it’s not the “you” that you were expecting.

That’s what hearing your own voice, really hearing it, is like. No-one sounds like they think they sound. Our voices are usually higher, squeakier and thinner. (There are exceptions, of course, but we can’t all sound like Mariella Frostrup or James Mason.) Words spill out too quickly or not quickly enough. There are ums and aws and gaps and stumbles. Speech may not always delight the ear. I’m sure I’m not alone in recording a cheerful greeting on the answering machine only to wipe it out with a shudder and I speak as someone who has talked for a living.

But the point is, we all have to go out into the world with the voice – and crucially, the accent – we possess (unless it is elocuted out of you) and hope that on the whole, we are understood. Imagine how you would feel then if you were told that actually, no-one can understand a word you are saying, and not only on your answering machine. You’d be insulted to say the least after managing perfectly well up until then. But it does happen – even in this age of greater regional diversity – and it annoys the hell out of people when it does. To criticise someone’s accent is really a no-go area.

Take this week. A teacher who hails from the wild North – Cumbria, to be precise – has apparently been told by school inspectors in deepest, leafy Berkshire to tone down her accent. She has been told to try to sound “more southern” by Ofsted, which seems to think that the academic prospects of the young, eager, sponge-like minds in her charge may be com­promised by her flat, northern vowels.

No names have been revealed but the teacher in question isn’t happy and neither is her union, the NASUWT. “You could write it off as humorous at first sight – but the more you think about it the more it should make your blood boil and should stagger you,” said union official Paul Watkins. “If you’d said it about a Welsh accent or ethnic minority group, you would be accused of being racist.”

I’m not sure that this story does make my blood boil; it certainly doesn’t “stagger” me. It is possible that some of the pupils at the school may not have experienced the full force of a northern accent before and that they are genuinely perplexed. They have a right to understand their teacher, just as their teacher has every right to continue to speak with her Cumbrian accent. Only the reality is that some accents are just easier to follow than others. That’s not a racist comment, just a fact of life.

Now, most Scots would like to think that our accents travel pretty well. Unlike a Liverpudlian or West Country drawl, we are more difficult to pigeon-hole. There’s less baggage somehow, and a Scottish accent is – of course it is – perfectly clear and easy to understand. I’d like to think you can take it anywhere, only not to “Barth”; “Bath” however, is fine. But then, one man’s loch is another man’s lock and Wales and whales are the same thing for most people. Who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong?

Perhaps we are all just a little bit too touchy about these things. Certainly, life would be boring, not to say odd, if we all sounded similar – like some perfectly proper speaking clock. Our rich and diverse accents should be celebrated – even if we don’t always appreciate them ourselves.

While others may even poke fun, in the end all that really matters is being understood. In a classroom that’s pretty important. Sometimes you just have to listen to that stranger in the room; the voice that sounds nothing like you, the one that other people hear, and make a few minor adjustments. That’s not bullying or racism. But it shouldn’t be about sounding “southern” or “northern” either, only clear. There’s nowt, or even nofink, wrong with that.