To put it bluntly, elocution is the art of oral delivery, including pronunciation, intonation and gesture. This morning on BBC I heard that a primary school in Essex will be giving elocution classes to its pupils. Elocution in this context can also entail ‘accent reduction’ classes and has quite rightly triggered some controversy; such concerns include that children are forced to sound ‘posh’ or become ‘class-cautious’. It is without any doubt that no speech community is entirely homogenous and every individual speaks their own idiolect; while at the same time they are following the norms of the speech community they belong to. Thus in this respect we should respect every individual for who they are and how they they speak.
Let us now look at the other side of the coin though. What might be the advantages of elocution classes? Here are some of the answers that jumps to my mind. Firstly, it may aid speech intelligibility and raise awareness, as one doesn’t necessarily need to be a phonetician to discover their speech behaviour. Secondly, which I believe is the tip of the iceberg, it can aid reading and spelling (Standard English), especially with some basic training in IPA. Unlike some transparent languages such as Turkish, English has an opaque orthography and elocution classes may be useful particularly for English-speaking pupils in this respect. It can also be useful if you have a regional accent. I remember once when I was teaching English Phonetics course and I was introducing the English phonemic inventory, and that includes the famous interdental fricatives in ‘think’. Later one of my student curiously asked why I was pronouncing ‘think’ with a labiodental fricative- i.e. ‘fink’. That’s where I would say my London accent creeped in uninvitingly. It’s good to know that I can easily accommodate my speech but imagine a 7-year-old child who is not aware of this and spelling ‘think’ as ‘fink’ due to accent transfer. What should teachers do? So whether you think we should encourage or discourage elocution classes altogether is for you to decide….
Whoops I forgot to add the link for this particular news so here it is for those interested: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9044053/Essex-school-gives-pupils-elocution-lessons-to-lose-their-accents.html