So you’re preparing for your IELTS speaking test. You’ve practiced so much that you’re dreaming about test day. You’ve researched everything you can think of about the speaking test and now you’re curious about whether or not your accent will be a problem for your band score.
The short answer is no. Your accent does not matter in the IELTS speaking test. The IELTS examiner does not assess your score based on your accent. However, you should be careful to speak in a clear voice and enunciate your words. That way the examiner can understand what you’re saying.
What matters for the speaking test?
So, if your accent doesn’t matter, what does?
I’m glad you asked! Your speaking test is graded on four main criteria.
- Fluency & Coherence
- Lexical Resource
- Grammatical Range and Accuracy
Each of these is weighted equally towards your overall speaking band score. This means that all four categories contribute an equal 25% towards the final speaking score. While pronunciation is at least one fourth of your score (we’ll look at how pronunciation is different from your accent later), a full 75% of your score comes from the other three categories.
So it’s important that you know and understand the examiner’s expectations. There are multiple pieces that contribute to your band score, if you don’t have a firm understanding of them then it will be difficult to achieve your required band score come test day.
Fluency & Coherence
As mentioned above, it’s important to thoroughly know and understand the expectations the examiner will have for you. What better place to gain an understanding of these expectations than from IELTS itself? The organizations that administer the IELTS test have graciously provided candidates with an in depth rubric to help them understand how the speaking test is scored. (You can find this rubric here.)
Let’s take a look at what they have to say for fluency & coherence:
- Band 9
- speaks fluently with only rare repetition or self-correction; any hesitation is content-related rather than to find words or grammar
- speaks coherently with fully appropriate cohesive features
- develops topics fully and appropriately
- Band 7
- speaks at length without noticeable effort or loss of coherence
- may demonstrate language-related hesitation at times, or some repetition and/or self-correction
- uses a range of connectives and discourse markers with some flexibility
Above you can see the requirements to achieve a band 9 and 7 for the fluency & coherence category.
There are three main aspects to this category. Candidates must:
- Speak at length
- Avoid hesitation & repetition
- Present fully developed & logically ordered ideas using cohesive features
Speaking at length should be self-explanatory and, actually, it ties in with the rest of the expectations. The examiner is going to be looking for you to answer the questions they ask without significant pauses. You should try to avoid long pauses wherever necessary.
In order to do this, there are a few strategies you can use to avoid pauses.
Repeat the question. If the examiner asks you, “How often is the weather cold where you come from?”
You could say, “How often does it get cold in (insert your country here)? That’s a great question, as it’s winter right now!”
Repeating the question does two things.
- It gives you some extra time to organize an answer to the question in your head.
- You create an opportunity to paraphrase.
The extra couple of seconds it takes you to paraphrase their question can be very valuable for you. These few seconds give you an opportunity to think up and organize a good answer to whatever you’ve been asked.
Paraphrasing is another expectation the examiner will have for you, so being able to have strategies that do double duty like that are invaluable to you as a speaking test candidate.
Another strategy is to comment on the question you were asked. If the examiner asks you, “What are the advantages and disadvantages of intensive training for young sports people?”
You might say, “That’s a very interesting question! Sports can be very physically and mentally demanding. I think that…”
This is similar to the last strategy, but instead of paraphrasing you are commenting on the question. This allows you to avoid pauses as well. These types of strategies are very easy to implement. It doesn’t take a lot of mental effort to say something is interesting or to slightly paraphrase a question.
Lexical resource is a fancy way to describe your vocabulary. Basically, this band descriptor refers to your range of vocabulary. Here are the examiner’s expectations:
- Band 9
- uses vocabulary with full flexibility and precision in all topics
- uses idiomatic language naturally and accurately
- Band 7
- uses vocabulary resource flexibly to discuss a variety of topics
- uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary and shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices
- uses paraphrase effectively
Fundamentally, we can break down the expectations into three categories:
- Use words and phrases appropriately
- Use idioms and collocations
Anyone who has spent time learning a foreign language has run into this common situation. You are speaking to someone and you use a word you learned recently, but they have no idea what you’re saying! You find out that the word you’re trying to use has a completely different use or meaning than the one you thought it did!
I’m sure this has happened to all of us. I know it’s happened to me while speaking Japanese more than once! At least, it did before I changed the way I tried to learn new words. These days, I learn my vocabulary in context. Learning vocabulary in context gives you vital information concerning the word you’re trying to learn. When you learn vocabulary in context, you learn not only what the word means, but also the way native English speakers use the word in every day speech.
If you’re not sure what ‘in context’ means, I wrote an entire article about learning new vocabulary in context. You can check it out here.
You want to make sure that you’re using words correctly. All words have an appropriate usage and sometimes that usage may be different than the one you thought it had. The examiner will be listening for you to use complex vocabulary accurately. It isn’t enough to merely utter a fancy word. You need to be using them correctly as well.
In order to vary your word choice during the speaking test, you should keep synonyms in mind. A synonym is a word that has a very similar meaning to another word.
So if you’re talking to the examiner about cold weather, what are some synonyms for the word ‘cold’?
- sweater weather
Above is a list of 5 possible synonyms for the word ‘cold’. You might notice that you can’t directly replace some of these words with the word ‘cold’. For example:
- I’m cold!
- I’m freezing!
- I’m chilly!
- I’m icy!
- I’m sweater weather!
- I’m arctic!
This is what I meant above by using words properly in context. You can’t just learn a word by memorizing it from a word list. Synonyms mean similar things, but they don’t mean the exact same thing.You need to understand what the word means and how to use it. This means the appropriate situations to use the word.
Synonyms are vital for your success on the IELTS speaking test. If you use synonyms, you avoid repeating yourself by using the same word over and over again. This also fulfills the lexical resource requirement by getting you to use more complex words and phrases than the simple English usually contained in the questions.
If you’re interested in learning more about synonyms, you can check out my article “How to learn synonyms” here.
Your usage of idioms and collocations are another factor the examiner will consider.
Idioms are short phrases that have a specific meaning, even though the words that make up the idiom often have a completely different literal meaning. For example:
- It’s raining cats and dogs! (It’s raining heavily.)
- Get (something) off your chest. (Reveal something that is upsetting you.)
- Feel under the weather. (Feel ill.)
- Let the cat out of the bag. (Reveal a secret.)
- Break a leg. (Good luck.)
This is just a small list of idioms in English. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of these in English. You can use them to spice up your speaking (and in more informal situations your writing).
If you’re interested in a book that can help you learn idioms, you can check out my review of the book ‘Work on your Idioms’ here.
A collocation is a grouping of words that appear together often in English. When you use collocations, your listener or reader is expecting the other word(s) to appear after the first one. You can think of them like sets of words. Here are a few common collocations:
- Ready! Set! Go!
- get on
- get in
- computer science
- electrical engineering
- get married
- fast food
- excruciating pain
- male and female
There is an immense number of collocations in English. You find them used in every context and situation under the sun. It’s best not to try to explicitly learn collocations. They don’t have any special meanings in English like idioms do. Instead, if you don’t use collocations, your English will sound awkward and strange.
The reasons why was stated above. Your listener or reader is expecting you to say the other words in the collocation. If you don’t, you are violating their expectation and it ends up sounding strange.
As we briefly discussed above, paraphrasing is when you take something previously stated and restate it in your own words. This is useful for a variety of reasons during your speaking test. Most of all, it gives you an opportunity to showcase new vocabulary. There are a variety of strategies available to you for paraphrasing:
Of course, we have the previously stated strategy. You can paraphrase the examiner’s questions to buy yourself some time and implement paraphrasing into your answers.
However, you can also paraphrase yourself. If, while answering the question, you mention something unique to your culture or country, you can paraphrase yourself to make the meaning of what you’re saying clear to the examiner. Remember the goal of the speaking test is to evaluate your English abilities in a conversational environment this means that you should treat your discussion with the examiner as you would any other conversation with a native English speaker.
You don’t have to be nervous or afraid. You should be relaxed, happy, and open to having a positive and friendly discussion with someone new.
So what do I mean when I say that you should paraphrase yourself?
Let’s look at an example:
The examiner asks you about your local cuisine. You respond by saying, “In Japan, onigiri is a popular food. Do you know about onigiri? It’s a rice ball wrapped in sea weed. Sometimes it has a fish or meat filing. It’s delicious!”
Do you see what you just did? You paraphrased “onigiri”. You can do this with any word or topic that you feel your listener may be unfamiliar with. You should make liberal use of paraphrasing when appropriate. It offers a good opportunity to introduce more complex vocabulary, give you some extra time to structure your answer, and to top it all off, it will positively contribute to your overall band score. You want to take advantage of opportunities like this because they’ll contribute immensely to the quality of your answers.
Grammatical Range and Accuracy
This category should be the most straight forward of them all. We all know what it means to be grammatically accurate. You want to avoid making grammar mistakes, while at the same time showcasing a range of complex and accurate grammatical structures. Let’s take a look at what that looks like:
- Band 9
- uses a full range of structures naturally and appropriately produces consistently accurate structures apart from ‘slips’
- characteristic of native speaker speech
- Band 7
- uses a range of complex structures with some flexibility
- frequently produces error-free sentences, though some grammatical mistakes persist
The grammar band descriptor is the most simple and straight forward to understand of all the descriptors. Fundamentally, you are being asked to do two things:
- Produce error free sentences
- Use complex grammar
It should be obvious what it means to “produce error free sentences”, but what is ‘complex grammar’? Basically, the examiner is expecting you to avoid, whenever possible, speaking in simple sentences.
A simple sentence is a basic Subject Verb Object (SVO) sentence.
- I like pizza.
This is the most basic way to communicate in English. You want to avoid long strings of simple sentences because it not only sounds boring to your listener, but also does not allow you to showcase complex grammatical structures or logically present your ideas.
- I like pizza. It is delicious. I eat pizza every day. My doctor tells me to stop. I love pizza too much.
Doesn’t that sound a bit robotic? It also doesn’t logically order your ideas, or let your listener know the relationship between the things you’re saying. That’s why it’s important to make use of signposting language and cohesive devices. How could you restate the answer above to be better? Take a moment to try and come up with something by yourself. Here’s what I think:
- I like pizza because it’s delicious. In fact, I eat pizza every day, but my doctor tells me to stop. However, I love pizza too much.
Words like conjunctions, relative pronouns, and various adverbs (therefore, however, whatsoever) can be used to logically order and present your ideas, while organizing them into complex grammatical structures.
This skill will be vital to your success on the IELTS speaking test.
Last, but not least, we have pronunciation. Of course, being able to pronounce English words effectively is important to achieve your desired band score. If the examiner cannot understand what you’re saying, it will negatively impact your overall score. Here’s what the examiner will be looking for on test day:
- Band 9
- uses a full range of pronunciation features with precision and subtlety
- sustains flexible use of features throughout
- is effortless to understand
- Band 8
- uses a wide range of pronunciation features
- sustains flexible use of features, with only occasional lapses
- is easy to understand throughout; L1 accent has minimal effect on intelligibility
- Band 7
- shows all the positive features of Band 6 and some, but not all, of the positive features of Band 8
- Band 6
- uses a range of pronunciation features with mixed control
- shows some effective use of features but this is not sustained
- can generally be understood throughout, though mispronunciation of individual words or sounds reduces clarity at times
We’ll look more closely at the individual components of pronunciation below, but before we do that let’s identify the main marking criteria.
- Use a wide range of pronunciation features
- Avoid mispronunciation
- Maintain clarity
The eagle eyed among you will have seen a reference to L1 accent in the band 8 descriptor. You may be wondering if that means that your accent actually does matter for the IELTS speaking test.
The only thing that matters is that your accent does not interfere with your pronunciation. You will be completely fine if your pronunciation remains clear and free from errors. Native speakers have hundreds of different accents and ways of pronouncing English words. If you add global English accents, that number grows even larger. It would be unfair for the IELTS test to single out any specific accent as superior to all others and award points based on that alone.
This is why you shouldn’t worry about your accent during the test. There are more important things to be concerned about. What are those things? I’m glad you asked.
How is pronunciation different from accent?
While they may be related, your accent is not pronunciation and vice versa. They can only influence one another. There is a lot that goes into proper pronunciation of English and in this section of the article we’re going to pick apart exactly what those components are.
English is a stressed language. And no, we don’t mean that English works too hard or needs a vacation. When we call a language stressed we’re talking about word emphasis. You probably noticed that English words have different emphasis on different syllables.
A syllable is a word broken up into pieces based on the number of vowel sounds it has.
When a word has multiple syllables, one of these syllables receives stress.
It’s important to stress English words correctly because your listener will find it hard to understand what you’re saying when you place stress in the wrong position. In some instances, it can even change the meaning of the word.
In English, there exists some word pairs where the only difference between the two words is where the stress is placed in each word. If the stress is placed first in these words, you are using a noun. If the stress is placed second, you are using a verb.
- re-cord (noun)
- re-cord (verb)
- pro-duce (noun)
- pro-duce (verb)
Stressing the wrong places in words can lead you to sounding odd or incoherent. Let’s look at an example. This will be our phrase:
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
First let’s look at an example of bad pronunciation.
You can hear how weird that sounds. There is a lot of hesitation (mostly because I’m not used to pronouncing words like that!) and it’s hard to follow what I’m saying. Now, what about good pronunciation?
This time my pronunciation is good. It’s easier to follow what I’m saying. I’m able to speak with proper intonation and it sounds natural. This is what you’re aiming for during your speaking test.
Placing stress naturally is another consideration for the test. Stress is not only present in English words, but it’s also present in English sentences.
We place stress on individual words to emphasize certain information. This could be people, emotions or things. Here are some examples of what I mean:
When we stress different words in a sentence, it places emphasis on those words and can slightly change the meaning of what we’re saying.
Rhythm & Intonation
These features of pronunciation are about the rising and falling of our voice when we speak.
Intonation refers to how our voice sounds when we ask questions or make statements. When you ask a question, your voice rises at the end of the sentence to indicate to the listener that you just asked them something. Conversely, when we make a statement, our voices fall at the end of the sentence. This indicates to the listener that you have finished speaking.
You want to avoid speaking in a monotone because it makes it difficult for your listener to follow what you’re trying to say. You aren’t marking the important aspects of your speech properly and this leads to misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Rhythm is the cadence of your speech, or how you sound while you’re speaking English. We already discussed how English is a stressed language. This means that you should be placing your stress in the appropriate places while talking.
Another consideration is to group words together while speaking. There is a natural way to group words together in a complex sentence that enhances the coherence of that sentence when spoken. If you haphazardly group the words together while speaking, it will be very difficult for the examiner to follow what you’re trying to say.
When I was in University, I loved visiting a particular restaurant near my campus. It served delicious chicken burgers, which I regularly ate.
How do you suppose we would split this sentence while speaking? First try yourself and then look below for my answer.
When I was in University — I loved visiting — a particular restaurant — near my campus — it served — delicious chicken burgers — which I regularly ate.
It would be something like this. You split sentences up on the boundaries of not only punctuation, but also phrases such as noun phrases (delicious chicken burger), prepositional phrases (near my campus), and verb phrases (loved visiting).
One of the most important pronunciation features is to remember to sound natural while speaking. This doesn’t mean you need to speak English perfectly or not make any mistakes!
You should remember to speak English at an even pace. You shouldn’t speak too quickly or too slowly. Both of these situations makes it difficult to follow what you’re trying to say.
Avoid speaking in a monotone and speak clearly. You should try to imitate the speech patterns of native speakers you hear on television, in movies or TV shows, and in every day life. You should naturally be able to pick up on what sounds good and interesting to listen to and what doesn’t. It isn’t a secret or something mysterious. You hear people producing quality English speech every day.
This was a look at not only the role your accent plays in influencing your band score, but we also explored all of the ways to succeed at the IELTS speaking test. You should be clear in the difference between your accent and your pronunciation and how to maximize your band score through proper pronunciation and other strategies.
The IELTS speaking test has many components that you need to effectively balance to achieve your desired band score. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love reading my 10 tips to improve your IELTS speaking band score. You can check them out here.
If you would like to get personalized 1-on-1 coaching, I also offer those services to those who need professional, highly-targeted advice that you can use to improve your speaking abilities today. Please check out my IELTS coaching page or contact me by email for details.