I’ve been fond of George Mason University’s Speech Accent Archive for a long time, just as a fun and interesting time-waster. It’s a huge collection (336 samples) of people repeating the same sentence in English–with the samples categorized by the speakers’ places of origin. It’s fun to listen to the Brooklyn accents, and (for me) San Diego accents, too. It’s really a resource for linguists and linguistics classes, but quite interesting even as an introduction to the subject.

But this semester I finally had the idea to let students have a look at it, after they had read Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” (written in dialect).

They couldn’t get enough of it! Every student wanted to hear the accent which more nearly reflected her own origin, and they wanted see if they could tell the difference between, for example, Japanese from Kyoto and Japanese from Tokyo. I thought we’d just take a quick look and gone, but we ended up spending over an hour.

The discussion then moved to classifying some of our own accents (the students could immediately identify the Bronx accent, and could tell just as quickly that I’m not a native New Yorker, even though I’ve lived here 20 years). We were able to discuss the influence of race and class on accent, as well as education, mood, and (of course) audience.

If I had thought ahead more, it could have turned into a great assignment, or even a unit, instead of just a one-shot enrichment. But I often end up finding my best teaching moments by accident. I’ll take ’em however I can get ’em!