Native vs non-native teachers: Accents and culture

Simon Desmarais – Blog post 1

Over the course of my life, I have devoted a lot of time to learn languages. I come from a small town in Québec, so my first language is French, but since about 2009 I have been living my life mainly in English (as a result of frequent traveling and studying at McGill). I have also spent some time learning Japanese, Korean and Chinese. Even though by linguistic definition I am a L2 speaker of English, I am now at a point where I consider myself even more than near-native: I have a slight accent, but I possess the same language intuition as native speakers.

When I was working in China, I was quite self-conscious of my accent, because in China ‘native speaker-ism’ concerning English is alive and well, and most places are only willing to hire native speakers, so when I was there I was not too open about French and I said that English was my first language, which I wouldn’t really consider a lie, because of my level, but also not the whole truth. Nevertheless, on a more personal level I was also worried about the effect my accent would have on children: would I teach them to pronounce words the wrong way?

 Over the course of my two years over there, I realized a few things. First of all, since my accent is Québécois, and very slight, people usually can’t even detect it or they just brush it off as a Canadian accent. Second, I worked with several teachers from the UK, from all parts of England (Liverpool, Birmingham, Yorkshire) and Scotland. The regional dialects many of those teachers spoke was a lot more non-standard than mine was, compared to American English, the standard by which most Chinese schools want their students to learn English. If I considered my accent to be ‘wrong’, then my colleagues’ accents were even more wrong than mine. Of course, none of our accents were wrong, and they all simply belonged to different varieties of English.

These days, when I think about non-native teaching, I also think about the issue of transmission of culture. This is something I thought about a lot in China. Teaching language is teaching culture, and grammar and linguistic knowledge are but a small part of the language learning experience. Indeed, ideologies, attitudes and ways of thinking are also all inevitably transmitted. A Chinese teacher, with a specific set of values, teaching Chinese, a language shaped by this specific set of values, will therefore be a more ‘coherent package’ than me, with my Western values, teaching Chinese, even if my level of Chinese is as high as the native teacher. I can even apply this to my situation: as someone who grew up within a Québec cultural context, rather than a typical American/English context, like most of my colleagues, I could feel that my cultural references when teaching were different. I’ve only recently begun to think about this, and I’m not certain whether this is a problem or not, but it introduces several questions. Can a non-native teacher acquire knowledge of local culture equal to that of a native speaker? Does transmission of culture affect language learning significantly enough that one can perceive differences between students taught by native and non-native teachers? Does it even matter? I still don’t have the answers, but in my mind those questions certainly complicate the debate.

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2 thoughts on “Native vs non-native teachers: Accents and culture”

  1. Hsinhua Wu:Learning English as a foreign language has been a national craze for years in Taiwan/ China. I am sure you found many unqualified languages schools in this market. Lots of owners of schools and parents don’t have any knowledge of English, the only way they select teachers is to look at their passports and their look (white, and black, Yes! Asian look (ABC) Out!!!). In that case, they have no way to know your English level.

    Second, to most Taiwanese, the primary goal of learning English is to speak like native speakers (not become like native speakers, so they don’t care too much about culture, value.. etc.) and communicate with them. Having a non- native accent is often seen as a failure of learning it and they simply think all native English teachers speak in one accent.

    Third, schools won’t know they should pay you as a native speakers or non-native speakers (normally they are local teachers and lower paid) if you tell them you are francophone who masters English as a native speaker.

    Last, there are more language schools in Taiwan and China focusing on sociolinguistic competence development in a L2 classroom, it is believed it can be taught by either native or non native English teachers from English speaking countries.

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  2. By Wai In Chan

    Your point about accents in relation to native-speakerism is very interesting because I actually experienced the opposite of that when I was teaching in China for two years. English (by the definition) is my L2 also, however, I consider it as one of the languages that is my L1. I actually don’t have an accent when speaking English because I learned it here in Canada when I was young. Therefore, I was hired for the job based on that sole reason aside from my knowledge. However, the interesting thing is, my students and the community around me believed that I was a Chinese speaker judging from my appearance, but when they heard me speak, I became an alien to them. I didn’t have an accent like theirs and I couldn’t speak Mandarin despite being Chinese (I speak Cantonese by the way). So instead of feeling like an outsider among the people who are native speakers, I felt like an outsider within my own country and with my own people. Aside from that, I also experienced some discrimination from my peers at work because I actually have a “Quebecois” way of speaking English and they thought that that distinguished me from being considered a “native speaker”. Therefore, I was neither a native speaker or a non-native speaker.

    And just want to quickly comment on your questions. I believe that when it comes to knowing or teaching about the local culture, it really just depends on how much knowledge a person has acquired about a certain culture regardless of your background. I know plenty of native speakers who were born in Canada who are not informed about the history, cultural traditions or customs of Canada. I also know plenty of people who aren’t native speakers who happen to know a lot about other cultures and countries where they don’t live. Of course, depending on how much you know about a culture will allow you to teach the language better, in my opinion. This is because you can explain to students where words originated from, why certain slang words became the trend, why certain phrases or words are used for courtesy or ceremonial purposes, etc. There is only so much you can teach from a language textbook without the knowledge or experience of the culture related to the language itself.

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