Native Shmative

Of all areas of English language teaching, pronunciation seems to strike most apprehension and doubt into teachers. This can be even more acute when it comes to discussion around accent – our accents. Nicola recently supervised some research from a teacher about this. This teacher, let’s call her Rachael for the purposes of this post, interviewed her fellow teachers about their feelings and practice regarding their accent and teaching pronunciation. Rachael’s from New Zealand and has experienced some negative reactions to her accent over the years. Not only did the market want a “native” accent, it wanted a UK or US accent. This seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? We’re sure her lovely New Zealand accent is much clearer than many UK or US accents the market was asking for. Nonetheless she found herself reducing her natural accent to the point where it was hardly noticeable; almost unnatural. Maybe you have had this feeling too. This feeling is usually associated with teachers who don’t have English as a first language. However, our personal stance is that we all have accents no matter where we are from; whether we are native or non-native. All of these accents may cause intelligibility issues when using English as an international language. In fact we feel ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ are irrelevant terms today because our common goal should be mutual intelligibility. 

Here are two accounts from teachers we know who live in Barcelona and Ibiza respectively. We’d like to leave their voices as the main focus of this post. As you read their accounts, ask yourself this question; does any of this resonate with you?

Teacher one: Esther 

Estherforblogpost

Not being native and wanting to be a good English teacher have affected me both positively and negatively. It is quite frustrating knowing beforehand that most of people still assume that just because English is your mother tongue the effect on students as teachers is going to be more effective than if you don’t have English as your L1. It absolutely feels as if you were about to run a race and your starting point was 25 meters behind the starting line. 

This is one of the reasons why I decided to work on my pronunciation once I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I took a couple of courses with ‘funny’ names such as “accent reduction” or “sounding native” in a Pronunciation Studio. They actually helped me immensely and they really increased my self-esteem a lot. I could make myself understood better and also sounded more ‘English’. What kind of English? I didn’t know it at that time. 

After teacher training [on the Dip TESOL], I’ve been accepting this ‘role reduction’ and working on my strengths that, as you mentioned [me, Nicola], being a learner of English gives me. Teaching pronunciation from where I am now (I still have the feeling that I don’t sound like I would like to) is better than not doing it. Besides, I perfectly know the difficulties my students might come across and can deal with them better.

Helping students to think and reflect on the amount of accents of the English language has opened the doors to a diversity of sounds and have helped me to work my students’ receptive skills better. I’m sure this will contribute both to their tolerance and also to the acceptance of all of them equally.  My students don’t judge me for not being native, hopefully, their parents and the rest of the people will do it less day by day and I will be able to run the race sharing the same starting line as native teachers.  

Teacher two: Ana

Ana

To be honest, my first “contact” with pron work and the chart was during my training at IH back in 1995 (we had a fantastic NNS pron teacher) but it was after the Diploma Pronunciation modules that I started feeling much more confident about teaching pron. Tutors (Sinead Laffan, Mark McKinnon and Nicola Meldrum) helped me to stop feeling anxious about pron and the chart. It has been basic for me to learn the physicality of the sounds and their relationship. Adrian Underhill’s videos touring the chart have been an incredible tool, too.

I read a lot (Kelly, Underhill, Roach, Kuhl, Jenkins, and many others), I watched all Undehill’s videos and raised my awareness of the sounds and their physical aspect… and just started including pron slots in ALL my lessons (regardless of the age or level) systematically, not only to teach pron but also to train myself in the teaching of pron.

I think there is a misconception that links pronunciation to accents; at least in my context, strong accents are associated with a poor pronunciation… what a mistake! The Diploma has made me see I was so wrong here!

Once you get to pronounce English sounds accurately, to understand and reproduce intonation and speech features, accents are for the language like the dressing of a salad  🙂

As far as I know, there are more NNS teachers than NS English teachers worldwide and we’re all teaching, modelling a foreign language so it’s essential that we all improve our pron skills and then let our learners find their own intelligible accent, languages are for communication and as long as we are able to establish that communication, accents won’t interfere (my L1 is Latin American Spanish, I live in Spain, where there’s a different accent but this difference has never hindered communication).

I did my DRP (an action research project on the DipTESOL) on pronunciation with YLs (vowel sounds for the project but managed to work on all sounds before the course ended). The results fascinated me. I followed advice from you all and Underhill, helped my learners enjoy the physical activity of producing sounds properly, they saw the chart as a tool, a student-friendly approach to the chart (Underhill’s videos are priceless!) made them enjoy working with sounds (anecdote: I once had to leave the classroom for a few minutes and when I came back children were playing, they were copying phonemic transcriptions from their dictionaries for the others to “read/guess” the word).

We, teachers, pass our feelings on; ie, if we like/enjoy something, our learners notice it and frequently end up feeling the same way. I do love pron work and I believe in some way I transmit that feeling and that shows in the final results, my students are improving their pronunciation.  🙂

Being a learner myself has always been a fantastic way of making my students realise English is a language that CAN be learnt. It’s always facilitated rapport building and SS can identify themselves with me when I tell them all the difficulties I had to overcome when I was their age/level.

We know from over ten years of teacher training, this feeling affects many teachers, except those maybe with an RP accent or very neutral US accent. In this post we would like to suggest we ditch this view of accent entirely – whatever your accent, you can be a great pronunciation teacher. So we say: Native shmative! Let’s take Ana’s advice, love our voices and “let our learners find their own intelligible accent”. 

Note: Native Schmative /ˈneɪtɪv ˈʃmeɪtɪv/

For those of you who are not familiar with the ‘schm’ affix, we use it to mock something which we think is a bit ridiculous. For example, there is a film called ‘Football Schmootball’, which mocks the importance of football. The first letter of the word being mocked is replaced by ‘schm’ in the second word, as in ‘Native Schmative’. 

Nicola recently did a podcast for Garnet education which will be out soon here talking about this very subject. She discussed what teachers can do to feel more confident about teaching pronunciation if they have concerns about their accent. The interview was directed at teachers who don’t speak English as a first language, but it is relevant to all teachers. I’d also like to point out that We (Mark and Nicola) are Scottish and so don’t have a standard English accent and we write a blog about teaching English pronunciation…

There are also other interesting blogs on teaching pronunciation, for example, Laura Patsko and Katy Simpson, whose blog you can find here: https://elfpron.wordpress.com/ and Marek Kiczowiak, who trains teachers on how to teach pronunciation in an ELF context https://teflequityadvocates.com/blog/

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