Teaching English as a Non-Native Speaker

Hand writing the alphabet on a chalkboard


Patrick Schultz

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Teaching English classes (or any kind of class, for that matter) to an audience of native speakers can be intimidating for graduate instructors who are not native speakers of English. Even if communication as such is not a problem, students will react differently to a non-native speaker when it comes to grading their papers or teaching them about grammar or style. Research shows that undergraduate students tend to associate accented, “broken” English with a lack of qualifications (Rubin & Smith 1991). An easy remedy seems obvious: Give foreign instructors better language training, and everything will be fine. It turns out, however, that students’ perception of the teacher’s language skills is only partly determined by the instructor’s command of grammar, lexicon, and pronunciation: Recent studies in speech perception find that students’ social attitudes strongly influence their impression of how well their teacher speaks English. 

The first and probably most surprising finding is that the teacher’s looks, more specifically the teacher’s perceived ethnicity, influences students’ speech perception. Several studies have described what we might call “dialect hallucination”: Listeners will hear an accent where there is none. In Rubin 1992, for instance, two groups of students were asked to listen to a recorded lecture and were shown a photograph of the speaker. While the recordings were identical, the photos were not: Researchers presented a photo of a Caucasian speaker to one group, a picture of an Asian woman to the other. Even though all participants were exposed to the same recording of unaccented American English, the students who were under the impression that they were listening to an Asian speaker reported significantly more difficulties in understanding the speaker.  The participants heard an accent where there was none, judging from her “foreign” appearance that her speech probably sounded foreign, too. This imagined accent directly influenced their behavior during the lecture: students associated accented speech with lower qualifications and paid less attention to what the speaker had to say.

Now besides the fact that listeners might just imagine an accent based on the looks of their teacher, they will also not treat all accents the same. Students’ evaluation of how “correct” or “pleasant” their non-native teacher speaks varies according to the first language of the teacher: In a study (Lindemann 2005) that asked students to label foreign-accented English according to “correctness” and “pleasantness”, participants generally perceived Western European accents to be more “correct” than varieties from China, India, Russia or Mexico. While some of these findings make sense linguistically since speakers of closely related European languages might find it easier to learn English, the ratings seem influenced by the students’ attitudes towards the specific country. A Mexican accent, for instance, will be quite similar to the Spanish accent of a teacher from Spain; the former, however, is consistently described as less correct and less pleasant than the latter. The table reproduced below presents several similar examples. French-accented English, for instance, will be perceived as “more correct” than Chinese- or Russian-accented English, even if all the speakers have almost native-like competence.

From: Lindemann (2005): 192

Students’ perception of their teacher’s competence in English is thus more than a simple reaction to language skills. Social attitudes and stereotypes influence students’ evaluation of their teacher’s linguistic competence and qualifications.

Works Cited:

Lindemann, Stephanie. 2005. "Who speaks 'broken English'? US undergraduates' perceptions of non-native English". International Journal of  Applied Linguistics (15.2): 187-212.

Rubin, Donald L. 1992. "Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates' judgment of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants". Research in Higher Education (33.4): 511-531.

Rubin, Donald and Kim Smith. 1990. "Effects of accent, ethnicity and lecture topic on undergraduates' perception of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants. International Journal of Intercultural Relations (14.3): 337-353.


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