Katy Simpson and Laura Patsko have spoken at numerous conferences about their classroom experiences related to the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, and presented for the British Council Seminar Series on the topic. They co-author the blog ELF Pron and tweet via @ELF_pron. Katy is a teacher and materials writer with an MA in English Language, based in Chiang Mai, in Thailand. Laura is a senior teacher and teacher trainer with an MA in ELT & Applied Linguistics, and sub-editor of Speak Out!, the newsletter of
Many learners of English today do not want or need to use English with people whose first language (L1) is English. They are more likely to use English in situations where nobody shares an L1 (e.g. a native speaker of French using English to communicate with a native speaker of Japanese). In this case they are using English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). But what’s this got to do with school hiring policies?
Schools which prefer to a hire a native English speaker teacher (NEST) may claim they are under pressure from students requesting a teacher with a particular native accent. While this may be what students walk into the school demanding, students’ wants and needs don’t always match up.
Perhaps schools could take more time to ask students how they use English or intend to use English, and help them to make an informed decision. For example, since approximately 80% of interaction in English worldwide takes place with no native speaker present (Beneke,1991), it is no longer realistic to assume a goal of native-like pronunciation for all learners. The priority for learners using ELF is to be as intelligible as possible to the people they are communicating with.
In our experience as practising teachers in the classroom, students are receptive to these ideas, and prepared to question their preconceptions when provided with information such as the following:
|American English||230 million|
|British English||57 million|
|BBC English||1 million|
|Indian English||200 million|
|Native speakers of English||400 million|
|Non-native speakers of English||1200 million|
Source: Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: OUP. (Data from Crystal, D. (2003) English as a Global Language (2nd edn). Cambridge: CUP.)
If institutions took these kind of figures into account, perhaps they would refrain from simply hiring (or not hiring) someone because of their accent, and instead consider some of the advantages and disadvantages of both NESTs and non-native English speaker teachers (nNESTs) in relation to pronunciation teaching:
1. Suggested advantages of nNESTs in relation to pronunciation teaching:
- If the teacher shares the students’ L1 than they can be seen as a role model, having achieved something which the students are likely to be able to achieve too.
1.2 Can use learners’ L1 to their advantage.
- There may be sounds in English which don’t seem to appear in the students’ L1, but in fact might exist in particular phonetic contexts. A teacher who is aware of both languages could help the students here. For example, the velar nasal sound /ŋ/ often occurs before /g/ in words like ‘tango’ in many languages.
1.3 Exposure to different accents.
- If the teacher is of a different L1 background than the students, it exposes them to the reality of linguistic variation and prepares them for the world around them. This can help to raise students’ awareness of the kind of figures in the table above, and debunk the myth that English in some way ‘belongs’ to native speakers.
1.4 Helps students understand they don’t need to lose their own identity.
- This is a complex issue, but the important thing to remember is that everyone speaks with an accent – and there is no one ‘native English accent’. Discussing this with students (sensitively) can help them understand that they have a choice, and unless they’re going to live in an English-speaking country and want to assimilate by adopting the accent of the area where they’re going, then there is often no need to replace their own accent with another.
2. Suggested disadvantages of nNESTs in relation to pronunciation teaching:
2.1 May not feel confident teaching pronunciation.
- Many NESTs also feel this. See below.
- Anyone who can produce the features in the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) can teach pronunciation. If you want to learn more about the LFC, check out this post on our own blog. Rather than simply hiring people based on passports, perhaps schools could think about whether teachers are confident with those specific features of pronunciation.
- nNESTs – or anyone – putting NESTs on a pedestal by shying away from teaching pronunciation perpetuates the myth of native English speakers somehow ‘owning’ English. No one can ‘own’ a language. It’s not a thing like a car or house. English in particular defies geographical borders because of its role as the world’s lingua franca.
2.2 If the teacher has the same accent as the students, it does not expose them to a variety of accents.
- It’s really important in monolingual classes in particular that students are exposed to a range of accents if they are going to use ELF. As coursebooks still only usually provide a limited range of accents, all teachers, regardless of L1 background, need to consider bringing in extra materials. See this post on our blog for more ideas about how to do this.
2.3 The teacher may assume their students wish to acquire native-like pronunciation (especially if this was the teacher’s own goal when studying English).
- A nNEST who has spent a long time studying English and modelled their accent on a native speaker variety may be particularly proud of this fact. As a result, they may unwittingly assume their students would have the same goal.
3. Suggested advantages of NESTs in relation to pronunciation teaching:
3.1 If a student wants to go to the UK/the US, they may find it useful to hear this accent.
- But wouldn’t be much use if the teacher had an entirely different native accent. Variation is often overlooked in debates about native vs non-native English speakers.
- Simple exposure isn’t enough. Just because you make an elementary student listen to hours of Radio 4, it doesn’t mean they’re going to start talking like that!
3.2 Schools say that students demand native speakers.
- Where does that stop? What other demands are we going to give into? Students want a lot of things that are unreasonable, e.g. going up to the next level when they’re not ready. Classes scheduled at times more suitable to them. Smaller class sizes. Why don’t schools give in to those demands too?
- If institutions, teachers and the wider ELT industry (e.g. publishers) were more aware of the implications of ELF then they would be better placed to educate students, and in time attitudes would change. At the moment, they may be unable to make an informed choice.
4. Suggested disadvantages of NESTs in relation to pronunciation teaching:
4.1 Might not know where to start when it comes to pronunciation.
- nNESTs may have a better understanding of why particular difficulties are arising, and be better placed to help learners use their articulators to pronounce certain sounds. NESTs, on the other hand, may make decisions about pronunciation priorities based on intuition or their own ideas of what’s ‘natural’ or not. This means they may fail to take the students’ needs into account when choosing which areas of pronunciation to focus on in the classroom.
4.2 Might feel a sense of ‘ownership’ over English.
- This can lead to the use of problematic phrases like ‘it’s just not how we say it.’ Who is ‘we’ in this phrase? This perpetuates intolerance and may strip students of a sense of ownership.
4.3 Might make assumptions about students’ goals based on the NEST’s own situation or background.
- NEST teachers living abroad might equate their own situation as a language learner with that of their students. Except it’s not the same. English is unlike any other language in the way it is used around the world by so many people in so many contexts. Just because a monolinugal classroom might not be an ELF environment, students could well be using ELF outside the classroom – but perhaps the teacher doesn’t see that.
- NEST teachers in their own country may feel that because students have travelled to study in their country, they therefore want to speak like native speakers in that context. ESOL programmes aside, in private language schools, students might come for a few weeks or a few months and then go back to their country where they intend to use ELF.
- Some people might argue that if they chose to go to that country, then surely that indicates a desire to assimilate? Otherwise, why not just stay in their own country and study English for two months? But we would ask in response, isn’t a language so much easier to learn when you’re immersed in it? Seeing English all around you makes it much easier and a lot of the learning is done outside the classroom, where students are likely to come across a huge variety of accents if they’re in a big city like London or Sydney.
In conclusion, all teachers have different areas of interest, different styles, techniques and unique ways of using the language they’re teaching. Variation alone is no measure of competence, and so it is with pronunciation. While some students (and teachers) might prefer to ‘tidy up’ pronunciation into something more homogeneous, simply willing this to be the case does not make it a reality.
Separating teachers into NESTs/nNESTs is a crude dividing line which feeds into a false image of the role of English in the world today. The linguistic landscape is far more diverse than coursebooks would have students believe, and the sooner that diversity is represented in our classrooms, the better prepared they will be to communicate using English outside the classroom. Surely, in the end, this is what we are all aiming for?
Beneke, J. (1991) Englisch als lingua franca oder als Medium interkultureller Kommunikation. In R. Grebing, Grenzenloses Sprachenlernen. Cornelsen. 54-66
Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. OUP.