Updated: Jul 17, 2020
Over the last 10 years, I have taught English to speakers from dozens of countries. I’ve found that most of my students (or their parents) believe they must aim for native standards. These strong beliefs were generally due to the way English was taught. Many learners spent years in a classroom being told to adjust their pronunciation to sound like a native speaker. The goal of sounding native, however, is often unnecessary for the successful use of English. Unfortunately, it can also lead to issues of confidence when speaking. Here at Accents Welcome we question the belief that speakers need to sound native in order to be successful.
Issues caused by the native model
I have worked with learners whose perceptions about their accent have led to issues in their professional lives. One Mexican student, in particular, comes to mind. Sergio was a supervisor at a large accounting firm in Mexico City. He needed to improve his English level in order to receive further promotions. His communicative ability was high enough to receive a promotion. He could easily discuss a variety of topics with minimal misunderstandings.
Sergio’s biggest obstacle was that he was incredibly hard on himself about his English skills. This self-criticism was due to a strong accent or making small errors. Sergio lacked confidence when speaking English. He was afraid to speak in meetings and was especially intimidated when working with native speakers. When questioned about his feelings he mentioned his accent and the fact that he would make grammatical errors from time to time. Ultimately, his lack of confidence was rooted in being unable to sound “native” and made it hard for him to successfully use English.
How English Is Used
Out of the hundreds of students I have worked with, very few used English only with native speakers. Instead, these learners were using English as a means of communication with other non-natives. For example, in Argentina, I worked with students who used English primarily for international business. Their business associates, however, were from Germany, China, Brazil, and Japan. Similarly, Sergio was working with colleagues in France and South Korea. This leads to a key question: do these learners need to sound native? We believe the answer is no. We understand there are important aspects related to pronunciation and grammar that students must master in order to avoid misunderstandings. These aspects, however, are in no way related to sounding "native".
Our curriculum focuses on exposing students to diverse accents. We believe it is important to be able to understand accents from around the world. Additionally, we focus on the most important aspects of output so that learners can be understood by others. We believe teaching English as a global language is more relevant to how most people use English across the world today. We feel the future of English does not mean everyone will sound native. Instead, we hope that people will keep their accents and their identity.
Thinking about Sergio’s experiences, it is clear that an adjustment in expectations related to accents and grammar would have benefited him significantly. Redefining “success” could have alleviated many of his confidence issues. Being more confident would have made him more likely to receive the promotion that he desired. Stories such as Sergio's are common. Many people know someone who is too embarrassed to use English because they will make mistakes or their accent doesn’t meet native standards. Oftentimes, these speakers have the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully use English in their contexts. This is why we teach English as a global language. Providing an alternative model can help students redefine what using English successfully means to them. Our goal is to create learners who are confident in using English with people across the world.