'Foreign' accent? Congratulations!


Communication is central to developing and maintaining cultural identity. Many non-native English speakers are saddled with two unfortunate problems: the way they are viewed by others and the way they view themselves. They cannot control one, but they can control the other. That is why I encourage them to focus only on the side they control.

There are many unwritten rules for learners of English, most of which are not conducive to acceptance and proper identity development. When I'm dealing with the subject, I begin by reassuring the students that they, as non-natives, are in the vast majority of English language speakers. I also celebrate and encourage them to be proud of their ethnic identity by telling them that is what makes them unique. That is what they bring to the language which makes the language better, and even that is what makes them interesting to listen to.

Communication helps identities to be created and reinforced by the speaker's accent, intonation, pronunciation mistakes and even his/her physical appearance reinforce his "otherness". This can be made worse by the fact that those learners who earnestly try to cross the bridge are often rejected by the cultures on both sides of that bridge. Simply put, children (and adults) can be bigoted and project superiority towards learners with heavy accents.

I encourage my students to do their best to "toughen their skin" and take this cruelty as part of their education. I also encourage them to work on the parts of their accents which affect their ability to transfer meaningful language, and embrace the rest with pride that they have learned to communicate in another language.


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