Everyone speaks with an accent

I’m from California, so I’m a native speaker of English.  However, I speak differently than other native English speakers.  People from New York or Massachusetts or Texas or the United Kingdom or Australia (and many other places) are all native speakers of English, but they sound very different from me (and from each other!).

I can hear an accent and know approximately where a person is from.  From the way a person speaks, I can guess that they are not from California but maybe came from New England instead.  I can also identify someone else with a different accent as a native speaker of German or Spanish or Japanese, because *everyone speaks with an accent*.

So, you might wonder, who should you sound like when you speak English?  YOU!  That’s who.  Be clear:  an accent is not a problem or something that needs to be fixed.   An accent is merely a reflection of where we come from and of the first language that we learned to speak.

There is not one ‘correct’ native accent for spoken English.  Not only is there no correct native accent in English, the research in second language acquisition tells us that it is rare for adult English learners (or learners of any foreign language) to speak without at least some foreign accent. Maybe you believe that your accent makes you hard to understand, and if you could eliminate it, then all of your communication problems would disappear.  This is likely not true.

It is true that a person is harder to understand when their vowel sounds are unclear, or if they produce the wrong consonant, but someone can speak English with NO foreign accent at all and STILL be very difficult to understand.  If a speaker stresses the wrong syllable of a word, for example, listeners may not understand what they are saying!

Take the word ‘dynamic’ for example.  This three-syllable word is pronounced with primary stress placed on the second syllable and with the vowel sound of the third syllable reduced.  It sounds like dieNAMuk /daɪˡmək/.  If someone incorrectly shifts the stress to the first syllable, the word is pronounced like DIEnuhmick /ˡdaɪnəmɪk/, and the listener hears what sounds like the word ‘dynamite’.  As a result, the listener may become confused.   Or scared. Why are you talking about dynamite?

Word stress and intonation are among the most important factors in speaking English intelligibly, and if people have trouble understanding you, don’t assume that your accent is the biggest problem.

Bottom line, we should all relax and accept that we will have at least some accent when we speak a foreign language.  Sure, there are exceptions–actors, for example, who spend hours a day for months working with coaches to learn to change their accents for roles in movies or TV shows.   But for most of us who aren’t actors or spies, that kind of investment in time and money isn’t worth it, and believing that you must eliminate your accent to speak correctly and clearly causes unnecessary stress.

A much more realistic goal is to speak English (or any foreign language) as naturally as we can so that others understand us comfortably and are not frustrated when they talk to us.  That’s it.  If others are comfortable talking to us, and we feel confident speaking, then we have arrived at our destination, even if people can still hear where we came from!

Is a native speaker always the best teacher?

Especially overseas, young English speakers are often hired to teach English solely because they are native speakers of the language. These individuals may have no other qualifications and may have no experience teaching, so I’m really not considering them in this discussion. I am comparing trained English teachers: native English speaking teachers versus non-native English speaking teachers.

It is a myth (a lie, even!) that a native English speaker is necessarily a better English teacher than a foreign speaker of English. In fact, a non-native teacher can be better than a native English speaker.  How can this be?  Well, most English speakers (even trained English teachers) without training in linguistics don’t realize that they are following a set of unconscious rules when they speak.  They acquired the ‘rules’ as babies and children, listening to adults speaking English, and they are not fully aware of their own language.

If you ask the typical English teacher how many vowels English has, you are very likely to hear the answer “five”–A, E, I, O, U.  A native English teacher trained in linguistics (or a teacher who is a non-native English speaker), however, will tell you that English has many more vowels than that!

English teachers who are non-native speakers have had to work hard to acquire their English. They have studied every aspect of the language. They hear and are aware of what native speakers are doing, even when the native speakers themselves don’t realize what they are doing.  They know the ‘rules’. So, a non-native English speaker can be a very good English teacher.

Bottom Line: You want a teacher who is extremely knowledgeable about English and its unconscious “rules”. The knowledgeable teacher might be a native English speaker with linguistics training, or it could be a foreign teacher, maybe even someone from your own country. Don’t rule out somebody as your teacher merely because they are not a native English speaker.