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Do you want to sound like your L2 teacher? (Samantha N.)

As TESOL-trained teachers, we are also programmed to believe that it is not necessary to sound like a “native speaker” to be proficient in a second language (L2).  What then does it mean to be orally “proficient” in a language, and what value does learning a language from a native speaker add?  Who is a “native speaker” in this globalized age which has made human capital transfer so permeable?  More importantly, do students necessarily want to model after their L2 teacher?  Specifically, do you want to sound like your L2 teacher?
I have taught English in several cities in Asia and the US, and am widely considered a proficient user of the English language or even a “native speaker” because of my internationally intelligible English accent but for my oriental face.  I am sought after as a result of my teaching qualifications and experience, especially when students want a familiar Asian face with an inimitable accent, in particular someone acquainted with their cultural norms and yet “western” enough in outlook and practices.  I try to understand this phenomenon in the context of myself as a typical L2 learner.
The first foreign language I learned to a relatively high proficiency was German.  I had wanted to learn German after knowing my German penpal at 15.  When I finally took the plunge in 1997, I learned that my beginner German teacher was a Taiwanese who had studied in Germany for a number of years.  She was my first non-native language teacher, and although somewhat surprised, I enjoyed learning with and from her and did very well.  As a self-confessed perfectionist however, I wanted to sound like someone whose first language was German after several years of lessons.
I was “fortunate” that I had native German-speaking teachers after that because it still means a lot to me when a German compliments me on my “native-like” accent when I speak the language.  Perhaps many institutes offering L2 are organized in close conformance with student demand so that they cannot help but hire native speakers, trained or untrained, to teach that language, and to look the part.  In my experience, this is quite true of Asian learners of European languages.  Why this is so is, regrettably, beyond the scope of this blog, and I invite readers to contribute their thoughts, after which I will respond to them.
I have gone on to learn a few other foreign languages, and remain partial when it comes to accents.  I have my favorites and a so-called “native speaker’s” is not necessarily what I want to acquire eventually, so long as I think I sound mellifluous enough.  That said, I would still prefer to be trained by a qualified teacher who speaks and uses my target language clearly and appropriately…and who sounds like music to my ears, native speaker or not…which brings to mind my first German teacher.
What about you?  What are your own experiences with learning and/or teaching a second or foreign language?  Have you experienced discrimination both positive and negative in teaching a language that you did not grow up with on your mother’s lap, like they say?  Write to us and share!

Samantha N. was born and raised in a multilingual English-speaking family, and is currently based in Singapore, where she teaches academic English.


  1. In the past, I was proud when people said that I spoke with a British accent and upset when they said I had a Chinese or Hong Kong accent. Now I really don't care. Everyone speaks with an accent anyway. As a language teacher educator, I always tell my teachers that one of the most important things about our spoken English is "intelligibility".

    Icy Lee
    The Chinese University of Hong Kong
    Hong Kong

  2. Great idea for a discussion, Dr. Lee!
    Samantha N., knowing your full name makes the discussion sincere. Thank you.

  3. At first when I started teaching ESL in the US 3 years ago, I was not very confident because I was afraid of negative discrimination. I grew up in Tokyo, Japan, and came to the US only 5 years ago. Although I started learning English when I was very small and my accent sounds close to "American English", I was worried how students would think about being taught by a non-native English teacher because I absolutely look Japanese. However, fortunately, I have never experienced negative discrimination from my students or coworkers. Rather, they appreciate what I have experienced as an ESL learner. My students love to listen to my stories and struggles about how I learned vocabulary and practiced listening and speaking, and I always encourage them to be confident that they will achieve their goals. Although there might be some students who prefer native teachers, they don't take my classes and I don't care at all. There are still so many students who request and repeatedly take my classes and I truly appreciate it. What I believe they like about my teaching is a student-centered classroom. I provide lots of games and activities using technology so students can enjoy learning English. I believe the thing is that students can feel they are absolutely learning and improving English and enjoy because of the teacher. They love to experience many "ah-ha!" moments.

    Mari Miyagi
    Wisconsin English Second Language Institute
    Madison, Wisconsin

  4. When I was in school, I enjoyed learning English with my non-native English teachers no matter what kind of accent they had; so long as I thought they were dedicated and caring teachers.

    I wanted to sound like a native speaker just because the native-like accent sounds so much more beautiful than the Hong Kong accent. When I was around 15, I started watching news on local English channels; those reporters having a native-like accent with a Chinese face always captured my attention. At that time, I wished I could speak English so proficiently like them someday.

    What I liked doing most when I was a teenager was imitating my favourite actress, Pamela Sue Martin, speaking her lines in Dynasty, my favourite TV programme in the 80s. I didn’t do this intentionally to reduce my Hong Kong accent, but somehow, my hobby contributed to the accent I now speak English with.

    I like sharing my stories of learning English with my students. Just like Mari said, our students appreciate what we, non-native English teachers, have experienced as an ESL. Our success stories are always more encouraging and convincing.

    Becky Cheung
    Quality School Improvement Project
    Hong Kong Institute of Educational Research
    The Chinese University of Hong Kong

  5. I've enjoyed learning from both L1 and L2 teachers and I believe that both have something distinct to offer, so instead of viewing the issue as and "either/or" I'd like to think of native and non-native speaking teachers as complementing each other for the students' benefit.

    Like Icy and Becky said, students like us who enjoy learning English (or any second or foreign language for the matter) always secretly wanna sound as much like a native as possible, especially at the beginning of the learning process, so it's great to have a mellifluent teacher by our side whom we can confortably imitate. Meanwhile, from my experience, L2 teachers often manage to see the source of our difficulties in picking up particular language patterns or concepts and mitigate them in ways that take into account factors such as L1 interference. (e.g. Though disapproved by many educators, I found learning grammar by having the rules explained in my first language very helpful and effective)

    As for accent, I always get asked by my students questions such as "You sound great. Where did you learn your accent?" and "I want to learn the British accent. How can I learn it?" I usually kind of 'dodge' it by saying "You don't learn an accent; you acquire it".

    I told them when I first went to the UK to study for my master degree, the British classmates and neighbours I met there all told me I had a pure and strong American accent and asked if I came from the U.S. I said "No, but I like watching American TV drama and movies, and would practice speaking English by repeating the lines after the actors so I suppose that's where I somehow picked up the accent."

    But after spending a year in the UK and being immersed in local TV shows and movies, my "pure American accent" got completely "muddled up", and I now sound more like 40% US+30% UK+30% HK...

    "In other words, instead of being a learnable feature of the language, accent is somewhat more like a personal history that reflects what you have been through along the journey of picking up the language. It's okay that now my accent is no longer 'pure' because it simply tells people where I've been to." My students are usually satisfied after hearing this and stop pressing me for methods to learn the British accent :P

    Olive Cheung
    English Language Teaching Unit
    The Chinese University of Hong Kong

  6. I was taught by both L1 and L2 teachers because I was fortunate to be in a Catholic mission school where there were expatriate teachers from Australia and some sisters from Ireland and England. I enjoyed both the L1 and L2 teachers. So my spoken English has "intelligibility" as Dr. Icy stated. My university lecturers used to say that I have a charming Sarawakian accent. However, one of them insisted that I correct my accent; so I had to go for her special speech class.

    To cut a long story short, now I have a near native speaker accent because I am now working overseas with colleagues who are mostly native speakers and I think also due to the fact that my spouse is a native speaker. To get my present post, I had to take IELTS whereas NESTs are exempted. I realized that I was extremely lucky to be hired for this post because all the posts related to teaching English in the Middle East requires one to be a NEST.

    A reality check happened in this recent month. Together with my native speaker colleagues we applied for several jobs that interest us. Well, suffice to say no one got back to me whereas for them, they were called for interviews. I am the only one who has a M.ED in TESL and at present am a 2nd year doctoral candidate at Murdoch University... But this is the way of this world and it just depends on the person doing the hiring and fate...

    My students and I enjoy ourselves and so far no one has requested for a NEST to teach them; this is my 3rd year working in a public school in the UAE, I must be doing something right.

    Thus, to answer your question, Samantha, no I don't mind sounding like my L2 teacher. :-)

    Loh Kim Foong
    Teacher Development Specialist
    Madares Al Ghad [Schools of the Future]
    Ministry of Education
    United Arab Emirates.

  7. Thanks all very much for contributing your invaluable thoughts and feedback. It's been a joy reading what you've deemed worthy to spend some time penning as much as it's been my privilege to contribute to the discussion.

    After careful consideration and out of respect for the privacy of the people mentioned in my first post, whom I cherish dearly, I believe my remaining "Samantha N." (which is my real name by the way, and not some pseudonym I created) does not detract from me being as real as I am in person, and wanting nothing but an authentic, candid, respectful and safe discussion here on cyberspace.

  8. I do not really care about whether I should sound like a native speaker.There was a time that I tried to make sure that I spoke with a particular accent consistently (American, British or Chinese). However, it has become so difficult for me to be consistent in using one accent. I guess that my accents are my personal history. A mixture of everything is probably what I am after learning and using English with different speakers (coming from different parts of the world) for so many years.

    Xuesong (Andy) Gao
    Department of English, Hong Kong Institute of Education.

  9. I find that my accent shifts based on who I'm speaking with, what I am talking about, and the setting of the conversation. I see accent, like other features of language, as being fluid - i.e., they can change in response to the setting and the meaning that we want to create. If my understanding is correct, I wonder how we can measure or rate 'accent' (our own or others)? I also wonder what implications this observation has for the topic of this particular discussion question: "Do you want to sound like your L2 teacher?"


  10. I agree. I just came back from visiting my significant other Down Under and already find myself sounding more like him - not only accent-wise, but also in my use of his lexical range. I quote M. J. Matsuda, a law professor, in her 1991 work, Voices of America: Accent, Antidiscrimination Law, and a Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction,

    "Every person who reads this Article has an accent. Your accent carries the story of who you are - who first held you and talked to you when you were a child, where you have lived, your age, the schools you attended, the languages you know, your ethnicity, whom you admire, your loyalties, your profession, your class position: traces of your life and identity are woven into your pronunciation, your phrasing, your choice of words. Your self is inseparable from your accent. Someone who tells you they don't like the way you speak is quite likely telling you that they don't like you."

    That said, recently one of my students told me that my (native) English accent is part of what makes me a popular teacher - I wished he'd said something like my caring instead! Like it or not, I know that's the reality this side of heaven.

  11. The fluidity of accents is an interesting phenomenon.

    When HK was still a British colony before, I often tried to make sure that I spoke in a British way.

    Having lived in Canada for a few years, my accent began to change.

    Now whenever I am in the USA, I feel that my accent changes a little bit because consciously or subconsciously I may want to sound like an American.

    When it comes to pronunication, with words that can be pronunounced in different ways, I begin to realize that NOW I don't really have a preference for a particular way of pronunication. So sometimes I may pronounce the same word in different ways. I also feel that my accent is shifting and not stable.

    As pointed out by AM, our accent can change in response to the setting and the meaning we want to create.

    Icy Lee
    Faculty of Education
    The Chinese University of Hong Kong

  12. I wonder if one consciously switches one's accent(s), like codeswitching (which for me isn't always conscious). Does anyone know if there's literature to that effect?

    I'm very sensitive to accents for the most part, and I tend to notice shifts in accents, which are often subtle, whether of others' or my own.

  13. In my case, since I live in an EFL environment, I always had non-native speakers of English as teachers, with just a few exceptions. I can still remember when I was a college student and I was taking this pronunciation course with a Costa Rican professor. I thought her pronunciation was wonderful! It was pretty easy to understand, and for me, it was just perfect.

    Even though I heard native speakers' accent from exchange students and on TV, mostly from the United States, my model to follow was my professor. I so wanted to be like her, to sound like her. I never considered her accent was not good enough. I believe that learning English in an EFL context influences a lot in how students perceive their teachers, especially if there aren't that many native speakers teaching. One could say there isn't a point of comparison...What do you think?

    That professor is now my colleague at the university, and now I wonder if my students think the same way I used to. It's really interesting to realize how we as English teachers, native or non-native, are always the models for our students. Does it matter which accent we have? I don't think so! As already mentioned here, everybody has an accent, and no accent is better. If we can communicate successfully, that's what matters!

    Nuria Villalobos
    Universidad Nacional
    Costa Rica

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. I am English teacher from India. I am rejected of several exchange programmes due to my nationality. Its very sad to see the concept that "only Native Speakers of English (evenif they dont have a degree in ELT) can effectively teach English to others.

    People have to wake up in this regard! Especially countries like SK, China and etc..,

  16. Just today I heard a pronunciation teacher say that accent exists when the people around you speak differently that you. She said that it is impossible to be accent-free. Although I had lived in the UK for more than 10 years, people used to ask me where I was from as soon as I opened my mouth. When I would go to my native Greece, my friends would say I have a British accent!

    Now I live in an international environment and my accent is one of many, which is liberating.

    As part of my MA in Education (emphasis TESOL)I was taught American pronunciation and this training gave me tools to use. Now I have a clear understanding of how sounds are made and if I wanted, I could train myself to speak with an American accent. But you know what? I don't think it is necessary, at least right now. As my professor used to say, "Be proud of your accent. It shows you already speak another language!"

  17. Some people may be good at imitating accents. They seem to think they can switch accents freely and that's all it needs to 'adopt a different identity'. But let us not forget that there are also other socio-linguistic factors which can characterize the way we use a language in speaking and writing. One of these factors is obviously our unconscious choice of words. By word choice, I do not only mean choosing between 'trash' vs. 'rubbish' or 'can' vs. 'tin', but rather more in terms of certain observable behavioral characteristics in the ways words are used; for instance, I've observed that many English speakers from a particular country tend to add strings of adjectives / adverbs or descriptive clauses as they speak or write which may sound redundant or exaggerated to a native speaker from the West. Also, we may not realize it but how we start a conversation with someone, how we express politeness / impoliteness, how we state what we think etc. could also give away hints about where we are from.

    I have a teacher colleague who isn't American but always takes so much pride in her ability to speak English 'fast and fluently' with an American accent. Ironically, complaints have come from students that they can't understand her because she doesn't speak 'normal English'! So as the solution for her, she now uses the students' L1 in class. In retrospect, when I was learning Japanese, I appreciated more the teachers who showed more sensitivity to our learning needs, as opposed to those who spoke without much consideration to our level, be they native speakers or not.