What is a native speaker?
Exactly. What is it? Who decides which English is the measurement of “good”? You can find a wide variety of accents, pronunciation and vocabulary within every country. A person’s language may depend on region, age, class, subculture and education. It is also important to keep in mind that we all adjust our speech, whether consciously or unconsciously, depending on who we are speaking to and how formal the situation is. This complex phenomenon is known as socio-linguistics.
Should English learners study regional accents or slang?
There are valid reasons someone might want to learn a specific accent or the speaking habits of a specific region or subculture. One reason may be that you live in the community and want to understand the locals. Some people have an affinity for the sound of a certain accent and this is also a fine reason to learn English from those speakers of that accent. At the same time, I find the trend of teaching people how to sound like a native speaker problematic in many ways, mainly because learning obscure slang or phrases is not something the average English learner needs.
Do you really need to learn obscure phrases and vocabulary?
I hear the same complaint again and again. “I understand everyone except native speakers. My English is fantastic when speaking to other non-native speakers, but when my British or American colleague talks to me I don’t understand anything!”
I’m going to make a couple of bold generalizations based on something I have witnessed with my own eyes and ears, and I think it’s important to talk about.
1. Many native speakers lack understanding with non-native speakers because they have never had to learn a second language.
We are so spoiled. English is the lingua franca and we know it. We are so used to everybody learning our language, we have NO IDEA how hard it is for you. We have NO IDEA that the English you learn in school may not include our regional idioms, expressions, slang, or cultural references – for Americans this is especially true because of cultural globalization.
2. My English is not your English
Every English speaking community offers its own variety of phrases and accents. In fact, many English speakers don’t realize that the everyday phrases or expressions they are using may not be understood by English speakers on the other side of the world. Admittedly, I have experienced this. Although I have been teaching English as a second language for most of my life, I sometimes find, while conversing with people from other English-speaking countries, that a phrase I thought to be internationally recognized is actually only used in the US or California.
3. Privilege, arrogance and linguistic imperialism
This is not something people easily admit, but native English speakers can also be arrogant when it comes to communicating in an international context.
Native speakerism is the belief that native speakers of a language are inherently superior to non-native speakers and that their way of speaking the language is the correct way. While it is not uncommon for English learners to have a preference for native English speakers as teachers, we shouldn’t blindly believe that any one native speaker holds the standard of what is considered “good” English. A non-native speaker can have an excellent command of English just as a native speaker can be incoherent or unable to explain English grammar.
What is the difference between British and American English?
I would like to touch on this subject because I feel some people have an exaggerated sense of the difference. Admittedly, there are differences between standard British and standard American that one can learn easily and should be aware of. These are mainly differences in spelling and vocabulary. However, speakers from both countries can understand each other as long as there is an awareness of language and a willingness to use standard vocabulary rather than slang. Someone from the USA would have no problem understanding the English of the BBC and a Brit would not struggle to read the New York Times. Whether you are communicating with speakers of the same or different mother tongue, awareness of your own speech is key.
What English should you learn?
Academia often encourages students to choose one style of English and stick to it, but please don’t believe that learning a combination of British and American English will somehow disadvantage you in everyday communication. Considering the speed at which English is becoming globalized, combined with the growing number of those speaking English as a second or foreign language, we will increasingly witness the rise of other varieties of English spoken outside the Anglosphere.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world.
Should I learn English from grammar books or YouTubers?
One school of thought regarding language teaching is called ‘prescriptive’. This is the teaching language that is considered correct by academic institutions. The other school of thought is called ‘descriptive’. This is teaching of language as it is spoken by a population, regardless of whether an authoritative source says the use is correct or incorrect.
There are more non-native English speakers today than there are native speakers. Considering this and the rate at which English is changing, what is the future of English going to look like? Will it matter if the so-called mistakes of non-native speakers become adopted into standard English?
A benefit of globalization is that the internet can help new English expressions become standardized at great speed. The internet allows English features to pop up anywhere and gives non-native speakers immediate access to new phrases and expressions. A learner’s time is not wasted learning textbook English, but exposing oneself to the English of popular culture can be equally beneficial.
Is it possible to have a neutral accent?
First of all, there is nothing wrong with having a ‘foreign’ accent as long as your English is understandable. Chances are that you will pick up the correct pronunciation, word stress and sentence stress naturally when you become more fluent. You can work on reducing your accent to the point of speaking in a neutral or unrecognizable accent, but this ability depends on when you started learning English and how much time you’ve spent speaking it.
Don’t be ashamed of your accent
We would be naive to think that the rise of English as the world language has been entirely peaceful. Western imperialism has resulted in the genocide and mass relocation of indigenous people. Linguistic imperialism through history hasn’t been a matter of efficiency or merely a means for people to communicate. On the contrary, language policy has more often been used as a strategy to divide and dominate indigenous populations.
Teachers should be mindful of the historical and political events that lead English to become a global language. English as we speak it today needs to be flexible, adaptable and constantly reinventing itself. The English I am speaking now is not the English of my grandparents. Words get canceled, become obsolete and change their meaning with the times. This tendency is not dictated from an authority at the top, but happens from the bottom up. We invent words when we have a need for new meanings and ideas. These ideas are negotiated in society and are spread across borders.
Look at these examples of new English terms added to the language recently: