Accented teachers

There’s currently a lot of controversy in Arizona over the removal of teachers with accents from classes with English language learners.

The reasoning behind the removal is that English-learners should have a good model of how to speak the language, and heavily accented and/or ungrammatical teachers do not provide this. This has attracted heavy criticism from many angles, including the question of how to determine who has the ‘right’ accent.

It seems that officials may need to review their stance. A new research study from Israel shows that “it may be easier to learn a foreign language from someone who teaches it in the same accent as your own”. Published recently in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, the study was conducted by professors from the University of Haifa who all had an interest in the effects of accent on language acquisition.

The sample size of students at the University of Haifa was adequate and similar enough in composition to test the accent hypothesis. Sixty participants were chosen, aged 18 to 26. Twenty were native Hebrew speakers; 20 were from the FSU; and 20 were Israeli Arabs who had started learning Hebrew at around seven years of age.

In the study, the researchers made recordings of Hebrew phrases where the last word was recorded with one of four different accents: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian or English. The students were then tested to see how long it took for them to recognize the Hebrew word in one of the four accents.

They found that the Hebrew speakers could decipher Hebrew words adequately regardless of the accent in which they were spoken, while the Russian and Arabic speakers needed more time to understand the Hebrew words presented in an accent foreign to their own.

The researchers feel that additional research is needed to determine just how much extra effort is involved in the attempt to process both an unfamiliar accent as well as new material.

“This research lays emphasis on the importance of continuing investigation into the cognitive perspectives of accent in order to gain a better understanding of how we learn languages other than our native tongue. In Israel and in other countries where the population is made up of many different language groups, this understanding holds great significance,” they write.

While many foreign language programs pride themselves on teaching students a second language in its true and native accent, this new study suggests that English taught to Mexican students as a second language, for example, can be taught just as well by a Mexican teacher speaking English, as by a native American who’s been speaking English since birth. (Source: Israel 21c)