The term “native English speaker” certainly gives room for plenty of interpretation.
While most would think it refers exclusively to those born and raised in countries where English is one of the primary languages — such as the U.S., the U.K., Canada and so on — the term really covers much more than that.
Most teaching companies in Japan these days will define it as “anyone who has attended a minimum of 12 years of education in an English speaking country where English was the primary language of instruction.” Suddenly, pretty much anyone could pass this definition if they went to the right school.
Recently in Japan, the diversity of nationalities and language backgrounds among English teachers has certainly increased. In particular, the number of teachers coming here from elsewhere in Asia has shown a sharp rise in numbers. This has naturally led to students in Japanese high schools, colleges and universities hearing a greater diversity of intonations and manners of speaking than ever before.
There does, however, remain something of a prejudice among certain employers in Japan when it comes to accents. Earlier this year, shortly before I accepted my current job, I interviewed with a multitude of different schools, boards of education and eikaiwa (English conversation schools).
Boards of education seemed to welcome diversity (indeed my current employer counts four different nationalities among its six assistant language teachers). Eikaiwa on the other hand, in many (but not all) cases, expressed a strong preference for neutral, North American accents.
Personally, I think this is sad as they are depriving themselves and their students of a great learning opportunity.
Being from Glasgow, I also have something of an accent. In time, I have learned to see this as a tool that I can use to enhance the lessons I give my students. An important first step is to make your students aware of the differences in ways of speech in English. I find that telling the students the following story works quite well (it’s based on a true story that happened back in the early 2000s in the U.S.). It goes something like this:
The manager of a restaurant in the U.S. wanted to improve the productivity of his workers. So, he promised a prize to the best performing employee that year. According to the staff, the manager said (in his broad American accent): “Whoever performs the best this year will win a Toyota.”
One waitress set right to work and at the end of the year found that she had won the contest. The manager made an announcement, saying, “Congratulations, your prize is waiting in the parking lot!”
To the waitress’ horror, when she made her way outside, she did not find the brand new Japanese car she had been expecting. Instead, she found a small Star Wars action figure — a “toy Yoda,” as it were.
Hopefully, your students will enjoy that story as much as mine did.
Once your students have grasped some of these fundamentals, you can start to have some fun.
From there, you can branch out into showing students the unique qualities of some of the more common accents. For example:
- The way in which English people tend to pronounce a harder “g” at the end of “-ing” words.
- The tendency of Americans to pronounce “t” as “d” (as demonstrated in the story above)
- Or, of course, the example of my hometown of Glasgow — where all the vowels sound the same!
Students do sometimes struggle to get their heads around the concept of accents, though. If you have the knowledge, it can also help to work in a bit of Japanese, too. Comparing, for example, the regional -ben (or dialects) of Osaka or Okinawa with the the ones of Tokyo and outlying areas most of us study as foreign students of Japanese.
I find the U.K. to be an effective comparison in this regard. Whereas the different states within the U.S. and the different provinces of Canada have their own accents, in the U.K. almost every major city has its own, unique dialect. Take the examples of Liverpool and Manchester. These cities are only about 30 minutes apart, yet their accents are completely different. The same goes for Glasgow and Edinburgh.
This pattern is repeated all across the country. To my knowledge, there isn’t another English speaking country in the world with such a diversity of accents as the United Kingdom.
Once your students have grasped some of these fundamentals, you can start to have some fun — and do a little cultural teaching — with enunciation. Playing audio tracks or YouTube videos of different voices and having the students guess which country the speaker is from can be entertaining and educational.
And — if you really want to mess with your students’ minds — play them a clip of someone speaking with a Newfoundland accent. Some say it sounds Irish, others say its Scottish, but very few ever place it as Canadian.
With accents, however, it’s important that you keep your lessons focused purely on the verbal aspects. Although junior high school students are not required to speak in an American-style accent when they are assessed, written tests are — in almost all cases — conducted using American English and students can be penalized for not adhering to American conventions for spelling and so on. Likewise, most high school entrance and university exams in Japan require the use of English with American spellings. It’s not how I would run it, but that’s the rules.
There’s nothing wrong with teaching your students the British English spellings. However, if you’re going to do so, you need to teach them as a supplement to the American spellings, rather than as a replacement. Remember, it’s good to have fun in your English class, but don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is to prepare students for the next stage of their journey through Japan’s education system. In elementary school, you want to give your students the tools to succeed in junior high. In junior high, you want to help the students get into the best high school they can and so on.
Above all else, as a teacher — be proud of your accent. Don’t mask it, don’t attempt to alter it. It’s a fundamental part of who you are. As an ALT, it’s just one of the awesome qualities you bring to your role.
If Japan is to continue along its slow, steady path of opening up to the rest of the world, then imbuing its next generation of leaders and trendsetters with an appreciation of English — beyond just the heavily Americanized nonsense fed to them in the media — is vital. Accents form an integral part of this.
Do you speak in an accented form of English that gets quizzical looks from your students? Let us know how you work with it and differentiate between various forms of English in the classroom!