Whose English Do You Speak?

How would a native English speaker react if a non-native English speaker tried to correct their pronunciation, their grammar, or just a nuance of meaning? Would they listen carefully, or would they react defensively?

I’m asking you this question because I want to introduce a topic I find incredibly gripping. If English is now an international language, a lingua franca if you prefer it, it is no longer the exclusive possession of native English speakers, but sort of public property. The World Economic Forum estimates that about 1.5 billion people around the world speak English, but fewer than 400 million have it as their first language. This means that most English speakers are non-native and this needs to have an impact on international communication.

For me, as a language learner and as an English teacher, it really made a world of difference when I learnt that I didn’t have to sound British or American in order to consider myself a competent and efficient English teacher. In fact, I discovered that the belief that native speakers are ideal teachers was part of the so-called native speaker fallacy (Phillipson, 1992). You will probably know that non-native English teachers outnumber native ones. In fact, according to research, 80% of English teachers worldwide are non-native English speakers (Canagarajah, 1999). At some point, when I was researching this subject, I realized that I might never ever speak like a native and, more importantly, it didn’t really matter. As Cook (2002:5) points out, “few second language users can pass for native speakers”. Madgyes (1992:342) also confirms this, “non-native speakers can never achieve a native speaker’s competence”.

This is the elephant in the room; speaking English with a foreign accent and the attitudes most people have towards it. Most Spaniards felt embarrassed when they listened to the speech of the ex-mayor of Madrid, Ana Botella, speaking English with a broad Spanish accent. It wasn’t only because of what she said or how she said it. It was mainly just her accent. People find accents embarrassing and nobody wants to lose face in the public arena. I was in class with a B1 level group and students were listening to a video of an Argentinian speaking in English.  After they listened to her for the first time, one of my students spoke his mind: “At last, someone who speaks English worse than us!” He said this in Spanish, of course and I was like, “Why? What makes you think her English is worse than yours? She speaks really well. She just has an accent”. I don’t think I convinced this student who doesn’t really feel comfortable when he speaks English, as he probably doesn’t want to sound too Spanish.

As for native English speakers, they also have their communication problems. As Chia Suan Chong (2018) explains, “…often you have a boardroom full of people from different countries communicating in English and all understanding each other and then suddenly the American or Brit walks into the room and nobody can understand them.” This author explains that, as a general rule, native speakers rarely feel the need to adapt their speech to others.

If you are a native English speaker, I have some questions to ask you:

Do you feel comfortable when you speak English to non-native English speakers?

Do you really make an effort to make yourself understood when you talk to them?

Do you usually listen actively so as to understand them?

If, on the other hand, you are a non-native English speaker, are you satisfied with the way you sound?

Do you feel more comfortable when you speak English with native English speakers or with non-native ones? Why?

Do you find it easier to understand native or non-native English speakers?

Finally, this is a question both native and non-native English speakers should ask ourselves:

Are we ready to face the challenge of speaking English in an international context?

What are we willing to do to become more accomplished communicators?

Pilar Hernández Martínez

Escuela Oficial de Idiomas