Non-native speech role models

In a recent post, I talked about using speech role models to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). In my class at Saint John’s University I told my students to find a native English speaker that they admired and wanted to sound like, but some of the students seemed discouraged and the distance between their accents and the accents of their role models was very large. I guessed that they may have felt that the gap was insurmountable.

I wondered if non-native English speakers might make better role models, so I asked the students to find online video clips of people who were from their country and native speakers of their own language, and who they felt spoke English well. For examples, I showed them clips of interviews with native English speakers speaking other languages, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Spanish (this was before the El Bloombito nastiness, which deserves its own post) and John Beyrle, then US Ambassador to Russia in Russian.

The students’ answers revealed two problems with the assignment. The first was that some of the speakers were too good, and for a specific reason: they had the unfair advantage of living in the United States as teenagers, which made them almost native speakers. Some, like boxer Oscar de la Hoya, were from immigrant families. Others, like tennis player Maria Sharapova, were sports stars who moved to the US as teenagers for training camps. The English of these role models was as inaccessible to my students as those of people who had lived in the US their entire lives.

The second problem was that it was simply hard to find examples of non-native speakers with accents who were not stigmatized. Some of my students found good examples: Columbian singer Shakira, Russian tennis player Elena Dementieva, Chinese television presenter Rui Chenggang, Serbian tennis player Jelena Jankovic and Chinese basketball star Yao Ming. For students who were unable to find an acceptable role model, I found UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon from Korea, Salvadoran computer scientist Luis von Ahn and Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro. The students readily accepted these speakers as role models.

I followed this up with transcription tasks and two further assignments: “Your Second Speech Role Model’s Accent,” where the students identified a feature of their role model that marked them as non-native, and “Outdo your Second Speech Role Model,” where the students recorded themselves trying to say the same sentences without that marked feature. I have the impression that this was valuable for the students, but I did not have a chance to study it systematically.

In my own searches, I came to appreciate the difficulty of finding good non-native role models, and of second language acquisition in general. I was simply unable to find a single non-native speaker who had achieved nativelike pronunciation in English without being immersed in English during the critical period of adolescence. Discussions with other ESL faculty confirmed this. I had already prioritized clarity over correctness, and this confirmed that I was on the right track. I took this into account when grading the students’ in-class presentations and assignments.

While it is difficult to find non-native speakers who express themselves clearly in English and have prestige, the existence of people like Yao Ming, Guillermo del Toro and Ban Ki-Moon shows that they are out there. It would be valuable to introduce non-native role models like these earlier, to help the students with setting goals and to give them perspective on the second language enterprise.

I was a bit disturbed by the term “cloning” coined by Joanne Kenworthy and Jennifer Jenkins and used by Robin Walker, because to me it implies copying another person’s accent wholesale, leading me to imagine an ESL program where every graduate sounds like Javier Bardem. There are two elements that can counteract this: having a variety of role models and allowing the students to participate as much as possible in choosing their role models. I’ll talk about those more in a future post.

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