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In School In Germany: Strange American Accent

Posted by on March 26, 2014

 

Friday afternoon in an English Fachdidaktik (English subject teaching) Course at the university. Our first meeting of the semester brought forth a lot of impressions of our first two weeks in class. Yet while there were some positive experiences shared in class, there were some students who did not have some spectacular moments while observing some English classes.

One of those came from a student colleague, who was in an English class at a Gymnasium (high school), where a pupil was asked to respond to a question in British English instead of American English, even though he had previously spent time in the States. When he answered using an American English accent, he was told to repeat it with a British accent.  Not a nice thing to do to a pupil who is learning the language in the first place.
Yet this story opened a large wound on the part of moi here, for despite coming from the US, I too was criticized for using an American accent in my English class, being asked to speak Oxford English. More insulting is when laid off from a university (together with another American colleague) and being replaced with a British colleague was the excuse of being let go was I spoke with “a strange American accent that is not understandable.” This sour taste still remains to this day, especially as the arguments were unsubstantiated and one would always assume that American English is more understandable, recognizable and even clearer, right?
Yet the story and the memories that came along with that brought up three key points that I want to address in this blog entry:

 

1. English is Universal in the Classroom: There is no such thing as British and American English differences in the classroom.
2.There is no such thing as an American English accent that is understandable unless you come from the Deep South and….
3. Even if you come from that region, any American can teach English to non-natives without having any difficulties in understanding.

 

There is always a hidden preference in an educational institution as to how to teach English, as I had just mentioned with my experience teaching English as that particular university. Some universities in Germany prefer American English over others, and vice versa. Part of it has to do with the historical aspect, where the northwestern and southern parts of West Germany were occupied by Brits and Americans respectively during the Cold War, whereas British English was preferred by East Germany as the Soviets were at war with the US. Traces of Americanism and British culture remained after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the influence prevailed everywhere, including academia.  When moving to Germany in 1999- ten years later- the preferences for one over the other was still there, but a new trend was taking shape- a form of universal English where there is no difference between British and American accents, just the vocabulary and how the words are stressed.
Fast-forwarding to the present, we are starting to see an unusual trend where the distinction of American and British English is disappearing faster than we think.  Over a billion people speak this universal form that is now considered international English, which has no direct distinction regarding accent and vocabulary. Instead words originating from the native language are being integrated into the structure and the people who speak it, have a accent that is typical of the native language they come from. That means in the case of Africa, Asia and parts of Europe, English is the second language for many people whose native tongue is rarely spoken outside their country of origin, like in the Czech Republic, Uganda, Kenya, India, Bangladesh and other countries for example. The trend is increasing, compared to the nearly 400 million native speakers of English in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and countries of the former British Commonwealth, which is holding steady but likely to decrease over the next 80 years. As this trend continues, we will more likely see non-native speakers of English roaming the streets of Berlin, London and Paris, with many of them speaking perfect English and teaching the language in the classroom. These people may still have their own native accent, but more likely will not adopt the American or British one, making it easier for students to understand the language in the classroom and learn the grammatical structure exactly the way it has been taught by native speakers.
The difference in British and American English brings me up to the second point, where one has to define what exactly is an American and a British accent, for the difference in communicating in both lies clearly in the region where the people originate from. There are some dialects of English that are even difficult for native speakers to understand, such as Scottish, Welsh, South London and Cornwall. Yet most Brits prefer the standard London dialect as the primary language of teaching.
In the US, there are many regions whose distinction lies clearly on the accent and dialect. Speaking from a northerner’s point of view, it is much more difficult to understand someone with a southern dialect originating from an area like Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia than one from the New England and East Coast states. Yet it does not mean that they cannot teach English in the classroom of a school in a foreign country.  Many American teachers abroad have chosen what I call the Chicago dialect, which is the primary language of the northern half of the country because it is clear and understandable, despite some over-usage of strong accents, like the words with R, E and/or A, for example . In other words, it is important for us to be a Chicagoan than a Texan if we use American English in the classroom.  Some examples of both British and American dialects can be found in the videos below:

Still, many non-native speakers of English have problems understanding the American form for several reasons. Apart from the dialect difference, we love to roll our Rs and Es, while talking fast and continually like hives of bees. And this can turn off many participants in the classroom right away, even if we are as loud and boisterous as the typical American stereotype.  Speaking from experience, a teacher cannot expect the students to keep up with the pace without them having to ask him/her to slow down. Henceforth, there are some tips for all American teachers to ensure that the experience teaching English in the classroom is an enjoyable one, instead of a nightmare.
Mr. Smith’s Teaching Tips for Communicating in the Classroom:
Speak slowly and clearly. If you need to, over-enunciate some words. It is very important that you speak at a pace where the students can understand you but you feel comfortable with the tempo. It will be difficult enough for them to pick up everything you say. Pending on the learning level, you may need to speak extra slow if their English knowledge is limited.

IDEA: Should you have problems keeping the tempo, or even enunciating the words, try speaking with a partner or group of people prior to your entrance into the classroom and allow them to give you some tips. Having some constructive criticism helps you to learn how to maintain your tempo.  Also useful is speaking with a wine cork in your mouth, placed between your teeth. A quirky exercise, but after a few sessions, it will help you speak more slowly and clearly.
If you have a regional dialect that is difficult to understand, try speaking with the universal accent that is known. America has its Chicago dialect. Britain its London. Germany has its Hamburg and Frankfurt dialects. Switzerland: Bernese for German, Genevan for French and Locarno for Italian.  You don’t need to be perfect in those, but using them as reference can help you better speak with a dialect that is understandable with your students.  Remember though, you don’t need to live in these regions in order to adopt it. It takes 10 years to do that, and by the time you’ve mastered it, you will most likely move onto another region with a different dialect.

 

Make sure you ask your students if they understand everything or have any questions. Asking is free and both students and teacher will benefit from it, whether it is for clarifying something that is confusing or elaborating further on a theme that is difficult to understand. As a rule of thumb, explain your concepts and the like as if you’re explaining it to a child- this quote should ring a bell, if you are a Denzel Washington fan.

 

And most importantly, never assume everyone will understand everything. Lower your expectations and plan according to their learning knowledge. Assumptions, speculations and guessing are costly to the teacher and his reputation towards the students, as well as the students  who will perceive him as arrogant and thinking too much of himself.

 

By following these simple tips, teachers will be able to have an enjoyable class with students who will benefit from a little learning. After a long day, students expect some relaxing entertainment from the teacher when learning English, and if the teacher can make it fun for them, the students will come away learning some new things about the language every day, be it vocabulary, grammar or anything pertaining to culture.
With that I would like to leave with a simple note. If someone tells you, as a teacher, that you need professional help because you speak too fast or have a strange dialect or accent that if not understandable to others, even if it is an American one, don’t take it seriously. That person probably hates you because you wanted to take her job away, which is not what teaching foreign languages is about. And perhaps it’s a sign to look for another teaching job in a friendlier environment. Upon consulting with a teacher of speech communication at a German university (whose name I will not elaborate because of privacy purposes), speech therapists only work with people with issues pertaining to lisps, malformed or even malfunctioning Adam’s Apples and accents in one’s native tongue that are caused by physical ailments or psychological issues.  Most problems in the world are treatable by working on it on your own and not through that of a therapist. Save the therapist for issues that you cannot control, yet if in doubt and people really have problems understanding you (not just a couple but numerous others), talk to a friend, trusting colleague or family member about it. Nine times out of ten you can take care of it yourself just by making a few minor adjustments or even practicing.

2 Responses to In School In Germany: Strange American Accent

  1. Rahel Wilke

    Love your blog and your teaching tips. It’s hilarious that students who spent a year in the US get told off in class for not speaking “proper English”, for most of the time, their accent and often even general foreign language skills are much “more English” than that spoken by the teacher. I would prefer listening to the Scottish accent all day long :-) . Can you please speak like that from now on? :-)

    • Jason D. Smith

      LOL! Laughing out loud over that comment! If Scottish is what you want, then Scottish you will get! ;-) There’s more to come in this series, BTW…. :-)

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