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Posted at 5:08 PM ET, 05/ 5/2010

Accented teachers may be better for English language learners: study

By Valerie Strauss

A new study on how well students learn second languages from teachers with accents suggests that Arizona may be making a mistake by trying to remove heavily accented Hispanic teachers from classrooms filled with Hispanics trying to learn English.

School districts in Arizona are under orders from the state Department of Education to remove teachers who speak English with a very heavy accent (and/or whose speech is ungrammatical) from classrooms with students who are learning to speak English. Officials say they want students who don’t know much English to have teachers who can best model how to speak the language.

I wrote the other day about the difficulties in determining just how deep an accent has to be to be considered a problem, but here’s another side of the issue.

According to a new research study conducted in Israel, students learn a second language better from a teacher who speaks in the same accent as they do.

The study, published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, said that students learning from a teacher with the same accent have an easier time understanding the material. They don’t have to spend time trying to understand the English in a different accent.

According to one of the report’s co-authors, Psychology Professor Zohar Eviatar, the concentration a student would have to summon to understand English in a different accent is considerably greater than if the student were a native English speaker.

In Arizona, that would mean that Hispanic kids studying English would learn better from teachers with Spanish accents.

The research, conducted at the University of Haifa, has implications not just for second language acquisition, but for how well students learn new subjects, Eviatar said.

The study was performed by researchers from different backgrounds. Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim is an Israeli Arab with an Arabic accent; Dr. Mark Leikin hails from the former Soviet Union and speaks with a Russian accent; Eviatar is a fluently bilingual Hebrew-English speaker. The team was both personally and professionally curious to know more about the accent effect.

Here’s how the study was done:

Sixty participants from ages 18 to 26 were chosen: Twenty were native Hebrew speakers, 20 were from the former Soviet Union, and 20 were Israeli Arabs who had started learning Hebrew at about seven years of age.

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, according to the Innovation News Service, 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.

The 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.

"If you are an Arab, you would understand English better if taught by a native Arab English teacher," Eviatar believes, adding, "This research isn’t even just about learning language but can be expanded to any topic like math or geography.

"If you have a Spanish accent and your teacher has a Chinese accent it will be much harder for you to concentrate on your studies," Eviatar continues. "It’s best to learn from a teacher who teaches with a majority accent - the accent of the language being spoken, or an accent like your own. If not, it’s an added burden for the student.”

Someone should give this study to Arizona education officials.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 5, 2010; 5:08 PM ET
Categories:  Learning, Research, Teachers  | Tags:  Arizona, Arizona and accented teachers, Arizona and teachers, Arizona orders teachers with accents out of class, Arizona schools, English language learners, accented teachers, how accents affect learning, language research, research, research on accents, research study on accents, teachers with accents, the answer sheet and arizona  
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I disagree with this research. When I came to the US 15 years ago, my English teachers were all Caucasian speaking perfect English. It was so easy to learn from them while it was a challenge listening to people outside of the classroom. The teacher spoke perfect English. talked slowly, and clearly. I still remember each word they spoke was so full, so rounded, so complete, and I tried to do the same. I wouldn't be able to learn it from teachers with accent and I am sure I would change the class to a teacher without accent.

Posted by: nam1 | May 5, 2010 11:40 PM | Report abuse

In other words, cater entirely to the Hispanics.

Posted by: wmpowellfan | May 6, 2010 3:49 AM | Report abuse

The study, published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, said that students learning from a teacher with the same accent have an easier time understanding the material. They don’t have to spend time trying to understand the English in a different accent.
The real question, though, is: how well would native speakers of English understand someone who speaks English with a heavy foreign accent? And if these students are or will become Americans, just why is it an advantage for them to have a heavy accent?

I guess that also means that English-speaking AMERICANS should be taught only by those who speak English without a foreign accent?

Posted by: Ali4 | May 6, 2010 7:08 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: demtse | May 6, 2010 7:12 AM | Report abuse

Based on mine and my children's experience, it is best to learn a foreign language from a native speaker. However, this research shouldn't be used as a justification to keep heavily accented teachers in regular, non-foreign language courses in Arizona. While I appreciate the debate sparked by Ms. Strauss on this entire topic, I do wonder exactly where her and the Washington Post's motives are based.

Posted by: abcxyz2 | May 6, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

It's better to have teachers using poor grammar? Ridiculous. Arizona is right to get rid of teachers that can't speak English properly. We want to teach kids poor English? If we want people to participate in society, they need to know how to speak properly and with as light an accent as possible. I once had a classmate who spoke Russian with a big ole Southern accent. It was 1) amazingly funny to listen to and 2) completely incomprehensible to the Russians.

Posted by: beta1 | May 6, 2010 7:58 AM | Report abuse

I have learned several languages, and it is nearly always preferable to have a native speaker as teacher, particularly at more advanced levels. Usually, native speakers are the best example for the pronunciation, fluidity, and accent that the learner will be trying to mimic.

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | May 6, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

I haven't read the JPR study, but is it possible the researchers overlooked/left out the possibility of first language ASSISTANCE from the speaker with the same "accent" as the students? Is it plausible that a native Spanish speaker with a "heavy accent" is not going to use Spanish at ANY time whatsoever when English language learners request assistance in Spanish? In a typical ESL class, you could have 4 - 10 different languages and their respective accents, so does that mean we need to provide an English instructor for each group in our public schools?

Posted by: Matamoros1 | May 6, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

As a former foreign language teacher, I agree that being a native speaker can be a huge asset in the classroom. The kicker is that native speaker has to be a good teacher too. Sometimes schools hire native speakers just so they can say they have them, with little or no consideration as to whether they can actually teach.

Posted by: MOMto2 | May 6, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

I have always been surprised that, many English speaking American students say they prefer foreign language teachers whose first language is English.(At the beginning levels)I always wondered at that, because you would think that the best thing would be to have a native speaker. I suspect that the instructor who sounds more like the students knows exactly what is difficult from one language to the next and serves as a cultural bridge until they get to the next level. Perhaps the "American-sounding" teacher is also easier to relate to for some kids.
I would suspect that something similiar happened in the Isaraeli study you mention.

I myself had the luxury of a teacher from Spain when I began language studies. She was clear and simply wonderful! I always thought the teachers from the countries were "better", but when I became a language teacher noticed that not all kids shared my attitude.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 6, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Your crock runneth over.

I am a native English speaker who has taught ESL for six years in Chiapas, Mexico.

Heavily accented teachers teach students to speak with a heavy accent. The debate whether native speakers are better teachers than those teaching with their L2 is eternal and opinions are based on racism, jealousy or the political job situation of a language teaching institution.

The best teachers, native speakers or not, are those that teach didactically letting students practice all the language learning skills in pairs or small groups with mixed variety and realia from the culture of the language taught that appeals to the students personal interests.

All general conclusions regarding L1 or L2 teachers being more effective are motivated by something else than the "research"

Posted by: areyousaying | May 6, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

As a native English speaker I found that there was great variety in how well i leraned a foreign language. I found that at the very beging levels as teacher who spoke english like me helped the most. He/she already knew where the pitfalls were when they had learned it them selves and were better able to use comparisons from english to teach. At higher levels i got much more from native speakers. The nuances and intacacies of pronounciations were vital. However the hardest time with a language was when I was learning 2nd or 3rd year Latin and my Teacher happend to be from way down south in Georgia. I had a great deal of trouble with her english , so the Latin was almost a lost cause and I can see where this study is coming from. I think it has some merit, but the issue of learing a foreign language is so much more than just how the teacher speaks. They have to be a good teacher to begin with and they also have to be able to adapt to the needs of their students. If they can accompish those things, it will matter much less weather they have an accent or not. Impropper grammar however should be barred from all teachers regardless of what they teach.

Posted by: schnauzer21 | May 6, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

I think this research is being misrepresented. I don't understand how it can prove anything related to TEACHING foreign languages. I went to the original article and looked to make sure I didn't miss anything, but it doesn't say anything about the students being INSTRUCTED by teachers with different accents. The only thing they did was gather students from various backgrounds and let them listen to the same words but in different accents. It measured how long it took them to recognize words in isolation. That is all. Their findings showed that it was easier to recognize the foreign word if it's in your own accent, but how helpful is that when you're traveling overseas or speaking to a native speaker? Why would you use your foreign language to speak to someone who already speaks the same native language you do? What is the point of learning a second language if not to use it in real world situations? I think it's pretty short sighted to look at this as proving that native speakers are harder to learn a language from.

Posted by: rrap1 | May 6, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the author ever said native speakers are harder to learn from. The point was that native speakers and people with a similar accent to the students they teach do get better results than a "third" type of accent.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 6, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

We know where this is going.

Posted by: jckdoors | May 6, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

The adage "figures lie and liars figure" comes to mind.

I am in total agreement with comments posted by notamiss in the ELT World Discussion forum:

"If you look at the study, the results are the obvious, expected ones. Students learning Hebrew found it harder to recognize a Hebrew word when it was (mis)pronounced in an accent different from their own language.

Sure, students will find it easier to understand L2 if the teacher (mis)pronounces in a way similar to their own take on L2 pronunciation, but habituating them to such an accent will only make it harder for them to later understand native speakers with native-speaker pronunciation."

What a scholastically dishonest, politically motivated fraud this WaPo column is. Shame on you.

Posted by: areyousaying | May 6, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

In the same way that I wouldn't want students to be taught by a teacher who says, "Ain't", "Dese", or "Dem", I don't want to see kids learning English from teachers who don't have reasonable accents. Even more importantly, the teachers need to have a very strong and colloquial command of English. Our district has hired teachers from Mexico, and I've heard a number of them speak English at meetings. Some speak very well, and others speak in very, very poor Enlish that would serve as a terrible model for kids learning English.

Not every teacher needs to sound like he was born in Minnesota, but expecting that teachers are able to correctly pronounce all of the sounds used in English is a reasonable pre-requisite to teaching English, and being able to speak fluidly and clearly is an absolute requirement.

At the secondary school level, heavy accents aren't particularly a problem, but for elementary school, let's give kids a fighting chance to learn English well.

Posted by: bk0512 | May 6, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

So when students need to learn English we cater(KISS ASS) to the hiSPICanict and ignore other students who need to learn English. Just another way of trying to make spanish the primary language of the USA. DEPORT THE ILLEGALS NOW.

Posted by: alterego3 | May 6, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

This is hilarious. It's not about the accent, but the education and knowledge of teaching methods. I'd rather learn a foreign language from a professional college educated foreign language teacher than from a native speaker who barely can speak or write his own language.

I still cannot eraise a painful image from my memory of a US diplomat who studied russian tutored by an uneducated Turkmen.
His accent was that of a migrant field worker rather than a westerner.. Rather funny trade off.

PS. I know three languages, but I would not dare to teach anyone as I am not equipped with the methodology of teaching ESL or any other foreign language.

Posted by: Silly_Willy_Bulldog | May 6, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

I think that once a kid is school-aged, it's the teacher's teaching ability, rather than accent, that makes the most difference in a foreign language class (or any class for that matter.) Very few kids who start learning a foreign language at age 12 are ever going to speak it without an accent anyway. Having a native speaker teach a language really adds the most value if the learner is a baby or small child.

Posted by: bubba777 | May 6, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Could someone please remove the 2:52 post. It is offensive.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 6, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Gee could Arizona possibly be wrong?

WOW, that would be the second time.

Wonders never cease.

The government in that police state is always right, I thought!!

Posted by: hfaulk01 | May 6, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

This is really ignorant writing:
"In Arizona, that would mean that Hispanic kids studying English would learn better from teachers with Spanish accents."

So Latinos in the U.S. have Spanish accents? That's news to me. I thought only people from SPAIN did. Likewise, Americans don't have English accents.

Posted by: RL67 | May 6, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

schnauzer21 has a point. Will Arizona also remove all teachers with New England accents? Or should Boston fire all teachers from the South?

Besides, who determines which accents will hinder understanding? My mother, who spent much of her childhood in and around Chicago and had several relatives who spoke German or German-accented English, was deeply embarrassed to discover she had difficulty understanding her new daughter-in-law from Texas. On the other hand, during the Nixon Administration, she was the only one in the household who understood anything Henry Kissinger said. When she and I went to England, I often had to "translate"; I frequently watched British sitcoms and Sherlock Holmes mysteries, while she didn't. And when my English class read "The Grapes of Wrath," we questioned why Steinbeck used the spellings "crick" and "clo'es." We had grown up in Southern Ohio, surrounded by people who had come from Appalachia to work in factories during WWII, and had several teachers from Kentucky. As well-read high school juniors (honors English), we honestly didn't know those words were pronounced any other way! And, with a lot of Mennonites and German Baptist with roots in Pennsylvania Dutch country, every one of us would have instantly understood, "The bread got all. Redd up the table I go buy more."

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 6, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Wouldn't a hispanic accented teacher be handicapping other minority kids that don't speak english then? Social engineering is a bad idea and always will be.

Posted by: vitoon | May 6, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

A teacher who speaks English with an accent might be an excellent language teacher, EXCEPT when it comes to teaching pronunciation. But the importance of this issue depends upon the context: if there's no budget for great teachers with perfect English, better to have teachers with accents than none at all.

Posted by: bokamba | May 6, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

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