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Fear of Accented English

Students outside the U.S. doubt reliability of instruction in English that is not from native speakers, study finds.

November 16, 2017
 

Students do not trust teaching by foreign lecturers who speak English with unfamiliar accents, as compared with teaching by native speakers, an academic has warned -- meaning that students may need to be trained to overcome this prejudice.

Charlotte Schmidt, a senior lecturer in water management at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, found that Dutch students at the university did not take “seriously” lecturers from a partner university in Indonesia who taught using accented English.

The students, who were studying civil engineering, urban planning and water management, were much more likely to question the data sets used by Indonesians and tended to believe that the research field in the Netherlands was “much better developed.”

The problem was so serious that “after two years, most of them [Indonesian academics] drop out” of the exchange program, she said. “It’s a bit demotivating” for them, she added. “There’s only a small group of teachers who keep coming.”

There is plenty of academic literature that finds that nonnative speakers are seen as less credible by an audience, Schmidt argued. In one study cited in her paper exploring the problem, 40 percent of undergraduates avoided taking classes taught by foreign teaching assistants.

“Accented speech potentially has a negative impact on attitudinal and affective response of students. Accent is used as a signal that the speaker is part of an out-group and statements made by a speaker with a heavy accent are perceived as less truthful,” she writes in “Impact of Accented Speech on the Credibility of International Exchange Courses; Challenges for Exchanging Knowledge and Experience in the Erasmus+ Program,” presented at a recent conference in Indonesia.

This problem needs to be taken much more seriously by universities as they increasingly hire people from overseas and strike up exchange partnerships across the world, Schmidt argued.

In universities, and in society more generally, people need to be aware of this mental quirk that lowers trust in nonnative speakers, she said.

Accent may not be the only reason for a lack of trust, however: the former colonial relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia could leave Dutch students with a sense of superiority, Schmidt acknowledged. “There’s several issues working together,” she said, which were difficult to separate.

But previous research has controlled for these separate factors and still found that accent alone reduces credibility, she argued. For example, when the Dutch students traveled to Denmark -- widely admired in the Netherlands for its education system -- to take courses taught in English, there was still “a problem” for Danish lecturers and credibility, Schmidt said.

These Dutch students had slightly more trust in lecturers with accents even though English is not their native language, she pointed out, with many believing that their command of English is “impeccable.”

With many Dutch universities switching to teaching in English, this lecturer credibility issue is only likely to become more of a problem, she said.

But there are solutions, Schmidt continued. Students at her university take cultural competence classes for general purposes, where they can practice interacting with an actor playing someone of a different culture, and this could be a way of tackling the problem, she suggested.

Another technique that could assist is a Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences program that invites students from Indonesia to study alongside Dutch students. After the two groups cooperate and make friends, “they come past the cultural barrier” and the Dutch students learn that their Indonesian counterparts “are quite good civil engineers” -- so engendering trust in Indonesian lecturers as well, Schmidt explained.

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