She said, “Everyone thinks that I’m not a native speaker of English.”
I was confused. She saw that I was confused. She crossed her arms and said, “You also think I’m not a native speaker?”
I opened and closed my mouth, then shrugged my shoulders.
“Well, I’m not,” she said. “I’m a native speaker of English, just like you. I just speak Indian English and you speak American English.”
I’ve thought about my friend’s situation for many years. Recently, my wife went on a business trip to Singapore. She is a non-native speaker of English. While in Singapore, she told me, it was very difficult to understand the local people’s English. I did some research, and learned that many people in Singapore are also native speakers of English, but they speak Singaporean English.
Anytime a language moves to a new place, it changes. From person to person, group-to-group, or city-to-city, the way people use language is not exactly the same. Many of these differences are related to vocabulary, idiomatic phrases, or slang, as well as to differences in social rules and cultural norms. Yet, if we look at the experience of my Indian friend, or the Singaporean people who met my wife, it’s fairly obvious that one of the biggest differences is related to accent.
My friend spoke English with an Indian accent. The Indian English accent is very different from the North American English accent. It’s so different that people in America assumed she was a non-native speaker. In Singapore, which is a very multi-lingual society, the local English is also spoken with an accent.
Recently, I was in a faculty meeting at my university. The director of the faculty was preparing to hire new teachers for the next academic year, and wanted recommendations. One teacher asked, “Do they have to be a native speaker to teach here?”
The director said, “Yes?”
“Can we define ‘native speaker?’” Another teacher asked.
The director paused for a moment and said, “Someone whose first language is English.”
A third teacher raised his hand and said, “Then I’m not a native speaker.”
We all laughed. He had been raised in Quebec, and his first language was French. He immigrated to the United States as a child.
This meeting demonstrated an uncomfortable reality about what separates native from non-native speakers of English. Remember that my Indian friend’s first language was English, yet she was identified as a non-native speaker. The teacher mentioned above was not a native speaker of English, but of French, yet he was identified as a native speaker. What is the difference between them?
Once again, the answer is accent.
Yet, we’re not really talking about native vs. non-native English accents. In this case, we’re talking about the North American English accent vs. other types of accents. It’s fairly obvious that certain English accents are generally viewed as more prestigious than others. That is to say, certain English accents represent an ideal “native speaker” pronunciation that students of English want to imitate. Speakers with different accents may be native speakers of English (like my friend), but their accent is not as strongly associated with “native speaker English” as a North American English accent is. This would also apply if we were comparing Indian English to, for example, British English or Australian English.
This may seem like an abstract social problem, but actually how one person perceives another person’s accent can seriously undermine successful communication. When two native speakers of English from the same area or with the same background (and therefore with the same accent) communicate, they both share responsibility for completing their communication successfully. This responsibility is sometimes called the “burden of communication.” Often, when a non-native speaker of English attempts to communicate with a native speaker, the native speaker will place all of the responsibility for communicating successfully with the non-native speaker. After all, the native speaker thinks, this is my language, so this non-native speaker needs to figure out how to communicate with me, and if they can’t, then it’s their fault and not mine.
Think about when you communicate with another native speaker in your first language? Don’t you sometimes have misunderstandings? Don’t you sometimes not known what another person means? Of course, you would never say that, when talking with another native speaker, that they have all of the responsibility for communicating with you, and you have none for communicating with them.
That native speakers of any language often refuse to share the burden of communication with non-native speakers is not a theory. It is a phenomenon that has been studied scientifically. Dr. Okim Kang, a pronunciation researcher in Arizona, has worked with a number of colleagues studying this problem. Her research has found that, when American college students believe that a teacher is a non-native speaker of English, they automatically believe that that teacher is less trustworthy or less competent.
The bottom line is that when two (or more) people choose to communicate with each other, the burden of communication is shared equally between them. When my friend communicates with a speaker of North American English, it is their responsibility to try to communicate with her as a speaker of Indian English, not to act like she has to do all the work to communicate successfully, simply because she has an accent.
For non-native speakers of English, whoever you are and where ever you are, please remember: If a native speaker of English refuses to communicate with you, or throws his hands up in the air and says, “this is impossible,” they are the ones who failed to communicate successfully. Not you.