No need to sound like a native speaker
In response to the article ``Many Koreans suffer 'English stress' and a few snap” by Kim Tae-jong on April 6, I would like to add my thoughts regarding the desire to acquire a native accent when learning another language.
There is no doubt that this phenomenon is certainly prevalent in Korea with parents paying enormous sums of money to try and enable their children to sound like a native English speaker.
While this may be considered an achievable goal by many, it is in fact extremely difficult, demotivating and for those who did not begin learning when they were young, it may not even be possible. This difficulty may be further exacerbated by the fact that it is questionable whether a standard native accent actually exists.
In Korea, English is a foreign language and as mentioned by Professor Lee Byung-min of Seoul National University in the aforementioned article, Koreans do not have many chances to use English in their daily lives outside of the academic environment and some specialist businesses. Therefore, linguistic progression may be inhibited as learners need to use the language constantly to see marked improvements.
Furthermore, it needs to be acknowledged that English is now an international language and this means that there are now considerably more non-native learners and speakers of English than native speakers. Consequently, even with the limited opportunities of use, a Korean speaker of English is more likely to use the language to communicate with another non-native speaker of English. Thus, we must question the idea of why a native accent is often thought a prerequisite for a speaker to be regarded as a proficient user of English.
Previous studies of accent have shown that many learners value native pronunciation above being able to convey their message successfully. These findings are worrisome and problematic as the primary goal of any communicative act should be to express the intended message so that it is understood. Sounding like a native user of English may help but it is far from necessary.
Let’s not forget that in countries where English is the native tongue, there is a huge diversity of pronunciation according to geographic and socio-economic backgrounds. The differing accents of native speakers means that even citizens of the same country may find each other’s English unintelligible due to being unfamiliar with such varieties.
Considering the fact that native speakers vary in their pronunciation and can find each other difficult to understand, this brings into question what a native accent actually is, whether it exists and more importantly why it is desired by learners.
One of the most common reasons for learning English is for academic attainment. Korea has traditionally favoured grammar based assessment but examinations with speaking sections such as TOEFL and the new Korean National English Ability Test have placed more emphasis on speaking. However, these tests only require actual language ability combined with clear pronunciation. A non-native accent will not negatively affect the candidate’s grade.
Acknowledging that a native accent is unnecessary for most learners is an essential step in developing realistic learning and attainment goals. Pronunciation is very important but learners would be better served by focusing on eliminating common pronunciation errors that impede understanding while also equipping themselves with a range of strategies to communicate their thoughts successfully.
These are not easy tasks but they are certainly more accomplishable and useful than devoting great deal of effort to emulate native accents. If learners communicate information in a comprehensible manner, they are successful speakers of English and this should be recognized.
The use of English globally means that the language no longer belongs to England, America or any other country where it is the national language. It belongs to everyone who uses it. English like any other language is constantly changing and so should our ideas about what is necessary to be classified as a competent user and speaker of English.
The writer is an instructor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Language Institute and is currently undertaking a master’s course in TEFL. Contact him at email@example.com.