The native speaker, and the standard accent

Dora (false name) opened the door of the small room in this small bed and breakfast that the agency had booked for her. It had been a long day getting the girls (and a couple of boys) settled with their host families at the four corners of Greater London. And this was after a sleepless flight of 13 hours from Hong Kong. Dora breathed a sigh of relief as she put down her heavy knapsack on the floor. Before she had time to sit down on the small bed, the telephone rang.

It was from an angry mother who was calling from Hong Kong.

Mother: Your agency’s prospectus said the host families were all native speakers. But I learnt from my daughter five minutes ago that she was sent to an Indian family. If you don’t reassign my daughter to a native-speaker family, I will pull out my daughter, and your agency has to give me a refund.
Dora: But I’ve met with your daughter’s host family, and they ARE native speakers.
Mother: But they’re Indian.
Dora: But they ARE native speakers.
Mother: But they are Indian!
Dora: Yes, but they were all born in the UK.
Mother: I don’t care whether they were born in the UK or not; just give my daughter a native-speaker family.

Dora spent the next thirty minutes explaining to the disgruntled mother the situation in London and affirming and reconfirming that her daughter’s host family was native-speaking.

One minute after Dora was able to hang up, the phone rang again. A similar conversation took place in the next two hours, with four irate parents.

“But they’re black!”
“But they ARE native speakers.”

“But they’re Chinese!”
“But they ARE native speakers.”

“But they’re Polish!”
“But they ARE native speakers.”

“But they’re Pakistani.”

“But they ARE native speakers.”



Dora would start at a new school after the summer, so she would have a relatively ‘free’ summer vacation, as she didn’t have any school duties in the next 6 weeks. So she signed up with an agency that organized summer immersion programmes in the UK for school students in Hong Kong. Her duty was to chaperone a group of students to the UK, and to ensure that they would get along fine with their host families. Finally, Dora was assigned a group of young adolescents for a two-week programme in London.


In the first class of the Pronunciation Teaching course last Monday, I explained to the student teachers how the concept of Standard Accent and native-speaker models is gradually replaced by notions of World Englishes and mutual intelligibility. Yet in Hong Kong, a lot of parents still prefer native-speaker teachers for their children. For some of them, even ethnic Chinese born in America or Britain who don’t speak Chinese any more do not count as native speakers. They can accept the existence of Black native speakers, but would want their children to stay away from them. For them, only a white person born in an English-speaking country qualifies as a native speaker.


This is not to say that native speakers don’t have any special contribution to English language teaching. For me, their biggest contribution is the generation of natural acts of communication in English with learners, at least in the Hong Kong context.

And this is not to say that non-native ESL teachers need not bother about their accent. But for the majority of people who learn English as a language for communication, obsessing over a native-speaker or a ‘standard’ accent is not going to help their learning or communicative effectiveness.


Are all whites ‘native speakers’?
Do all native speakers speak a ‘standard accent’?