The Accommodating Teacher

I was inspired to write this attempt at a post by recent posts by Laura Patsko, Katy Davies and Steve Brown, all of which concern, to a greater or lesser degree, the way we use language and what this means. It takes a different route to these posts, but there’s occasional points of convergence (more on that later).

An Enquiry into Scottish Understanding

Question: what do me and David Hume have in common? No, it’s not that we’re both great philosophers, as my work is clearly superior to his… Yes! Got it. We come from the same country. That country is Scotland. And so one could posit that Hume and I probably have (adjusting for the passage of time and many many changes, of course) Scottish accents.

Having a Scottish accent is a funny thing. While we come near the top of rigorously scientific and useful polls on who has the sexiest accent, we are often portrayed as unintelligible (with thanks to Laura for the link). I am routinely told (by both native and non-native speakers), in tones of delightful surprise, that I am remarkably easy to understand as my accent is “so clear”. As it seems Scottish people are completely unintelligible to the rest of the world, it’s apparently quite a shock to many a non-Scot that they can understand me without having to really make an effort (as an aside, I’ve never found Scottish people particularly difficult to understand…).

But I digress. Coming back to Hume, he  famously (as well as wearing suspicious hats and wigs) could not abide the thought of “Scottishisms” in his written work and sent it to friends so they could find any and remove them (and told off other philosophers for not doing so). Why would he do that? The reason was for clarity on behalf of the reader, it seems. In other words, he was doing something that all language teachers should: accommodating (which is probably where Hume and I’s common bonds end).

Defining Accommodation

Accommodation is an idea from sociolinguistics that involves processes with which speakers change their way of speaking to be more or less like their interlocutor (see Dimitrios Thanasoulas for an accessible and complete description of Accommodation Theory and Scott Thornbury for further discussion more relating it to teaching). It can be verbal or non-verbal and is often subdivided into the two categories of:

  • Convergence – involves speaking more like your interlocutor to make yourself understood due to factors such as attractiveness, charisma, higher social status and so forth. As such, it involves a desire for social acceptance, but also for intelligibility.

  • Divergence – the opposite of the above, asserting your identity and difference between you and your interlocutor to signal group identity, for example (q.v. Steve Brown for an example of this).

Note that in my definition of convergence, I mention intelligibility. For my purposes here (and Hume’s above), I’ll be using accommodation in this convergent sense, to mean making yourself understood to those with whom you are speaking.  So, I seem to be rather good at convergence, as my learners can understand me (a facet of “language grading” in ELT terms), Americans I meet in the pub can and when I’m with other Scottish people I (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) become more Scottish. But it’s not all about me; it’s about us all as teachers.

Teachers and Learners: Separated by an Accommodating Language?

The language we use in the classroom is a thorny issue. Whether you’re an ELF (yes, that is the appellation for a proponent of ELF..), a new teacher, a non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST) or just some bloke that turned up in Costa Rica looking for money for sustenance and beer and then ended up teaching English, the language you use in the classroom is critical. And I mean use, not teach (whether those two things should be distinct is another debate). In Laura’s post, she deplores courses featuring “accent reduction” for NNESTs and Steve Brown laments “accent neutralisation”. These terms are loaded and not particularly helpful descriptions of exactly what courses along these lines might actually do, but interestingly they are for NNESTs and aim at making their accents more native-like. After all, surely these are the people who need to develop their pronunciation to be more native, right?

Wrong.

I work with a lot of trainee teachers on a pre-service course like CELTA and, eight times out of ten, the people with the biggest problems accommodating are the native speakers. This is both in terms of speaking to other trainees and to their students. And why? Because the majority have spent their entire lives accommodating only with other native speakers and so think nothing of idiomatic lexical choices when talking to an elementary level class, for example, not seeing that that’s not helping them be more intelligible. Add to this suspiciously complex grammar choices (clefts with modals, anyone?), more connected speech than you’d find in a law firm called “Assimilation, Elision and Co.” and cultural references to, Ireland, say, because that’s really obvious and everyone knows about it (yeah, not your average Bangladeshi learner in Dubai – what do you know about Chittagong?) and you’ve got a heady mix of unintelligibility going on there.

Y’see, making yourself understood is not just about your accent; it encompasses linguistic choices across all the systems (grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse). So, like, accent reduction completely misses the point. This isn’t the problem. The problem is a lack of awareness of how to accommodate your speech to your learners. There are strategies that can be used to do this and these will be based on listening to the learners and working out what you can and cannot say to be intelligible. This is such a big issue for a language teacher who teaches in the target language as, without some successful accommodating, there ain’t gonna be no mutual intelligibility and then, ultimately, what’s the point? Where’s the course for NESTs on how to accommodate better? In fact, regardless, where’s the course for language teachers on how to accommodate better, whatever your accent?

The Accommodation Enlightenment

So, my line here is that, while terms like “accent reduction” are highly prejudiced and really not very useful (and yet, to get that job in an American call centre in Costa Rica, your learner has to take this course), an idea like accommodation is powerful and very important for a language teacher. It should inform completely the way you use language in the classroom (and not just to be understood, but to build successful rapport too!). If I am teaching people who have recently emigrated to being a new life in Scotland, I will be more Scottish as it would be a disservice to them to be more neutral; however, if I am teaching Iranians in Dubai who don’t even know where Scotland is, it would be a disservice to them to be overly Scottish and so I should be more neutral. I can’t completely neutralise my accent (does such an accent even exist?), but I can make informed choices about what I say and how I’m doing it.

And so where does this leave us? It means that as teachers, whether NNESTs or NESTs, we all have a duty to convergence, to make ourselves understood by our learners to help them learn better. And if that means you have a strong French accent  and some people can’t understand you (as happened on a recent course of mine), you have the responsibility to change that; likewise, if your strong native accent is causing your learners problems (as is more likely to be the case, for me) then you too must do something about that.

Take a leaf out of Hume’s weighty book and be more aware of how you say what you do.

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12 thoughts on “The Accommodating Teacher

  1. Hey Chris, terrific post, as usual. (And what a sexy Scottish accent you have!)

    But seriously. You make a whole range of very good points very well, and your description of how pre-service trainees often struggle to grade their language was spot-on. I agree that courses on this (for anyone who wants/needs to take them, native or non) would be significantly more useful and worthwhile than (*retches*) ‘accent reduction’ ones.

    I was teetering on the brink of doing my MA dissertation on accommodation (particularly how teachers grade their language) but ended up doing something else. Perhaps this could be a joint project one day, if you’re so interested in this too? To be discussed at IATEFL 2014, I hope…

  2. Timely reminder -although not a new teacher, those times when you’ve been teaching higher levels for a while and suddenly have to teach at the other end of the scale can still be difficult.

    In reverse, I once had a higher level class comment to my co-teacher that they liked me because I was so easy to understand -I’d just come from three months in elementary!

  3. Hi Chris,
    I think you’re absolutely right to bring the issue of linguistic accommodation to the attention of teachers and trainee teachers. What’s particularly important is, as you say, knowing the extent to which you should converge or diverge in order to provide appropriate models for the students.
    I have to confess that in my everyday life I have a tendency to converge almost too much. If I’m having a three-way conversation with an English person I don’t know very well and a Glasgow taxi driver, for example, I’ve been known to switch accent mid-sentence – which can be a bit disconcerting for my interlocutors.
    However, in the classroom a teacher really needs to be conscious of the model they are providing. When I taught abroad I, like you, tended to neutralise my accent to some extent as it was pretty useless for my students to hear a Scottish accent. I was, however, keen to make it clear to them that, while my speech was easy to understand and, again like you, I was often complimented on my accent, I often said things differently from the way they were said on the CD.
    Anyway, now I work in Clydebank I have a tendency to “weedgify” my accent in the classroom as this is useful input for my students, who are long-term residents in the West of Scotland. (Weedgies are people from Glasgow, for any non-Scots reading this). I also introduce lexical items that may be useful, and students are always grateful to have phrases like “Nae bother” or “Just take a wee seat” explained to them.
    One other point related to difficulties that native speakers have in grading their language. This isn’t only a problem for teachers. As the UK becomes more multicultural and multilingual, many people who work in service industries and public sector jobs are increasingly required to deal with non-native speakers. There’s a general perception that the onus is on the non-native speaker to learn English, but I think there is a lot of scope for native speakers to attempt to bridge this gap as well. On a wider scale, native speakers shouldn’t expect to go to countries like Dubai and India and expect the locals to accommodate their speech for them, without making any effort to accommodate themselves.
    Thanks again for posting this.

  4. Hello! Just came across your blog thanks to Twitter (of course) and loved this post. It has a lot to do with my little blog is about – trying to help us Native Speakers become more aware of our own language. I’m a big supporter of companies working with the Native Speakers in addition to all that money they throw at the non-native speakers learning English. Anyhow, the point about language teachers is extremely valid… I imagine that most of us ESL teachers picked that up along the way (hopefully) through trial and error. We often tend to focus on the accent reduction part when there is so much more to it.

    Who knows – perhaps a little bit of “accommodation training” will become part of those pre-service CELTA like courses. Not just a “watch your accent” comment but something more tangible. A lot of the times communication problems are being caused by the NS in the international conversation anyhow… doesn’t matter if they’re from Scotland, England, Texas, or California :-p

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  6. Debbie

    Hi Chris, just participated in your presentation and I enjoyed it very much. I would like to email to share a feeling I had during the presentation. Would that be possible?
    Thanks in advance

      1. Debbie

        Hi Chris,
        OK I will comment here. When you were speaking about Convergence & Learning Context, the question was: What different needs do emigrant learners in Dubai and Scotland have?. it was very clear that the teacher would have to accommodate to Scottish words, to help them understand. Your example was really powerful. I wrote down in the chat box that it’s the same thing in Spanish, and your answer was “No, no no we don’t speak Spanish in Scotland”, that was also clear to me. But somehow I felt like you when being reprimanded by your Yoga teacher, just to use a metaphor. What I wanted to mean, as I feel I was unable to express correctly that in Spanish there’s also the same or similar need to accommodate the language depending on the country you are teaching, even more, within the country people use different lexis according to regions.
        If what I mentioned about Spanish is wrong, I’m afraid I would need to review the meaning of accommodation. Or was it just that I was not clear enough?
        I thank you in advance for your feedback. I loved your presentation, so much so that i would like to check comprehension on this topic.
        Debbie

      2. Chris Ożóg

        Hi Debbie,

        Thanks for taking the time to comment and for taking part in the presentation. I’m very sorry that you felt reprimanded! That was never my intention when speaking and, though I don’t recall the incident, it sounds like I was perhaps simply being flippant for some reason, maybe for humour. You are completely right about the variation in Spanish perhaps being much greater than that in English, with each country (and even region) often having quite different words and so, as you say, you would need to address that if teaching Spanish. Accommodation and convergence would work here in the very broad sense of how I was using the terms, so I think you’re understanding is spot on! Check out Wikipedia for an accessible and brief definition of convergence in its more specific use: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communication_accommodation_theory#Convergence

        Chris

      3. Debbie

        Dear Chris,
        I thank you so much for your answer. I have this feeling of having learnt so much from your talks and all the wonderful people in the conference. Really impressed by the professional talks.
        I’ll check out the definition of convergence and I am thankful for your reply.
        I have to learn a lot from you all guys.
        Debbie

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  8. Natalia

    How interesting to be thinking of accommodation when I am suddenly left voiceless – a classical, textbook accommodation example, with everybody finding themselves whispering back to me almost outside their control.
    Have always been an advocate. The only concerns I have are as follows: 1) if you accommodate to the group, it means joining “the middle”, not the best, hence possible lack of challenge. You spoke about it, but is it really easy to deal with this. 2) do people always want what’s best for them? 3) Despite everybody advocating for the world Englishes, I have never heard anyone say “what a lovely Indian/Malasian/Polish accent you have”, it’s always the “native” varieties that “impress”, if you wish, and many of our students want to impress.

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