July 2022 | 2022 | International justice in the news | Programs in International Justice and Society

“Decolonizing Accent in English Teaching”

This month’s Spotlight comes from a member of Language, Culture and Hub Mingy Li. Mingyi holds a Ph.D. student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. For her master’s, she explored how Western influence affected Chinese doctoral students’ understanding of the West before they arrived in Canada, as well as their decision to choose Canada as a destination to advance their academic careers..

The Language, Culture and Justice Hub recently hosted a webinar that explored related issues. Entitled “Towards Linguistic Justice in Higher Education,” the event featured Hub members Marguerite Lukes, Vijay Ramjattan and Shawna Shapiro. Watch a recording of the webinar here.

In this Projector piece, I would like to present a small part of my master’s thesis from OISE. The main objective of this dissertation was to examine the identity formation of Chinese international students – born in the 1990s and having spent considerable time living in China and Canada – as they negotiate their understanding of race, nationality, values ​​and beliefs through their journey of settlement in North American countries. This Spotlight aims to present how the language learning experiences of Chinese students before their arrival in the West can modify their behaviors when they settle in the West.

The results of my study indicated that all of the participants received training in the “Standardized North American English Accent” at varying levels while in China. The impacts of accent training were different for each participant. According to participants’ accounts, the native speaker ideology was deeply embedded in the professional thinking and activities used by their English teachers while studying in China. For example, one participant recounted:

OISE logoI don’t think we have a choice to have the “Chinese accent” when speaking English in the Chinese education system. We can only have the North American accent or the British accent. I remember our elementary and secondary English programs were all in North American English. My high school English teachers asked us to rehearse after all kinds of North American radio stations. We had to do our best to have the same pronunciation and speaking habits as white people.

Another participant shared a very similar story:

All of my elementary school English teachers and after school English classes have played for us on North American and UK radio. They wanted us to have the same accents as those broadcasters. I think the accuracy of English expression was highly emphasized in the English class in China. We tend to find the most accurate pronunciation [of English]. I can’t even have the same pronunciation as Chinese broadcasters when I speak Chinese, which is my mother tongue. How is it possible to have the exact pronunciations like the English broadcasters?

The process of having students mimic North American and British accents formed a colonized mentality within the language classroom. He divided students into accent hierarchies based on the level at which they could speak so-called standard English. As a result, the colonized mentality has led to alienation and estrangement, which is often accompanied “by the internalization of deficit views towards self and community, inherently shaped by contempt, hostility and resentment of the dominant elite towards a subordinate population” (Darder, 2018, p. 12). One participant in this study explicitly indicated that because of her training in Standard English in China, she was always very aware of her own accent when speaking English. Although she fully respects the various accents of English, she still critically judges her own accent and grammar whenever she speaks English in public.

This particular finding in my study reflects a widespread phenomenon in the language classroom, where monolingual ideologies still dominate teaching practices and where there is a lack of critical awareness. As language educators, we should neither destroy nor devalue the dignity of students and their cultural backgrounds; rather, we should increase their cultural confidence through teaching English and enable them to deconstruct, critique, reform and reconstruct the ideological foundations of knowledge and culture.

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