Nativeness (2) – just who do you think you are?

I was cleaning out old photos to reclaim a bit a space for my computer’s ailling memory when I came across this one from the 11th International Conference of English as a Lingua Franca, which was hosted at King’s College London back in July 2018. (So wish we could get back to that age of pre-pandemic innocence).

It’s a verbatim report on what one learner said when asked about sounding like a native speaker. You probably can’t read it if you not on a desktop computer, so here it is in a more legible form:

Victor: I was taught a very specific variety of English, RP English of course (3) of course in terms of pronunciation in terms of grammar, standard British English and my teachers were very strict on me (.) they wanted me to speak like a British person and that was the target in the end, when we were assessed
Researcher: why British [and not other?
Victor:                               [because of a tradition thing … but when you go abroad and you try to use this type of English you sound ridiculous because people see you and they can notice that you are a Latin American person … so: that was when I forgot, you know, my British accent, my British, you know, those things related to the (.) to this idea of (2) trying to be like a native speaker

What we are looking at here is something I had intended to cover in last week’s post on nativeness, but I didn’t have space to. However, what Victor says has made me think that letter ‘O’ will have to wait until next week as this business of (loss of) identity is too important to be left for later. How important? I typed ‘accent and identity’ into Google and got over 53m results.

The link between language and identity is a complex one. One of the most commonly used arguments in support of endangered languages is that language is a key part of who people are, even to the point of determining the way they think and relate to the world. In terms of how we pronounce a language, including a language that we are learning, this point of view was put forward powerfully by Anne Pakir in her plenary address at the 1998 TESOL Conference when she was arguing against accent reduction programs: ‘Meddle with my accent’, she said, ‘and you meddle with my identity’. Take away my accent, and you take away part of me.

However, not everyone shares this point of view. Some see it as extreme, arguing that identity and accent (to stay with pronunciation and second language learning) are not inextricably related. Derwing and Munro, for example, are strongly critical of arguments such as those of Anne Pakir.

For instance, in a study of 100 adult ESL immigrants (Derwing 2003), 97% strongly agreed that it is important to pronounce English well, and 95% said they wanted to sound like a native speaker. When learners were asked if they felt that their identity would be threatened if they could speak English with a native-like accent, their response was overwhelmingly negative: they saw their L1 as the clearest expression of their identity. Their preference was to be fully competent speakers of both their own L1 and English.

And of course, somewhere in the middle of all this are practising teachers who need clear guidelines, or teacher educators who need clear guidelines to give. Of late, I fit better into the latter category than the former, so perhaps I’d better start giving some guidance.

1) – I know what Derwing’s respondents are talking about. I’ve lived in the north of Spain for almost 40 years and from very early on realised that this was where I wanted to be, and, importantly, to be part of. It kills me then when people refer to my non-native speaker accent. I don’t want to be ‘el inglés’ and to be othered because of my accent, and so like Derwing’s respondents I’m driven by a strongly integrative motivation. My NNS accent in Spanish makes me stand out, and I want to get rid of it.

2) – Learning English to live in Canada, or Spanish to live in Spain, is not the same as learning English to communicate internationally with other, predominantly nonnative speakers of the language. ESL is not ELF. If you’ve landed in Western Canada in 1975, for example, having escaped from the Vietcong at the last minute, you may well see the notion of sounding Canadian as your ideal. But if you’re representing the Cuban or Iranian governments at a UN conference on the validity and morality of economic blockades, you probably won’t be so excited if your accent makes people assume you’re from the US. And if you’re an young immigrant of Chinese extraction, say, growing up in Montreal, you might find yourself pulled in all sorts of directions. Do you stay true to your origins and sound like a ‘foreigner’, or do you work to sound native and so gain entry into your peer group?

In a paper published in 2005, Elizabeth Gatbonton and her colleagues came across just this dilemma and discovered that these young immigrants were able to modify their accent in English to suit the circumstances:

Language learners are typically subjecct to social forces from both the target– and home–language groups, pressuring them to constantly renegotiate their identitires as members of both groups. In doing so, learners may either enhance or supress one of their two identities by manipulating thier language, in particular, their pronunciation.
(Garbonton 2005: 492)

Of course, once again we are looking at an ESL situation here, and, because we are looking at younger learners, they have the ability to modify their pronunciation as suits the situation, sounding more Chinese when with their family, and more Canadian when with friends. With adults that’s almost never the case, as we saw in my previous post on the nativeness principle.

3) – Switching to ELF, and working with adults but allowing them to dream, I asked two NNS speakers of English, both resident in Spain, how they would feel about being mistaken for NSs of English because of their L2 accents. Initially, they both admitted to liking the idea of being taken for British, but then one of the speakers asked for clarification of the idea of being mistaken for a native speaker of English. After my clarification they returned to their conversation, and the Russian speaker started to reflect on his accent in his L2 Spanish:

(Speaker MRu is Russian. He is a musician. Speaker FAr is Argentinian. She teaches English in Spain)

MRu  after already twelve years living n in Spain . but . I tell them I like my accent I don’t want to I never
FAr    [change it]
MRu  [tried] to . to to make it disappear I never . tried to speak perfect er like . accent from Madrid or something like that
FAr    yeah
MRu  I I th I think . yes really . in the accent there is a part of the identity of the person
FAr    yes
MRu  also it’s not er . er so about Russian accent . or . er even . different Russian person has er his different voice his different . way of . er giving the direction the way of . er conversation
FAr    yeah
MRu  also it’s erm it’s something really of the identity of the person
FAr    yes it’s your own [nationality I is is it . you your accent is is you]
MRu  [yes . yes . yes it’s nice yes I think it’s nice] yes yes
FAr    so why why we are going [to]
MRu  [no] I don’t want to lose it
FAr    yeah neither me . I don’t want to lose it
(Walker 2010: 164–5)

The about turn in the second part of their conversation is total. From seemingly feeling delighted at being mistaken for British because of their accent, they now both insist on the value of retaining their L1 identity through their L2 accent.

Goodness, this is complex. And I don’t think it can be made simple. Humans are complex beings, which is something that we are only too aware of through our experience in the classroom. Some will pull one way and some the other. But that doesn’t mean that we can just abandon them and their pronunciation aspirations to fate. We can, for example:

  • deepen our own understanding of the differences between learning English in an ESL context, and learning it as a lingua franca (ELF).
  • be open to the idea that a learner may not especially want to sound like a native speaker, and may feel that being as widely intelligible as possible (NOT a prerogative of native speakers as we have seen already in other posts in this blog) is a more valid goal for them.
  • be willing to accept our learners’ pronunciation of English as correct even when it is markedly influenced by their L1.
  • take learners seriously when they declare a near-native speaker accent to be their goal.

In addition, we can do ourselves a favour by understanding how two apparently conflicting goals, the (near–)NS accent and L2 accent in English ‘flavoured’ by the L1, are not, in practice, in conflict at all. Rather, they are part of the same journey, at least over the key stages of the venture. This is what I tried to explain in a recent article in Modern English Teacher (Walker 2019), and which I don’t have time or space to detail here, but which is available online from my website.

In short, there are Victors in our classes who don’t want ‘to sound ridiculous’, and there are ESL immigrants who desperately want to fit in. Our job is to help them all, but I’m pretty confident that we can do it. And you? Where are you with you accent? Who do you think you are?


Derwing, T & M. Munro. (2014). Accent and intelligibility: cracking the conundrum. Speak Out! 50: 12–17.

Garbonton, E.,  P. Trofimovich, & M. Magid. (2005) ‘Learners’ ethnic grouyp loyalty and L2 pronunciation accuracy: A sociolinguistic investigation’. Special Issue: Reconceeptualizing L2 pronunciation. TESOL Quarterly 39/3, 489–511.

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2019). From being intelligible to being themselves. Modern English Teacher 28/3: 64–67.

Further reading

Jenkins, J. (2007). English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Millin, S. (2015). Accent and identity. Avalaible online at:

Walker, R. (2017). Accent, attitude and identity. Modern English Teacher 26/1: 39–43. Available online at:

Walker, R. (2019). From being intelligible to being themselves. Modern English Teacher 28/3: 64–67. Available online at:


2 thoughts on “Nativeness (2) – just who do you think you are?

  1. Hi Robin, keep ’em coming!

    As always insightful, inspiring and empowering for all of us “S”s: NNS, SNNS and NSNNS, SLNNS ( Second Language Nearly Native Speakers, Ayoh Lah) and of course the NS, NSNS (Non-Standard NS),and let’s not forget those EXTREMELY RARE SNS (Standard Native Speakers)(whoever they -think- they are)!



    • Hey Elle
      Thanks for the feedback. especially as it’s so positive. Of course, though I try to build what I say on research and meaningful discussions with colleagues, I know that as a NSNS from Newcastle, I’m not 100% objective about this issues I tackle. But then again, nobody is. Nor can they be.


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