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I'm an international, teaching at an American university, and I have an accent, which can be strong at times. I'm working hard at it, have always been, but still, the accent is there.

This has never been a problem in my career as a researcher because I was most of the time working with senior researchers and grad students. And even if they were native, they've never expressed any concern about my accent.

I'm sure that several times they didn't understand a specific word I was saying but they catch the meaning from the context. Sometimes, people asked me to repeat in an informal way by simply saying "what's that?" or "say it again".

Last year, when I started to teach undergrads, which are unlikely to have experienced different accents, I had some issues. Some students asked me to repeat and I gladly did. My concern is related to those students that didn't ask, either because they are shy or because they thought that by asking I would be offended.

This next semester (yes, I'm going to teach in the summer) I'm thinking to tell my students in the very first minutes of the first class about my accent and tell them that I'm totally fine if they need me to repeat some words.

I'm not sure about it, because I've read that the first 6 minutes with a new class are the most important ones, and by showing this "weakness" they will conclude that I'm not capable, knowledge-wise, to teach them.

A mentor of mine told me I should talk openly about my accent, and add that in addition to English, I fluently speak two other languages and can understand two others. Trying then to make a balance between my "weakness" (my accent when speaking English) and my knowledge with languages.

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16 Answers 16

12

My answer goes against the other ones here (including the accepted one).

Before I explain why, however, I commend you for even thinking about this. If you have identified this as a weakness, and something that affects the quality of your lectures, then you are already one step ahead of the game. My experience with most educators in the same situation is that they do not seem to consider it their problem. The mentality seems to be that they've spent years learning the language, and possibly even consider themselves highly proficient in the grammatical sense, having written many academic articles in pristine English, so there's nothing wrong with their English, and if people don't put the effort to understand them then that is their problem. This completely disregards the fact that if as a listener you're expending an unusual amount of focus and effort simply to decipher what is being said, you're unlikely to be able to focus on the nuances of a lecture. My own feeling when I attend lectures where the presenter has a bad pronounciation is that I leave feeling drained and having retained nothing despite having, in theory, deciphered all the words being spoken in the lecture.

Also, I would like to make a distinction between having a strong "accent", and effectively having incorrect "pronunciation". A strong accent that does not harm pronunciation is typically a positive thing, giving a lecturer a unique personality and charm. Therefore, the problem isn't having a regional "accent" per se. An "accent" only becomes a problem when you are actually pronouncing things 'wrongly', forcing your listeners to backtrack and figure out what you meant. Errors in pronunciation (and sometimes even grammar, or unusual expressions), could be due to your own language learning background, making it difficult for others who do not share this background to understand you. The corollary of this of course is that, you will find that people of your own linguistic background will probably find you easier to understand when you mispronounce things the same way they are used to. If your university offers pronunciation training, then it would be something worth looking into.

WHY IT'S A BAD IDEA TO START BY APOLOGISING

I'm not sure about it, because I've read that the first 6 minutes with a new class are the most important ones, and by showing this "weakness" they will conclude that I'm not capable, knowledge-wise, to teach them.

This is 100% spot on, and supported by literature. It's a very bad idea to start your lecture with such an 'apology'. It's absolutely fine (and encouraged) to make students feel safe by encouraging interruptions and asking of questions if something is missed or not understood, but you should separate this from the context of an 'apology' relating to negative first impressions about your own shortcomings!

From personal experience, and as you correctly suspected yourself, I would strongly advise you to avoid any opening statements that directly imprint in the students a lack of quality of what is about to follow. Linking to pedagogical literature, this relates directly to Maslow's hierarchy of needs in terms of feelings of psychological safety, as well as studies showing that teacher attitudes of 'defensiveness' and 'diffidence' can directly affect student motivation and engagement. This is particularly true in the case of externally motivated and extroverted students, who may feel you are actively about to risk their chances of obtaining their external goals, and may speak very vocally indeed about it.

If you start with such an apology, you may be actively sabotaging the rest of the lecture, and possibly even the term, if you fail to recover from that first impression. Furthermore, it may seem to you that such a 'fair warning' is respecting the students, but if you think about it, the students are more likely to feel disrespected, in that they will feel that their personal agenda and goals is being disrespected by being unnecessarily put at risk because of your accent, and that you're basically now telling them they'll have to work and focus twice as hard. I.e. your opening statement will effectively plant in their head the negative thought that "Great, they've lumped me with a teacher who I won't even be able to understand most of the time", starting them off with a negative experience from the outset.

Worse, they may even feel that you're effectively asking for permission to not bother making the effort to speak more clearly than you would have if you hadn't warned them about it!

Your apology can also very easily backfire by turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy, where students will have a lower threshold to losing focus because "they've been warned you'd be hard to understand anyway".

Similarly, it could backfire by instead deterring students from interrupting and asking relevant questions, rather than encouraging them, if they feel uncomfortable that doing so would be effectively perceived by you as being called out on your accent, e.g. "great, the teacher has already shown to be self-conscious about their accent, it was literally the first thing he / she said, I don't want to be the guy that's going to keep pointing their accent out to them by saying I couldn't follow the point they're making".

Instead of words, act. Show you respect your students by actively being aware of it and seeking ways to work around it. E.g.

  • while 'reading off slides' is generally not recommended, in your case you could make sure that anything you say that is a crucial point or contains jargon, is always also pointed out in words on a screen
  • you could record your lectures and go through the effort of subtitling them after the fact, giving learners the opportunity to revise with subtitles
  • you could consider an 'inverted classroom' format which relies more on advanced preparation followed by more personalised inputs at the lab
  • ensure you have appropriate formative and summative feedback throughout, so that students can flag their own strengths and shortcomings, and form an impression on the quality of your teaching based on that, rather than any psychological feelings you managed to instill on them during first impressions.

Finally, do continue being aware of it, and ensure you make an effort to speak clearly during your lectures, and if possible, try to seek professional pronunciation coaching in the meantime. The worst thing you could do is apologise at the start, and then do nothing more about it. Your students will lose confidence in you straight away.


PS. Also, I completely disagree with your mentor's advice. If people are having trouble to understand you in the first place, and you counter that by saying you speak more languages than them, all you'll achieve by that is to frustrate them even more. It's totally unnecessary and irrelevant information. Not only will they not 'sympathise', but you risk giving the message that it's not really your weakness for not speaking correctly, but their weakness for not being 'linguistically literate' enough by your standards.

  • The OP never mentions "apologizing" for an accent. – J.R. Apr 25 at 16:55
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    @JR I know but it's heavily implied from the wording (e.g. the fact they consider it a weakness themselves rather than a 'quirk', and they're worried about making a first impression of weakness and incapability by 'admitting' to it), hence worth the warning. If they can handle it with humour and confidence, like in Bluey's answer, then it might work out well for them, but I don't think it's worth the risk. It's very hard to avoid the actual words "I'm sorry" when you're effectively trying to tell people you're sorry (i.e. for inconveniencing them) (or worse, appearing conceited if you don't). – Tasos Papastylianou Apr 25 at 18:20
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    "If you have trouble understanding something I say, don't hesitate to ask me to repeat myself." That's all that's needed. Your advice to avoid an apology is admirable, I think, but your insistence that an apology would be inevitable is misguided. – J.R. Apr 25 at 18:57
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    @JR Fair enough, thank you, point taken. Having said that, I have given more general advice anyway though: "I would strongly advise you to avoid any opening statements that directly imprint in the students a lack of quality of what is about to follow". A delivery in the form of an 'apology' is only one way to fall into that trap, I'm sure there are other ways to predispose students negatively, and I would equally warn against those as well. Effectively the message is "be confident and ensure you don't start with a negatively predisposing impression, as evidence shows this backfires". – Tasos Papastylianou Apr 25 at 19:11
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    I completely agree with that sentiment. Even if it's true, "I'm sorry that I didn't get to prepare for this talk as much as I would have liked to" is a terrible way to greet an audience – be it students in a classroom, attendees at a seminar, or congregants in a place of worship. – J.R. Apr 25 at 20:13
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Accents are tricky, especially in large lecture halls where students hear you over a mic, and can't see your lips. Different regions might have different opinions on what accents are difficult, depending on what other native language groups the undergrads may have been exposed to.

In my opinion, it would go a long way for your undergraduates to say something like:

As you may have noticed, English isn't my first language. I know sometimes that makes it hard to understand certain words. Please don't hesitate to ask me to repeat something.

This might help with students who are shy or don't want to offend you by asking.

If you like, you could mention the other languages you're familiar with to encourage speakers of those languages to connect with you, or just as a fun fact (personally, I'd be curious to know). I wouldn't mention it to make yourself seem somehow better than them, as that could needlessly add feelings of resentment.

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    If you do this, definitely mention other languages you do speak, so the students are clear that your accent is not a limit, but a mark of your superior abilities. Also, I would mention an accent without adding the judgement of whether it's strong or not. Some midwestern kid who hardly understands New Yorkers might have a very different judgement of how strong your accent is than a more cosmopolitan Californian, and you don't want to encourage whining about how strong your accent is – user104070 Apr 24 at 21:57
  • I agree with this approach. But like George suggested, I would rephrase I speak with an accent to English is not my first language. And I advise international instructors to give a few sentences about their home land—helps for relatability. – Matthew Leingang Apr 26 at 13:02
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    I'm British, and I once gave a big conference talk in the US where I started by saying "I'm from England, but I'm sure you can tell that anyway because I don't have an accent". It got a good laugh and broke the ice. – Michael Kay Apr 26 at 15:51
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A difference isn't a weakness. Don't think of it that way. You may find difficulty in communicating because of that difference, but it is just that, a difference. People in the US from Alabama and those from Boston speak English with different accent and different idioms. Eventually we get used to hearing a different accent so the effect lessens.

In fact, you and I would have a lot of trouble communicating since I am quite deaf and technological solutions are only partial. Even it the best of situations a speaker sometimes needs to repeat or - better - say an equivalent thing with different words.

But the first few minutes is, IMO, a good time to introduce yourself and how you speak. In fact, it can be fun if you "put on" an extreme version of your accent, just to show the range. Cockney slang, for example.

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    Yes, I do laugh when they say we will have a "Town Hall" ... – Solar Mike Apr 24 at 18:44
  • @SolarMike I've been trying to think what accent that would cause laughter in, but I can't figure it out. What did you mean? – Azor Ahai Apr 24 at 19:45
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    @AzorAhai well, more than accent - it's Buffy's reference to Cockney rhyming slang... google is your friend ! So, whenever someone says they want a town hall (meeting) I tend to think that the amount that will be communicated will be small... – Solar Mike Apr 24 at 19:48
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    "better - say an equivalent thing with different words." - REALLY? My father was partially deaf, and it used to drive him mad when he said "pardon" and my mother would try to paraphrase what she had just said. What he wanted was a repeat of the exact same words (possibly more clearly articulated) so that he parse the phonemes out. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Apr 25 at 13:00
  • @MartinBonner, it is a subtle issue. For the deaf (myself included) I agree with you. But there are other reasons that you aren't understood. A teacher should have many ways to get an idea across. Some metaphors work better for some listeners that others, for example. If you can only say a thing one way, then you aren't going to be very effective in teaching. But it matters whether someone didn't hear you or didn't understand you. – Buffy Apr 25 at 13:07
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I'm Australian and teach, 9 years, Engineering related subjects in Australia to students of a wide range of International backgrounds. In the process of introducing myself at the start of the semester I ask the students to put up their hand if they know what a dunny is. Most do not. I then explain that although I try to keep to normal English, occasionally I slip into colloquial Australian English. Due to this the students should show NO hesitation in asking me to explain/repeat/expand on anything I'm talking about. They will not offend me by doing so.

I emphasise that I do not want anyone failing because they could not understand me. For some students this appears almost liberating, to others, they still just sit there, eyes rolled back in their head, as per normal

In closing, my advise, if you are confident in your knowledge and are fine with the occasional question from the students, put it out there at the start of the semester and the students will respect you more.

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    Great entry into the topic of accents. So what's a dunny? – Dohn Joe Apr 25 at 12:50
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    @DohnJoe a toilet. I speak British English, but I recognized it straight away. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Apr 25 at 13:03
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    I disagree that prefacing a lecture with an 'accent apology' is a good idea in the general sense, but I do like your own twist on it. Your way seems to pass the message without sacrificing an image of confidence, and even presents this in a humorous way, instilling familiarity and rapport. I'd avoid it as general advice though, as I'd think that kind of trick is very hard to pull off in general, and you have more to lose than to gain if it backfires (as per my own answer). – Tasos Papastylianou Apr 25 at 14:44
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    Ozzies are pretty good of making light of what some may see as self-deprecation. It's part of what us generally friendly and easy to get along with. – IlludiumPu36 Apr 26 at 5:21
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    @Martin Bonner I think "Dunny", "daggy", "galah", etc isn't about whether you're Australian or not, it's about whether they syndicated /Neighbours/ in your country or not. [Also British] :-) – Dannie Apr 26 at 12:11
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You certainly can, as other answers have suggested. But if you get the feeling - over one or two semesters of teaching - that this is impeding your work in class, don't consider it beneath you to try to get some professional assistance in practicing your diction. Very often, people are taught foreign languages with almost no training in pronunciation and diction - which can be quite challenging depending on your native language. (As a personal example - I find the tonal pronunciation requirements in Chinese horribly difficult!)

Also note that even if you tell your students it's ok to ask you to repeat yourself or speak more clearly - some students would still feel embarrassed or that it's out-of-place for them to do so; plus, after asking that two or three or four times, more students will begin feeling embarrassment of making such repeated requests.

If it's not that bad then forget everything I said :-)

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    Yes, absolutely! As mentioned in a previous comment, I have a mild speech impediment that became an issue when teaching a huge lecture (300+ students). I found a speech and voice coach who works with actors and it made a big difference. She was able to pinpoint precisely where my speech wasn't clear and exactly what I should do differently. Many such people also work with accents. The goal is not to remove your accent (unless you really want to) but to make you easier to understand. – jaia Apr 26 at 17:52
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Similar to the accepted answer:

English is not my first language, in fact it is my third.

Sometimes students have difficulty with a word or phrase that I use.
Sometimes this confusion disappears because they understand the larger point I'm trying to make - but sometimes it doesn't.

If you find yourself having trouble with what I'm teaching, I know it is a large class, but feel free to ask me to repeat myself - especially in the first few weeks.

You may be helping someone else who is unclear about the concept I'm presenting.

You are not apologizing for your accent.

You are just encouraging students who are having trouble following you to speak up in a lecture hall. (For their own good)

3

Have you considered enlisting help from a student before the first lecture?

If you arrive in the classroom with enough time before the first class, you find a student and ask them for a favor. You tell them that you want to encourage people to do as you have already described, ask a question or repeat something, and so you want them to specifically ask you to repeat something in the first few minutes of the lecture. They already have permission and know you want them to ask.

You can even create a specific sentence as a cue like "When I say XYZ, please ask me to repeat it".

2

I agree with others that it would be good for you to address your accent. In fact, I would suggest that you add a statement to your course syllabus offering help and encouraging students to speak up if they can't understand you.

As an academic advisor at a university that has a high first-generation population, I often talk with students who are struggling to succeed in a class where the professor has a strong accent. When I ask whether they've spoken with the faculty member about the issue, they often reply that they have been too shy or thought it would be disrespectful to do so. Having a written statement in your syllabus offering asking if they can't understand you (as well as speaking about it verbally) may then make them feel empowered to help themselves by asking for help! :)

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    A written statement would be making too much of an issue I think, and possibly put the OP in a bad spot if there was a dispute with administration. – user104070 Apr 24 at 21:54
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Don't make a fuss about it, just tell them to ask if there's something they don't understand due to the accent - I had lectures in multinational group - neither me nor students being using english natively, everyone with different accents and noone had any problems asking again to repeat stuff, me included.

2

I once had an instructor who had one of those thick Chinese (I'm pretty sure) accents where not only was the pronunciation of some sounds quite jarring, the grammar was also just not quite there (random pluralisations, weird ways of asking questions, a couple overused set phrases). The worst part was, the teacher also spoke ridiculously fast. Like, imagine listening to a couple normal-speed sentences, and then hearing a jumble of syllables and maybe picking out a word or two. All in all, it was really hard to understand this person if you hadn't heard them before.

But the teacher had a good approach to it. At the beginning of the term, the teacher pointed out the accent, telling us that if we couldn't understand something that was said (or written: it was really obvious which assignments had been written by the teacher, since anything with no grammar mistakes couldn't have been original content), we should ask. And ask we did! The accent barrier could have been a huge problem, but the teacher largely eliminated the problem via those clarifications (e.g. "Sorry, what kind of function did you say that was called again?" "Oh, it was sinusoidal").

So, I believe that the teacher did a couple things that helped alleviate the situation:

  • Ask students at the beginning of the term to not hesitate to ask for clarifications.
  • Not admit any fault or weakness, but be sympathetic to confusion, especially during lectures, when words might get missed.
  • Repeat things of importance.
  • Beyond that, it shouldn't be an issue as long as the students are respectful about it (and frankly, if they aren't, you might have bigger problems).
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As someone who can still have issues understanding strong accents and feels embarrassed about it, I think a disclaimer like "I am aware I have a strong accent and will not be angry if you need me to repeat something or slow down" could go a very long way.

I often don't want to ask people to repeat things over and over and over because I don't want to seem like I don't understand or that I'm not learning their accent. Someone reassuring me (especially ahead of time) would definitely make me feel more comfortable asking.

0

There's no need to think of clarifying procedures as a sign of weakness or apology. Keep it simple; you want this to be heard and understood, even if nothing else is. Simply start this way, in a strong and confident voice:

Hello! I have an accent! If I say something you do not understand, I want you to tell me so! If you want me to repeat, then ask me to repeat! If that still does not work, then come to my office hours! In this class, we will be covering [syllabus etc.]

That's pretty much it -- again, keep it short, simple, and strong. The point is to clear their frustration and yours right at the start so you can all get on with the work.

(Most students will recognize the "hello" no matter how bad your accent is, and in that first moment their brains will start calibrating for what comes next. In the third and fourth sentences, you are repeating the same information in two different ways; most will get the meaning. Most will recognize "office hours" in the fifth sentence, and will understand that meaning as well. If you go over the syllabus next, and if they refer to their own copy or one up on the screen while you speak, then that continues the calibration process.)

0

I would perhaps invite the students to feel free to interrupt you anytime they have troubles understanding what you say, but I would start mentioning first that it could be when they find a passage particularly hard or even obscure, and add that they are welcome even when trouble arises because of your accent. Sound pride of your accent when saying so. Say that you know that sometimes is difficult as you must, or had to, speak and switch between several languages. You can even mention when and where it happened, as a way of presenting yourself.

(Speaking more than two languages, especially if learnt later, isn't trivial. And most students surely recognised it).

0

American instructor (midatlantic) at a local university -- many words I know first from reading, not from hearing them, or technical terms I may completely misuse. I always asked students to let me know if I said something wrongly. So it's not just a non-native thing.

When doing readings for Librivox.org, I would always have m-w.com and a few other pronunciation guides open in different tabs, and if an upcoming paragraph seemed tricky, I'd check out the words. If you have a few words that are consistently misunderstood, I'd advise doing the same.

0

As an international instructor, should I openly talk about my accent?

Of course, there is nothing to gain by refusing to talk about your accent. The students will hear it, anyway. If you talk about it, you may satisfy your students' curiosity and (maybe) create a better understanding.

Should I talk about my accent in the very first minutes of my course?

This is an entirely different question, but I think that you should do so. In the first minutes, you'll likely say who you are, where you studied, how much experience in teaching you have, what you expect from your students,.. That's the right moment to solve the riddle of where you acquired your accent and to encourage the students to ask, whenever they don't understand you.

You won't damage your authority by evoking your accent: A student who judges a teacher's quality by their accent is not qualified for university!

You could make it clear that English is not your native language or maybe not even your first foreign language, but I wouldn't discuss the number of languages that you speak. It doesn't matter!

0

I'll just add a couple anecdotes.

I once had a prof (a fairly young guy), with a pretty thick accent, begin the class with, "I will be teaching this class in language somewhat resembling to English." He sort of earned pre-forgiveness with that.

Second, I had another prof who was Italian and had a not-too-bad accent. But somehow he used it to his advantage. I'm not sure how, but I think maybe this was part of it: Native speakers tend to think of foreign speakers as simple-minded. I think this guy adopted a kind of simple-minded personality for the classroom, and the students' natural tendency to help the underdog made them more tolerant.

protected by Wrzlprmft Apr 26 at 8:45

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