Richard McCully

Accents in the classroom

"Sorry for my daughter's accent, her teacher is a Filipino"

Last week was parents day at my school and one of the first things a parent said to me was “sorry for my daughter’s accent, her teacher at school is Filipino”. 

I had an awkward little chuckle with the parent but it certainly made me think how accents can influence students. 

Here in Thailand there is a truly multicultural range of teachers which means Thai students are open to hearing different accents and dialects. In general I think this is a positive but not everyone sees this the same. 

Thai students' experiences with the English language

Long before school a Thai person will have at least a few experiences where they will listen to English. This could be through a song, movie, advert or just where English words are used in the Thai language. These early experiences can influence how Thai people react to different accents. 

In my experience speaking to Thai students, it seems they are most comfortable with the American accent. This isn’t really a surprise as a large portion of the international music, movies and TV shows they listen to in English are produced in the States. These early experiences of English can really shape their appreciation of accents and make an impact on their understanding of other accents. 

Coming from just west of London I have pretty standard received pronunciation (standard south UK accent). However, it is sometimes a struggle for students to understand me, particularly if I speak at my normal (fast) speed or if they are new learners. Again this is normally due to their experience of the American accent rather than saying my accent is bad. 

Teachers with different accents may struggle as Thai people may not have had experience in listening to someone from other countries. I have observed teachers from Poland, India and Bulgaria where I struggled sometimes with the accent. I can only imagine how difficult it was for the learners. 

Which accent students want

In general I have found most students like learning from teachers with a British or American accent.  This isn’t to say that they don’t appreciate learning from teachers with other accents but it is what I have heard from many students. In my teaching jobs, teachers from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Ireland have all been popular but I’ve never heard a student say they would like to learn from those accents specifically. 

Of the non-native speaking teachers in this country the accents vary widely. To be fair I know a few Filipinos who have very American accents and to be honest a lot of Thai students wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if it was based on accent alone. Maybe this is why Filipino teachers are popular for online classes without video as the student may not realize they aren’t learning with an American. 

Based on the opening comment from a parent at my parents day it seems that certain accents are less desirable irregardless of the quality of the teacher. 

Students faking accents

I can understand why a student might prefer a teacher with a certain accent as it is easier for them to understand and learn but I am less sure why some students try to copy an accent. 

I think a lot of people don’t understand that you can have good pronunciation and be understood in English without copying an accent of a native speaker. It would be like me speaking French and putting on a comedy French accent. It's just not necessary. 

One Thai colleague I used to work with had the most ridiculous British accent and he sounded posher than Prince Charles! The problem was he wasn’t great at English and fooled people into thinking he was just because of his accent. He had a lot of private students and tried to get them to copy his fake accent. I think this is the problem - the desire to have the same accent as the teacher as it must be the best.

On the other hand I have met Thai people who have lived in foreign countries and naturally picked up the accent over the years. There is nothing wrong with this and it is a natural part of living in a foreign country. 

Parent's choice

At the top end of Thai education, there are many international schools linked to the curriculum of a country and as such mostly teachers from that background. Well-off parents can choose to send their kids to schools with pretty much only teachers from a certain country. 

If they are looking to send a child to a bi-lingual school, they can see which nationalities are represented before signing their kid up. Those looking at government schools will have less choice but schools are normally keen to show that they have native speaking teachers. 

The language schools I have worked at have always cited the diversity of accents at the school as a major benefit to students and I agree. However there are many different language schools and parents can find those with only native speakers and others where they might get teachers with less common accents. 

The benefit of learning from teachers with different accents

I have always felt that students gain a lot by having teachers with a variety of different accents. Even within the UK and USA there are a huge number of different accent and dialects. 

In the real world students can’t choose who they must speak English with. By having an education with teachers from around the world a student can be more prepared to use English the real world, not just in the classroom.

 If you enjoyed this blog, check out my website - Life in a New Country  

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The problems Thai students have with their pronunciation of English begin when they're taught the alphabet by Thai teachers (that's with intonation.)

There are good, bad, and indifferent, English teachers who are both native and non-native English speakers. Just the same as there were when I studied Thai with both native speakers and foreigners.

However, the present level of ability at English amongst English teachers here in Thailand -
is now the worst it has been in the last 20 years.

By Richard Constable, Bang Na (12th November 2022)

The comments are more interesting, really.

I think I have a Malaysian accent but Malaysians think I have what they perceive as a desirable accent and foreigners ask (or aks, lol) how is it that they can understand me better than other speakers of English (regardless of NES or NNES). Americans think I have a British accent and British think I have an American. (I doth protest and I think I have neither. I have a Chinese accent and I use colloquial expressions that signal my Malaysian-ness.)

There was this time when I worked at a homestay and we had a Russian, Finn, an educated couple from London, a less educated man from London, an Australian, Dutch, French, an immigrant naturalized American citizen of South Asian descent, an Indian, Thai, Italian, Ghanaian and Iranian all seated for brunch and chatting.

As conversation got more complex, I had to interpret English between two people who are speaking English. At one point, the Russian asked how is it possible that she can understand a Malaysian speaking English better than she could a NES Cockney accent? The "lost in translation" episodes were not limited between the Russian and the Cockney accent.

Having had many of these situations happen throughout my life, it makes me err on the side of NES with the caveat that they must have at least a Bachelor's or are aware of carrying themselves, culturally, as middle class. When accents deviate too far from what pop / media culture presents (I cannot understand Russell Brand, actually), it sort of renders all English language capacity null and void.

The only thing I can't stand about Filipino accents is the way they fake the American accent. I had a pinoy bf who grew up in the US and he has a beautiful Filipino American blend that's as sexy as a South American accent. I also had a Manila wannabe Mestizo bf who was upper middle class and he makes me want to throw up when he puts on his accent.... Which goes away when I get him mad enough to launch into a tirade when we fight. Like how to stay mad in an argument when someone has that accent, really.

What's undesirable about the Filipino accent is how nasal it sounds but it's not across the board. Filipinos must agree with us on this in order to spin an entire cottage industry providing training for people to sound like what they're not. I'm not sure whether it's Ilokano or those from Cebu where the accent isn't so undesirable.

I wouldn't know what I would do if I had an undesirable accent. Would I get training and fake it? That's not the most authentic way to live. But I'd definitely not teach English to anyone who isn't my own ethnicity and compete for legitimacy just so I can make a lucrative living elsewhere. As it is, I only teach English locally to my own people and to Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Thai who come to Malaysia and seek local teachers.

By Sloane, Malaysia (12th August 2019)

"I am a Filipino English teacher and my English pronunciation is perfect. I know some native speakers who cannot spell simple words correctly and write sentences in wrong grammar." 55555555555555555555555 ( lol)

Hello and Dear Liz,

I've copied and pasted an example of the ignorance that really made me laugh. I'm in my 14th year of teaching English, I held various seminars for Thai English teachers on how to teach English most efficiently, and currently teach high school students English, also considered an NNES.

IMHO, the article is great and the author didn't criticise the Filipinos in general, he/she only mentioned them, which should be allowed. There are way too many of them, a lot of them are in no way qualified to teach English, while many of them find it hard to have a conversation with an NES, no matter from where the native English speaker comes from.

Liza's English must be perfect, thus she knows NES teachers who can't spell simple words, nor do they know their grammar? Liza, I've worked with countless Filipinos and I've only met a few people who were fluent in English, not talking about their grammar and sentence structure now!

I've worked with Filipinos who had less than 600 points in their TOEIC examination but they were quite frankly so selfish and arrogant that they didn't seem to have a problem to Photoshop some of my documents and sent it to Khurusapha to be able to continue teaching.

Liza, if you'd like to learn German, would you prefer an NES of German or Thai teachers who'd been in Germany for two years? Your statement is so incorrect and making all NES teachers to idiots doesn't make much sense.

It only shows how insecure you feel when somebody writes facts about teachers from your country, and in this case, not even negative ones.

To get back on topic, it's not that important what passport the teacher's holding. Important is the teacher's education, his/her pronunciation, psychological skills, experience and of course a good understanding of teaching techniques. A great knowledge of the technology being used in education and how to use certain websites successfully to be a better teacher. I've never stopped learning, there's always a new technique, ways on how to control the students, or the courses I attend, just for fun.

I've led some primary, but also secondary students to winners of national competitions, but I wouldn't dare to use my name as the big winner. I've seen speeches written by Filipinos where I wanted to cry. "My school have many tree, my school have many book, my school have........stop!

Learning never ends, so when I read that a teacher's perfect, I already know how bad this teacher really is. Nobody is perfect, please consider Einstein's words as my philosophy: "I know that I know nothing."

I've "upgraded" my BA in Social Pedagogy with a Diploma in Teacher education, to be able to receive the full license and have had the luck to see assignments of "classmates who accidentally posted them into the open forum." Many of them were just copied and pasted, nothing made any sense, but these people are also holding their license by now. Scary, if you ask me.

Another fact might be very important and not yet mentioned here. I'd personally prefer to have my kids educated by an experienced NES teacher with experience rather than from somebody who found the opportunity to start teaching in Thailand, but it's not really in their interest to create good English speaking students, it's more about the amount of money that they can send back home.

That's in my eyes obviously changing all. BTW, I love what I'm doing and it's wonderful when I meet adults who were my students many years ago, but still thank me for their education in English.

Unfortunately, do many teachers not know the difference e between the child-centered approach and the teacher-centered one. I've got colleagues who are hard to understand even by teachers from America.

IMO, there's no teacher without an accent and that's good so. Times are changing and in a world where the NES teachers are already outnumbered by 4:1, it's important that the student can easily understand the teacher and learns all four skills in an environment that learning is fun.

Kind regards from lower northeast.

By Isaan Somchai, Ricefiled 3 to 7 (16th September 2018)

I honestly have found very few students who can sort out different native, or for that matter, non native accents.

By Lee Lepper, Bangkok (27th August 2018)


Just wanted to post a little update to my article...

Firstly I've got nothing against Filipino teachers, I know quite a few here in Thailand. Don't want to get into arguments about pay / ability for native vs non-native speakers. My opening paragraph was merely something a parent said and was the inspiration for writing the article.

In the end I feel that speaking with people with many different accents is a positive. Most Thai people will speak English with Japanese, Chinese or European speakers, not always native speakers so learning from different accents is a big benefit to them.

Interesting to read all your comments and feedback so far!


By Richard, Bangkok (15th August 2018)

I attended school in the UK,and high school and University in the USA, and have taught in Mexico, Panama, the UK, and USA, now in my 4th year teaching in Asia, 1 year in China, 2 in Korea and now Thailand, if you want to learn a 2nd language in my opinion you get a native of the language you want to learn. I work with some other English teachers that are not NES, they are good teachers but not a day goes by that they mispronounce a word, the other day for example one said to me can I aks you a question, yes aks....I am learning Thai from a native Thai who knows English, not a NES who knows Thai and would do that with any language I learn....

By steve, Sakon Nakhon (13th August 2018)

A friend sent this link to me. The whole intent of the article was good, but the intro connotes something negative about NNES teachers, particularly that of Filipinos, I wonder what was the intent of putting that anecdote as an intro. I don't really find it appealing. I am just glad I am a patient reader, but nowadays, for most people, comments are more entertaining to read than the article itself.

By Shania, Japan (13th August 2018)

I chuckled when i read this blog especially the statement about Filipino accent. I am a Filipino and have been teaching in Thailand for 12 years and was never questioned about my English accent. Modesty aside, i am a speech writer and trainer of speech contestants who won first place up to the Regional competition. Most of the contenders we defeated were trained by NES. I have nothing against NES but to those people who considered NES as gods and goddesses in education. English is just another language out of 6500 spoken languages around the world, and is not a measure of intelligence. As a matter of fact Chinese Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world. I just hope that Thai parents would stop being racist, they should focus on the ability of the teachers to educate their child and not on the nationality.

By Ela, Bangkok (13th August 2018)

Accent is good to some extent but the question is do students really learn any good thing from the good accent guys? And after learning from the good accent guy, Do Thai students speak with the same accent as native speakers? Many are drop outs. They have no idea on how to teach English language.

By Angel, Kamphaeng Phet (11th August 2018)

As a former teacher in an EP program, I was the 2nd Filipino they hired to teach grammar. Upon asking the students M1-6, they are able to understand better when I use a neutral accent. Having lived in different countries, I could speak with the standard American or British English (IELTS Academic Speaking 8.0 last Oct 2017).
However, I always remind the students that the accent doesn't matter because you will talk with different people. Living and traveling abroad opens up your mind that at the very least, the UK and US are melting pot of cultures. They are immigrant countries, so the accent will depend on their culture, education and more.

By Cha, PHL (9th August 2018)

To me accent is less important especially for individuals who have difficulty or just beginning to use the English language.

What's the use of a perfect accent if the choice of words/vocabs and grammar are incorrect?

As I read the mother's comment regarding the accent of her kid, all I can say is: SHE'S A DAMN RACIST. She should send her kid to US or UK where teachers, students and all the people around her/him use the accent that suits her dream.

By Kiara, Bangkok (27th July 2018)

I'm a Filipino and an English Teacher here in Thailand for almost 14 years. As a Filipino we can talk or teach our students with different kind of accents but the question is...Is the accent really matter in education???? Some people wants to learn by the accent but they don't know how to read, write or construct sentences especially how to spell simple words. And how many Native Speakers here in Thailand are really educators? They can teach because English is their mother tongue but "Do they really know how to teach and handle the kids? Are their kids learning from them? ".

By Bella, Chiangmai (24th July 2018)

I am a Filipino and I hope this article will not stereotype all Filipinos in terms of accent. In fact, Philippines is now the biggest BPO and KPO hub in the world where Australian, American and British companies are being built. That Thai should watch Youtube Videos with Filipinos with American accent. I was a trainer from Verizon USA but based in the Philippines and I would really argue to these people who are putting down the majority of Filipinos.

By joe medina, thailand (22nd July 2018)

It worries me when a teacher makes comments such as "Coming from just west of London I have pretty standard received pronunciation (standard south UK accent). " I come from the same area, Outer London/West Middlesex, and few people have a received pronunciation accent there. Received Pronunciation is a social accent not regional (easy to check) and is the way the Queen speaks. Any trained English Teacher from the UK should know that.

Hearing various accents is good for people (not just students), in much the same way as foreign travel and visits to museums is. Of far greater importance is exposure to phonics and most foreign teachers I have worked with have scant understanding of the importance of phonics or how to teach it. Philippines and African teachers are among the worst and Indian teachers among the best but I do not have figures to support that.

The solution to Thai foreign language education is to use Thai teachers.

In the UK and USA few French, Spanish or Chinese teachers are native speakers. They are UK or US citizens who are good at the language they teach.

By Kru John, North Thailand (19th July 2018)

I am a Filipino English teacher and my English pronunciation is perfect. I know some native speakers who cannot spell simple words correctly and write sentences in wrong grammar.

By Liz, Thailand (19th July 2018)

Don’t agree with all you’ve stated. Those learning English benefit best from a neutral NES accent. There’s also the question of grammar, UK and US are different in many ways. Every country has regional accents and as a NES I sometimes find it hard to understand some people. Learning English and understanding an accent are totally separate issues. A neutral accent allows the learner to hear the words in an uninterrupted manner. An accent of any kind changes the way words are expressed and pronounced.

By D Parker, Bangkok (17th July 2018)

Worst english accents:
1) irish
2) ozzy
3) ???

By Den, Th (17th July 2018)

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