Internationalisation Drop your foreign accent…

Drop your foreign accent. This is not a request to teachers now that many master programmes have started in English, but the title of a poem by Gerard Nolst Trenité, aka Charivarius (1870-1946), written in 1909.

 

Charivarius wrote the poem to emphasize the difficulties of English pronunciation, as the first verse shows:

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
   I will teach you in my verse
   Sounds like corpsecorpshorse and worse.

Critical students

Apparently, it is exactly pronunciation that students in the international classroom can be very critical of (see dub.uu.nl). Although they claim that lecturers can bring across the content well enough, the ‘heavy Dutch accent’ is seen as a distraction from the content. This is often reflected in the evaluations of courses taught through English. However, experience shows that the English proficiency and the evaluations increase over time. So, do not despair!

Interestingly, foreign students seem to be a lot less critical of the English pronunciation of Dutch lecturers (mareonline, 2016). And do we really need to worry? The Dutch have one of the highest proficiency in English as a second language. In 2013, the Netherlands were named the third best country (out of 54 non-English speaking countries) for proficiency in the English language, according to the English Proficiency Index (EPI).

Lecturers set themselves high goals

When university teachers were asked about their proficiency in English (Meijer, 2013) they mostly indicated that teaching through English is more difficult than teaching in their mother tongue. Although they often have little trouble getting the message across, they are aware that their pronunciation is not that good. This may well have to do with the high goals lecturers set themselves in wanting to speak English at a level comparable to their Dutch.

In general, a level of C1 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is recommended for university lecturers. This means that the lecturer can express ideas fluently and spontaneously and that he or she can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Pronunciation is not part of this description! Besides, the university weekly magazine Mare from Leiden University claims that it is unreasonable to expect a native pronunciation from non-native lecturers.

Compensation techniques can help

Compensation techniques can, to some extent, help in solving pronunciation problems. Sometimes words that are difficult to pronounce can be avoided by choosing another less complex one and for subject related words that you really need to master, online dictionaries can offer a solution. Often a sound button will let you listen to English and American pronunciation of words. Try to repeat the word a few times, as practice makes perfect! Lastly, frequent exposure to English has been shown to improve proficiency in English. So, switch over to the BBC at night!

Course

Educational Development & Training offers the course ‘Teaching in the international classroom’ for teachers who are interested in the intercultural, language-related and didactic implications of teaching in the international classroom. The course will provide you with practical tools for teaching in an international context.

Nathalie Veenendaal is consultant and trainer at Educational Development & Training (n.j.veenendaal@uu.nl / 06 49649299)

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