One tongue, many voices: a lesson in the power of diversity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


My daughter goes to an international school and English is not her first language. She says that she finds some of her teachers hard to understand. I've been to parents' meetings and some of the teachers do have very strong accents, and I too found it difficult to understand them. I would like her to have a proper English accent. Is she getting the role models she needs to learn English?

There are many pathways to become a proficient English speaker and you have done the right thing enrolling your daughter in an English-speaking international school, which will usually provide exceptional role models. The acquisition of what some may refer to as a 'proper' English accent has been the subject of debate for many years. The crucial factor is effective communication: accents are a rich and diverse element of that process.

Language is a living, changing thing. Some words and grammatical constructs that were not considered mainstream several years ago have now become acceptable. The English dictionary itself is constantly evolving and being added to, as technology and language change to match the world around us.

International schools are staffed by English-speaking teachers from all over the world. Being exposed to a variety of accents and vocabulary will be an advantage for your daughter as she grows up. She will develop her own accent through listening to teachers, interactions with you (her parents), and particularly socialising with friends and peers, which can be the strongest influence of all.

Non-native speakers of English like your daughter may also speak with an accent reflecting their first language. Even if the child has been learning a second language from the early years, this is often still detectable. The richness of these combinations is to be welcomed and celebrated.

These days there is no longer an internationally accepted 'correct' or standard (or received) pronunciation of English, as some people used to believe. In Britain, radio and television presenters have a wide variety of accents originating from different parts of the country. Hong Kong is a city full of different nationalities and accents that resonate with cultural diversity. Slang, for example, can be very descriptive and it is not unusual to hear international speakers of English make references drawn from around the world. Education in a second language is always more challenging and tiring for children. Your daughter will have to work doubly hard - learning English and understanding new concepts in English. Although her social language will develop quickly, it may take her up to seven years to acquire the academic vocabulary necessary to fully engage successfully with certain subjects.

Your daughter is receiving an international education. This will encompass interacting with pupils and teachers from around the globe with many different accents and perspectives on life. She will be encouraged to embrace both the similarities and differences of other cultures and languages. She will not only be learning the English language, but you will also be equipping her to become globally minded in a world where diversity is increasingly essential.

Children are more adaptable and flexible than we often give them credit for, and although your daughter may find some teachers more difficult to understand at the moment than others, her 'ear' will develop and this will add to her depth of experience. One advantage is that she will need to practise her skills of concentration. At one time, a regional, or a national, accent could pigeon-hole a person in a rather unfair way. Thankfully, such discrimination is increasingly rare in the modern world.

Vive la difference!

Julie McGuire teaches at an international school in Hong Kong