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Accented teachers may be better for English language learners: study

By Valerie Strauss – The Answer Sheet
The Washington Post, May 5, 2010

A new study on how well students learn second languages from teachers with accents suggests that Arizona may be making a mistake by trying to remove heavily accented Hispanic teachers from classrooms filled with Hispanics trying to learn English.

School districts in Arizona are under orders from the state Department of Education to remove teachers who speak English with a very heavy accent (and/or whose speech is ungrammatical) from classrooms with students who are learning to speak English. Officials say they want students who don’t know much English to have teachers who can best model how to speak the language.

I wrote the other day about the difficulties in determining just how deep an accent has to be to be considered a problem, but here’s another side of the issue.

According to a new research study conducted in Israel, students learn a second language better from a teacher who speaks in the same accent as they do.

The study, published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, said that students learning from a teacher with the same accent have an easier time understanding the material. They don’t have to spend time trying to understand the English in a different accent.

According to one of the report’s co-authors, Psychology Professor Zohar Eviatar, the concentration a student would have to summon to understand English in a different accent is considerably greater than if the student were a native English speaker.

In Arizona, that would mean that Hispanic kids studying English would learn better from teachers with Spanish accents.

The research, conducted at the University of Haifa, has implications not just for second language acquisition, but for how well students learn new subjects, Eviatar said.

The study was performed by researchers from different backgrounds. Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim is an Israeli Arab with an Arabic accent; Dr. Mark Leikin hails from the former Soviet Union and speaks with a Russian accent; Eviatar is a fluently bilingual Hebrew-English speaker. The team was both personally and professionally curious to know more about the accent effect.

Here’s how the study was done:

Sixty participants from ages 18 to 26 were chosen: Twenty were native Hebrew speakers, 20 were from the former Soviet Union, and 20 were Israeli Arabs who had started learning Hebrew at about seven years of age.

Researchers made recordings of Hebrew phrases where the last word was recorded with one of four different accents: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian or English. The students were then tested to see how long it took for them to recognize the Hebrew word in one of the four accents.

They found, according to the Innovation News Service, that the Hebrew speakers could decipher Hebrew words adequately regardless of the accent in which they were spoken, while the Russian and Arabic speakers needed more time to understand the Hebrew words presented in an accent foreign to their own.

The researchers feel that additional research is needed to determine just how much extra effort is involved in the attempt to process both an unfamiliar accent as well as new material.

The study suggests that English taught to Mexican students as a second language, for example, can be taught just as well by a Mexican teacher speaking English, as by a native American who’s been speaking English since birth.

“If you are an Arab, you would understand English better if taught by a native Arab English teacher,” Eviatar believes, adding, “This research isn’t even just about learning language but can be expanded to any topic like math or geography.

“If you have a Spanish accent and your teacher has a Chinese accent it will be much harder for you to concentrate on your studies,” Eviatar continues. “It’s best to learn from a teacher who teaches with a majority accent – the accent of the language being spoken, or an accent like your own. If not, it’s an added burden for the student.”

Someone should give this study to Arizona education officials.

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