Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.

American English vs. All other English


This morning, I was called into the principal’s office at one of my schools.  I could just imagine all the teachers in the staffroom turning their heads and ooooh-ing at me as I walked out the door, but we are all adults here.  He’d come to watch my lesson earlier, so I had to assume it was something about that.  I brought my diary with me anyway just for something to hold on to.

We sat facing each other on the fancy brown leather sofas and he explained the situation: my British accent is confusing the students, who are learning from a curriculum based on American English, and therefore it would be better if I spoke with an American accent.  I expected they would be more familiar with American English as I only teach them once a week anyway, but this request took me by suprise.  He said he had spoken with the students about it and they agreed that my accent is indeed quite different when compared to the recordings they listen to during class.  I told him I understand and that I always make an effort to use American spellings and words during the lesson instead of British English (which already pains me to do), but it would be difficult for me to speak with an American accent.

“But don’t you have American friends?” he said.  Yes… but that doesn’t mean I can talk like them!  Your school’s English teachers are fluent (well… almost) in English but still retain their Japanese accents, so go figure.  And do you really think I’m going to be able to keep that accent up for a whole hour?!

I told him again that I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea.  “Just try,” he said.  I suggested that if they didn’t understand a word, then I could try saying it the American way.  He said that two different pronunciations would only confuse them more.  By this point I was completely flummoxed by the whole situation and said I would do my best, as it didn’t seem like I was going to get him to see it from my point of view and I wanted to go back to my coffee.

I posted what happened on Facebook to get some opinions from other ALTs.  As I was writing, I realised that it’s just another example of jumping through the hoops of the Japanese education system.  Asking me to speak with another accent not only completely misses the point of representing my cultural identity, but considerably limits students’ understanding of English as an international language.  American is not the only accent in the world.  In reality, you do occasionally meet English speakers from other countries.  What then?  “Sorry, I don’t understand you.  Please can you speak like an American?”  A friend suggested that I should start speaking in a Southern drawl and see how they like that accent.

I’ve witnessed many examples of the unwillingness to bend the rules in Japanese society, but this one caught me by surprise.  Exam results are important, but languages require a little more freedom.  A huge part of the JET Programme is about international culturalisation.  How can I do that when I can’t even represent m own country properly?  I would’ve explained this to him, but our whole conversation was in Japanese and these thoughts would’ve taken me a little longer to compose!  Going to see what my supervisor thinks about it.  What confuses me more is that my town actually asked for a British ALT…

Have any other ALTs out there had anything like this?

10 thoughts on “American English vs. All other English

  1. Sock it to ’em old bean. They need to understand English as an international language. That includes accents as diverse as South African, Australian and Indian. They will then need to understand non L1 speakers from China, France etc. the issue of accents is complicated – you may have trouble understanding broad Glaswegian or Geordie, but your accent is more or less standard British, so even that isn’t an issue. And as pointed out, there are many American accents, some of which are very strong.

  2. Ps. Modern audio in EFL reflects that diversity.

  3. I also had to adopt an American accent when I was an ALT. It all started when one JTE told me to say “hair” and “where” in an American accent because students couldn’t understand me when I said them with a British accent. It bothered me at first, but I made light of it, and would sometimes do short activities to show the differences between American, British and Australian English and accents. I ended up marrying an American JET and became a US citizen, so looking back, adopting an American accent in the classroom wasn’t such a bad thing. It is important that you let students know that there are differences in accents, just like there are different regional Japanese accents in Japan. I’ve just started blogging about my JET experiences, check it out if have chance.

    • Thanks for your comment, glad to know I’m not the only one 🙂 Doing activities to demonstrate accents is a good idea, I think I’ll do that. I’m just not prepared to change my accent because I can’t actually do an American accent, and it seems a bit pointless if I’m here to promote internationalisation! (Gotta laugh as that word just got the red squiggly line for using ‘s’ instead of ‘z’…) Thanks for following too 😀

  4. God dang it, that’s just rootin’-tootin’ wrong! I’m guessing this has come about due to the kids’ exposure to American films and other media, so how about turning it around? As the principle has admitted that his pupils are finding it difficult to understand ‘proper’ English, why not put together a library of the very best of English films, TV shows and music that the kids will find entertaining, thought-provoking and educational. This could even include some English / British regional accents for the more advanced students.

    Sell it as broadening their education and preparing them better for the global job market

  5. As a South African ALT I have fortunately never been asked to change my accent to sound American (something which I definitely couldn’t pull off without the students rolling on the floor laughing), though I have been asked to use American spelling.
    I totally agree with what you say in terms of internationalisation and exposing the students to a variety of cultures and English accents – this is basically what the programme is all about!
    I do hope you are given another chance to talk to your principal and hopefully he will change his mind. Good luck! 🙂

    • Yes! I was just thinking… there is no way I can do an American accent for a whole lesson. But spelling I can understand because it’s in the textbook, and while it’s inconvenient for me it makes life easier for the students if I use American spelling and vocab. I will try and explain the cultural side of my ALT responsibilities to him 🙂

  6. Oh this makes me so sad! I teach in Korea, but I’m planning on moving to Japan next year. Schools here are SO picky about nationalities and accents; my boyfriend’s from the UK and he always has a much harder time getting jobs than me (I’m American). He also had to ‘tone down’ his accent to work here. I was hoping Japan would be more accepting!

    • Ahh, sorry I didn’t mean to worry you! While a couple of other ALTs have told me they’ve heard about this too, I actually think the majority of schools are much more open-minded and interested in learning about different cultures/nationalities. I’d never had a problem with this before in any of my three schools until the principal of this particular school raised his concerns about my accent, of which the more I think about, the more ridiculous it seems! The point of having ALTs with different nationalities come over to Japan is to help the country become more open-minded, which is another reason I was so confused by what he said. I’m just gonna tell him to deal with it 😉 I think your boyfriend will be okay teaching here, it sounds like Japan isn’t as picky about accents as Korea. I’ll let you know what my principal says, so if your bf does get told to tone his accent down, hopefully I can tell you they’ll be okay with it if he doesn’t want to 🙂

  7. In our French lessons, we would have listening comprehension lessons with different French accents from around the world. Very useful. I am sure that you will find a way to win them over. Good luck. x

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