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?