Why a teacher's strong accent is no barrier to learning

For teachers with strong regional accents, moving abroad can make this vocal trait even more notable - and lead to many interesting moments along the way

Stephen McCann

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Having spent pretty much my whole life on Merseyside up until a little over three years ago, it’s fair to assume I have a Scouse accent. Or at least one form of it.

The accent can differ depending on which part of Liverpool you may come from, which side of the Mersey river you live or even how old you are. I’ve always felt my accent was relatively mild.

That is until I gained my first international teaching post in Texas, US.

Sounded out

The realisation came in the first week. A colleague and I went shopping for mobile phones.

I don’t remember what my question to the sales assistant was, but I do remember the confused look on their face. I also vividly remember my colleague then preceding to translate for me – and he hailed from the North East!

That confused look on the face of the sales assistant became quickly familiar. A common question I still receive from strangers is "Where you from?" followed by a guess of either Scotland, Ireland or, occasionally, even Australia.

The importance of voice

As a teacher, particularly a PE teacher, the voice is arguably one of our greatest tools. Being able to guide students in a clear and concise manner to facilitate learning is a necessity after all.

This has meant getting to know some commonly used words that differ is a good start. For example; football boots/soccer cleats, bibs/pinnies, friendly game/scrimmage, football/soccer. Although the last one I just can’t bring myself to say!

Also, speaking a little slower helps.

Embrace the challenge 

Of course all this can lead to some humourous attempts among the pupils in trying to mimic my accents – so I often indulge them with phrases to try and copy such "Or-ight mate", "sound lad", "nice one" and so on. It at least amuses me to hear the attempts.

But through this comes a great opportunity to build relationships and also recognising that such scenarios are reciprocal.

At our school, a significant percentage of our student population is Spanish speaking. So, I often ask students for equivalent phrases to learn. Sport in many ways is a universal language.

Indeed, one of the huge positives of an international school can be the diversity and embracing that.

The best accent?

In a department of Northerners, Southerners, Scots and staff from various parts of the US, a question to newbies has often been who has the strongest accent, or who is the most difficult to understand.

Much to my dismay, the answer is often me! Even while writing this, I’ve asked students the same question. One answer: "Your Scottish accent is the strongest." The shock when I explain I’m not Scottish was amusing.

I do feel I’ve neutralized my accent a little, or have developed what some may call a ‘phone voice’ in order to be understood.  

An international language

Ultimately though, having a strong accent has not been a barrier. It has not limited my ability to ensure successful learning occurs.

Rather it is an excellent opportunity to embrace differences, so share culture and develop effective relationships.

And of course I have also no doubt picked up a couple of Texan words and phrases along the way and maybe some words and phrases common amongst the diverse school community but the accent will never leave me…although it has already left my two young sons!

They now have what is recognized here as an ‘international’ accent.

Stephen McCann is head of physical education at The British International School of Houston

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