Accent more important than content


According to the soon to be Ph.D. graduate Ton Koet of the Universiteit van Amsterdam, Dutch speakers are more critical than English speakers about the quality of English spoken by Dutch speakers. Interestingly enough, having a good English accent is more important than actually speaking English properly.

Some highlights from this Dutch article:

1. At the lowest levels of education, being understood in English is the only requirement, while in higher education, a good accent is very important. “Can a Dutch teacher judge the level of English of their students or should their be judged by a real native speaker?”

I’d ideally want to be judged by nothing less than a native speaker. (At elementary school we had English in a remote part of Canada from a French speaker and they sent her packing after one class. The director of the school boldly took over himself when he heard the utterances of this poor woman.)

2. Children who speak non-standard Dutch are judged more harshly on their Dutch and their English by the Dutch. So much for tolerating integration and regional differences.

His conclusion is to have more native speakers teach English. Foreign languages should ideally be taught by native speakers. What a shocker. I still cannot wrap my brain around the fact that this is not the case, shortage of teachers and lack of interest in teaching aside. Don’t tell parents it doesn’t matter at elementary school and that it will all come together later because this entire blog says otherwise.

(Link (in Dutch): kennislink, via Taalpost)

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12 Responses to “Accent more important than content”

  1. Jasper Sprengers says:

    Ideally, in any country where English is taught as a foreign language you’d want a native English speaker with sufficient teacher training and mastery of the local language, as they’ll be working with local colleagues. However, I think your Quebec example is analogous to finding a native French teacher in Flanders: since Belgium and Canada have two official languages, you don’t have to get such teachers from abroad. For most other countries the requirements mentioned above are unrealistic, even in a relatively rich country like the Netherlands. There are simply not enough to go round. In the Third World – I used to work as a teacher trainer in rural China – you have no choice but to train your local people as best you can and accept that slightly broken English is better than no English at all.

  2. Natashka says:

    And then you wonder why a foreigner – in this case a Canadian, MIchael Fullan – has to come and clean up the Dutch educational system. Ouch.

    If native Dutch and math isn’t even being taught properly, imagine the quality of a second language at elementary level in a rich country like this one. Scary.

    My money is on the Chinese 🙂

  3. Heylane says:

    While I lived in England, I taught English as a second language. Strange though it might seem, a Dutch woman teaching English to Pakistani women in England. But the simple truth is there were no Englisch (British) people wanting to do the job.
    So if there aren’t enough in England, how in the world are going to get them in Holland?
    So teaching children (elementary or otherwise) a language which is not the teacher’s mother tongue is the only option.

    And you might laugh about it, but at least we try!
    (and my English isn’t all that bad, the British often wondered which part from the UK I was from, as they couldn’t hear a foreign accent)

  4. Natashka says:

    “So teaching children (elementary or otherwise) a language which is not the teacher’s mother tongue is the only option.”

    I understand the problem, but I don’t agree. Teaching immigrants in the Netherlands does not pay well and the students are usually their by force. I know this from a friend whose mom taught immigrants.

    My teenage sister in Montréal, Canada takes Spanish and her teacher is from Chile. My Spanish teachers were from Mexico and Spain, so no, using non-natives cannot be the only option.

    If Canada has no problems finding Spanish and Portuguese teachers from South America (never mind Chinese, Japanese and Russian – the latter I studied), the Netherlands is not trying hard enough to attract native English teachers. There are TONS of ESL teachers in the Netherlands, just not in the school system.

  5. Emerald Rose says:

    I hope this comment goes through. I am a native English speaker and teach English at HBO level. I find that my students have not had sufficient English at either secondary school or vocational school once they arrive at HBO. This is due to a number of reasons:
    1. shortage of teachers at all levels of schools around the country
    2. teaching is not a glamourous profession, hence the reason why there is a shortage of teachers
    3. the “Tweede Fase” in which students don’t need to learn the grammar of a foreign language from the time they are 14/15
    4. the fact that they are also unable to speak/write their own mother tongue properly

    As a non-native Dutch speaker, I find that my Dutch is better than those of my students. That aside, how can we expect students to “master” a foreign language if they are unable to master their own?

    Furthermore, you say that “there are TONS of ESL teachers in the Netherlands, just not in the school system”. Yes, I agree with you here, however, are they qualified to teach at Dutch schools? Have they got the proper certificate(s) to teach at Dutch schools? Is their Dutch proficient enough to teach English in the lower levels of secondary school? While these teachers may be roaming around the Netherlands, they may only be qualified to teach at either international schools or bilingual schools, not Dutch based ones.

    I, for one, do not agree that a non-native English speaker can judge the level of a student’s English. It is not enough that the students speak the language with little to no detectable accent. What is important is that they can clearly express themselves using good grammar, accent or no accent. I have found some of my students who speak English with a Dutch accent are more able to express themselves clearly (few to no grammar mistakes) than those who try to speak without a Dutch accent. The emphasis should be on the grammar and clear expression rather than on the accent.

  6. Natashka says:

    I totally agree with you.

    “The fact that they are also unable to speak/write their own mother tongue properly” is a problem in many Western countries.

    “… are they qualified to teach at Dutch schools?” Probably not, but the people curently teaching are often NOT qualified due to the shortages. However, foreigners are not qualified according to the Dutch system and teach elsewhere. They are surely capable, but not qualified.

    My upstairs neighbour is a Dutch teacher at an elementary shool and I plan to ask her about all this.

  7. Heylane says:

    Being a teacher by profession (and with all my heart) I agree totally with Emerald.
    However there is a difference between having a person from South America coming to Canada, and a British person (or American) coming to Holland. Living standards between the first two countries differ, so that’s an extra incentive, also the language (English) is often known to the foreigner. Dutch is often a difficult and unknown language to English speakers.

    It is true that many people who teach are not qualified (not have the right papers) but also the pay is not very well. And that is a hindrance in finding suitable (capable!!) people.

    I also agree with the lack of grammar-learning in the schools. Both in Dutch and foreign languages.

    But especially primary schools are very strict in having to have the right papaers (which I fortunately have). And the methods used, the books etc are limited in what they offer. (and as a school you do not have a choice but to use them).
    Both things are checked by the inspection, and the school might have to close if you do not act conform alle the rules.

  8. Natashka says:

    I agree with you as well, but just a note:

    The person from South America had to learn French not English to teach, as you cannot immigrate to Québec without knowing some French. That is easy enough for a Spanish speaker. But even elementary teachers have university diplomas IIRC.

    If I had children here I would do everything to send them to private school, as public school sounds absolutely awful. Even home schooling is gaining ground here, I wonder why.

  9. yoastie says:

    “…and the students are usually their by force.” I can’t help but point this one out (sorry) 🙂

    During the early stages of learning a language (any language), it is really important to focus on grammar and vocabulary. It is easier to pick up an accent in later life than correct grammar. Where would the native speaker come from for starters? There are several versions of the English language spoken around the world. Do we really want to spend a lot of time teaching received pronunciation to students who will be working in the US or in Asia?

    Just make them read some books and learn their words is what I say – it never did me any harm…

    (well, actually it did – I spent a long time in Germany during my school years and sailed through German classes by scoring full marks on texts and orals and failing on grammar and vocabulary. My friend was the complete reverse: he did not speak German when he went there for a year, but he knew the language. It took him a few months to become very proficient in all aspects of the language (and I still blame him for it 🙂 ))

  10. Fritz P. says:

    I live in a part of the Netherlands where there are more than a few native speakers who teach their language at secondary schools, partly due to the presence of several international organisations (they’re partners of people working for said organisations). A while ago one of these foreign language teachers (she teaches French) told me how a Dutch teacher/colleague sharply reprimanded her and another French colleague for speaking French to each other while going over the following semester’s lessons in the teachers’ break room.

    So just add friendly and supportive colleagues to the long list of reasons why teaching is such a great job.

  11. Frank Gerace says:

    I just stumbled on this while trolling for “accent” because I teach English to immigrants. But it intrigued me. I had a boss once, Coenrad Ter Kuile, who spoke American English flawlessly. I was told that that was not special as Dutch people usually do because the languages have the same sound structure. Is that right? Is the intonation also the same as I think that is even more important than the sounds in getting an accent right?

  12. Natashka says:

    “I was told that that was not special as Dutch people usually do because the languages have the same sound structure.”

    And that’s of course, not true at all 🙂 This person is an exception.

    Dutch is closer to German and Frisian (all in the same language group as English) in every way even though they are very different.

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