Students ‘don’t trust lecturers who aren’t native speakers’

Academic warns universities need to take impact of accent on credibility seriously as it has ‘demotivated’ overseas lecturers

November 15, 2017
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Students do not trust teaching by foreign lecturers with accents, as compared with teaching by native speakers, an academic has warned – meaning that students may need to be trained to overcome this prejudice.

Charlotte Schmidt, a senior lecturer in water management at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, found that Dutch students at the university did not take “seriously” lecturers from a partner university in Indonesia who taught using accented English.

The students, who were studying civil engineering, urban planning and water management, were much more likely to question the datasets used by Indonesians and tended to believe that the research field in the Netherlands was “much better developed”.

The problem was so serious that “after two years, most of them [Indonesian academics] drop out” of the exchange programme, she said. “It’s a bit demotivating” for them, she added. “There’s only a small group of teachers who keep coming.”

There is plenty of academic literature that finds that non-native speakers are seen as less credible by an audience, Ms Schmidt argued. In one study cited in her paper exploring the problem, 40 per cent of undergraduates avoided taking classes taught by foreign teaching assistants.

“Accented speech potentially has a negative impact on attitudinal and affective response of students. Accent is used as a signal that the speaker is part of an out-group and statements made by a speaker with a heavy accent are perceived as less truthful,” she writes in “Impact of accented speech on the credibility of international exchange courses; challenges for exchanging knowledge and experience in the Erasmus+ program”, presented at a recent conference in Indonesia.

This problem needs to be taken much more seriously by universities as they increasingly hire people from overseas and strike up exchange partnerships across the world, Ms Schmidt argued.

In universities, and in society more generally, people need to be aware of this mental quirk that lowers trust in non-native speakers, she said.

Accent may not be the only reason for a lack of trust, however: the former colonial relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia could leave Dutch students with a sense of superiority, Ms Schmidt acknowledged. “There’s several issues working together,” she said, which were difficult to separate out.

But previous research has controlled for these separate factors and still found that accent alone reduces credibility, she argued. For example, when the Dutch students travelled to Denmark – widely admired for its education system in the Netherlands – to take courses taught in English, there was still “a problem” for Danish lecturers and credibility, Ms Schmidt said.

These Dutch students had slightly more trust in lecturers with accents even though English is not their native language, she pointed out; with many believing that their command of English is “impeccable”.

With many Dutch universities switching to teaching in English, this lecturer credibility issue is only likely to become more of a problem, she said.

But there are solutions, Ms Schmidt continued. Students at her university take cultural competence classes for general purposes, where they can practise interacting with an actor playing someone of a different culture, and this could be a way of tackling the problem, she suggested.

Another technique that could assist is a Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences scheme that invites over students from Indonesia to study alongside Dutch students. After the two groups cooperate and make friends, “they come past the cultural barrier” and the Dutch students learn that their Indonesian counterparts “are quite good civil engineers” – so engendering trust in Indonesian lecturers as well, Ms Schmidt explained.

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Reader's comments (2)

Dear David, I'm lecturer at University in Trento Italy and I've found your article very interesting. This viewpoint help me to reflect on my experience that I would like share with you. Obviously, I'm not a native English speaker, but Trento, as many other universities, has a wide offering of English courses. English is an undispute lingua franca and one important aspect that helps university to achieve a good international ranking. In other words English is a sort of must-have to compete and have not only a good reputation but also a lot of international students. The problem of "non native speaker" could be transfert in the context of EMI (English as medium of instruction) where English is widely use to teach in an international context. Many time I've asked me: "What is my reputation when I teach in English? My students trust me as teacher or they would prefer to learn with a native speaker?" Italian student try often to speak in Italian and some years ago one students from Bangladesh told me how much is difficult to relate to Italian students as they don't speak English and expect that international students speak in Italian. Often the result is that international students live and learn among them without or with few opportunities to interact with Italian students. I observe often my students when I ask them to work in groups. Many time I have explained them that the the group is stronger that its members and one on the most important skill, required from the job market, is the capacity to work with people completely different from us. Cultural, political, functional differences can offer us a wider pattern to face and solve problems. I agree with you when you state that is important to break down barriers and prejudices. Thanks Attilio Marchi
So-called "academic English" is a very narrow subset of English, and most humans are drawn to academia not only by the contents of a discipline, but also by the peripherals such as academic life, cultural interaction, ex-temporal activities, which include elements such as jokes, cultural contents, sports, out of hour interaction (e.g., visits to the pub), etc. In an environment where English is only the technical medium, but not the cultural one, all this tends to be impoverished. To make an example, this year I happened to be teaching on "May the fourth" and I made a parallel between my lecture and a quote in Star Wars which amused most of the students and opened a whole discussion about the concept of "force" of an algorithm. Two problems with this approach (i) I'm not sure this would have worked in a non-English speaking environment and (ii) I noticed that non-native English speakers, amongst my students, (or those very few natives who have never seen Star Wars) were less engaged.

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