Accentism, nativism, big business, and shibboleths

Sapir–Whorf hypothesis states that the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience. In other words, the languge you speak defines how you see yourself and the world. The two influence each other, of course.

God is infinity. He can’t be defined by language, no matter how elegant, or complex, because by attempting to define infinity, we’re already imposing limitation on something limitless.

God’s language is silence. That silence speaks to us throughout history. It’s infinitely simple for God to communicate with us in a language of a given era. God can appeal to a particular individual by using that individual’s unique way of speaking (idiolect).

Genius mirrors the mind of God. Just like the Lord, genius takes complex concepts barely anyone is aware of, let alone understands, and distills them down into easy-to-understand information.

If I spoke to you in Hebrew, you’d know I’m a foreigner in a few seconds. And that’s okay. I’ll never be a Hebrew native speaker. I might even get to fluency but I’ll always have a foreign accent. Well, miracles happen, or so they say, but let’s keep it real. I see no reason to hide my Polish accent in Hebrew. No need to look for a shibboleth giving me away as a foreigner.

English is still the lingua franca, the global language. Fluency in English is of vital importance in this world, although Mandarin is closing in on English fast. For now, English continues to rule the world. Traders, terrorists, theologians, ad infinitum – they all speak English.

There could be what I call an emotional charge involved when learning a language. Maybe it’s the language of your enemy, maybe it’s your personal dislike for whatever reason. The emotional charge needs to be taken into account, and dealt with if possible. Imagine a Jewish mother who lost her children in an extermination camp. Do you think she’s going to learn German? Of course not. She hates it – a perfectly understandable reaction. This is what I mean by the emotional charge. It can range from mild dislike to hatred. Don’t expect someone to learn, or speak, the language of a culture they hate and have every right to hate.

Can you guess which part of the language is hard to teach? Fancy, academic, words? No. In my opinion, it’s slang. Why? Unlike fancy (I don’t think there’s such a thing as fancy words in an era any word, or phrase, can be looked up in a dictionary in seconds) words, slang’s always changing and you need to be deeply embedded in a particular culture, group, even a cult, to understand it. Just ask someone you know to use slang around you, the kind of slang you aren’t familiar with. You’ll barely understand what’s being said and dictionaries won’t help.

If you want to master English, or any skill for that matter, you must strive to learn from the best and the brightest. Who are the best and the brightest in the context of mastering English?

1. Third culture kids ― individuals who meander between cultures, because they moved around the globe a lot as children. They could be diplomats, military brats, international school graduates, academics, etc. They likely have great language learning techniques up their sleeve. Just ask them. Don’t be shy.

2. Bilingual/multilingual individuals ― people who can effortlessly switch between languages are useful English conversation partners to have. Monolingual native English speakers don’t really know how hard it is for you to learn English, because they can’t relate. Someone who speaks your language and English on a native level can be a source of useful advice monolingual teachers probably won’t give you.

3. Diplomats ― Diplomats are usually intelligent people who are great conversationalists. They are practical and ready to help others. It’s their job to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue. That’s exactly the kind of attitude you’re looking for. Perhaps there’s an American (British) club in your area?

4. Rabbis, priests, and so on ― yes, you read that right. There are religious scholars who are excellent language teachers. Fast language learning is the sine qua non of missionary work. Just look at the Society of Jesus and their missionary work in China a few centuries ago. You’re interested in the linguistic aspect, and not the theological one. There are shady religious groups out there, so exercise caution. These groups use English teaching as a cover for cult brainwashing.

I’d add spies, but – for obvious reasons – it isn’t something anyone advertises.

Nativism and chunk-teaching

I’m a fan of “chunk-teaching.” It makes sense to teach as a phrase, rather than breaking it down into individual words. Song lyrics often contain all sorts of chunks English learners can memorize. Podcasts are great, too. But even podcasts aren’t enough.


Newspaper articles are a great teaching tool, because they are filled with phrases to be memorized. These phrases are in their natural milieu, so to speak. Textbooks rarely offer the same level of exposure to real-world language. Newspapers are also great slang teachers.

Newspapers are mainly written for native speakers by native speakers.

We easily remember words and phrases that amuse us, terrify us, make us happy, or angry. Take skirting. I can see why this would be a funny word to someone who’s just embarked on their English-learning adventure. How about a pencil skirt uniform? For a student of English who is a beginner with an extremely limited vocabulary, I can imagine a reaction: ”Haha! A pencil looking like a skirt!”

English is notorious for minimal pairs, i.e. two words that sound really similar. Take heels and hills. To see if a student understands the meaning of these words, you can ask him to choose between two options. Is it a pencil skirt uniform and high heels, or hills?

The student can guess, of course, but it’s more likely he understands the difference between the two words if he chooses the right word depending on the context.

Just asking your students if they understand a word, or a phrase, and them nodding along doesn’t tell you anything.

Absurd associations help us remember.

The question arises: who is classified as a native speaker?

The answer isn’t as obvious as you may think.


Citizenship determines who is a native English speaker ― and who is not. Surely, an American passport holder is a native English speaker? Not necessarily. The U.S. has no official language. What if the U.S. passport holder is an immigrant from a non-English-speaking country? What if your mother is an American, but you were born in France? You never visited the U.S., but your English does not contain a trace of a foreign accent. What if you went to international schools, where you were taught exclusively by educated native speakers? What if you are a brilliant autodidact from a Chinese village?

Granted, native English speakers are the purveyors of culture ― but culture is not tied to a particular piece of land by a divine diktat.

If we disregard the passport-citizen criterion, there are probably millions of people around the world, who qualify as native English speakers. English language testing is prescriptive in nature (this is the correct grammar, end of story), rather than descriptive (how does the language actually work in the real world?).

As a result of the global prescriptivist mindset, many people are all-too-familiar with the following sentence: “Look, we know your English is excellent, but these are the formal requirements, you need to take this test, otherwise you won’t be able to study here, work here,” and so on.

In other words, big business. What else is new. We have a saying in Polish.

If you don’t know the reason for something, then that reason is money.

Hmm. What a Girl-Scoutish saying, now that I think of it.


Intelligence is the ability to observe various patterns, draw conclusions from these observations, and then applying these conclusions in life. Gifted students have the brain power to overcome the limitations imposed on them by the mainstream education system; gifted students have the brain power to attain native-like fluency in another language. But the gifted need help, they need an intellectual incentive, otherwise their intellectual prowess is going to wither away in the classroom.

First language does not necessarily mean the dominant language. The world is far too complex to compartmentalize linguistic competence by applying rigid criteria. It is easy to notice that modern educational system – the mainstream version of it at least – does not accept the possibility that an individual can become as proficient in his second language as he is in his first language. I believe anything is possible in our complex global milieu if you put your mind to it.

Many teachers fail to, or are unwilling to, keep up with the ever-changing world around them. Hardly surprising, I don’t need to tell you how meager teachers’ salaries are across the world. Yes, I know there are always exceptions, such as Poland (okay, a bad joke), but you get the idea.

Instead, students put teachers on the defensive, and the process of second language acquisition is seriously impaired as the students who have a lot of target language experience are either ignored or their role minimized. Why would a teacher do that? Ego. Inferiority issues. Envy aka the green-eyed-monster, although Freud would’ve probably said the teacher in this scenario feels mentally castrated. The teacher is suffering from English envy.

By the way, just imagine what kind of conversations Freud and God are having!

Accents aren’t important? As with most things, it depends on the context.

Do we really live in times of equality and diversity? That’s what various pundits would have us believe. Sadly, in many cases, equality and diversity are only vague slogans. There is a dramatic difference between espousing the philosophy of diversity and paying lip service to it for public relations reasons. As a case in point, let’s look at one of the last bastions of implicit discrimination, namely “accentism.”

”Why do you speak English so well?” Aside from being a compliment, it’s a great conversation starter. That’s what I miss in Polish – there aren’t that many regional differences in Polish, certainly not as many as in English, and – I’d imagine – in Hebrew. Polish was much more diverse before the tragic events of the Second World War. Indeed, the Warsaw subdialect is all but gone now.

I’d even go as far as to say your accent is a fundamental part of your English competence. Is it fair? Of course not. Life isn’t fair, no matter how much we’d like it to be. It’s a cliche, but cliches often contain the hard nuggets of truth.

Take a look at the call center industry in India. Is it fair that call center employees are forced to adopt American accents, even American names and personalities? Of course not. Yet, nobody cares if they feel discriminated against. When you enter a restaurant, do you really think you’re not immediately judged by the way you speak? Of course you are. How about a business setting? You know the answer. Disagree all you want, this is the world we live in. I dislike it but I know that’s how things are.

We don’t usually like criticism. It’s logical and natural. Then again, aren’t people doing a disservice to someone who’s a poor English speaker, yet ― he or she ― lives in a bubble of undeserved praise? Is the ”everyone gets a trophy” mentality really the way to go? It takes courage these days, it seems, to tell another person: ”Actually, your accent isn’t that great. You gotta work on it.”

There actually are people who woke up with a foreign accent. The condition is called the foreign accent syndrome. Their lives are thrown into chaos, their identity and status irrevocably altered. Some are mocked and even seen as a different nationality, even though they have no links to this other place they are supposed to be from.

Ask these people if accents don’t matter.

See what they say.

About the Author
Adam Borowski is a technical Polish-English translator with a background in international relations and a keen interest in understanding how regime propaganda brainwashes people so effectively. He's working on a novel the plot of which is set across multiple realities. In the novel, he explores the themes of God, identity, regimes, parallel universes, genocide and brainwashing. His Kyiv Post articles covering a wide range of issues can be found at
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