The ‘American English’ Delusion

 

My best friend, Jamie, is a Canadian who graduated from one of the most prestigious colleges in the country and obtained her doctoral degree in the U.S. She is a working professional based in New York, so she communicates with her colleagues and clients in English. Yet, Jamie says that she feels embarrassed when surrounded by native English speakers.

 

Jamie was fifteen when she immigrated from Seoul, her childhood city, to Vancouver. As her age was almost at the end of the critical period to pick up a second language, she does have a Korean accent in her English. And because of that, she is envious of her non-American friends who speak English “just like American”.

 

If you go to East Asia, my home region, the situation gets far more serious than Jamie’s somewhat cute frustration. In its accent and particular way of speaking combined, American English stands as an inviolable and sacrosanct standard that everyone needs to follow. Schools, students, parents are all on the same team in order to achieve this goal of “speaking like American.” Despite the presence of enough qualified local English teachers, Japan continues to invite English instructors from the U.S. to satisfy the desire of Japanese to learn a “good” accent. China, which is now the biggest “importer” of English teachers, pays foreign English teachers more than four times the salary it pays to local ones.

 

Something more extreme happened in South Korea about ten years ago. It started with a rumor that a lingual frenectomy--a surgery performed to remove a band of tissue under the tongue--is helpful to make a child’s “R” and “L” pronunciation better. There is no scientific evidence for the correlation between your short tongue band and the more proper “R” sound, yet, thousands of upper-middle-class parents took their toddlers to a clinic to get the incision done.

 

Although the extent of seriousness might vary, the worship of the American accent is quite easily observable in the Middle East, Latin America, and many parts of Europe as well. The more American you sound like, the better English you are thought to speak.

 

The worldwide obsession with American English is attributable to two ungrounded beliefs. First: that one would use English mostly in order to communicate with Americans; second, that the American way of speaking English is right and superior.

 

Let’s look at the facts. It’s true that Americans speak English, but out of 1.2 billion English-speaking people in the world, the number of U.S. origin is less than a quarter. English is the de jure official language in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Philippines, and fifty more countries with different accents and intonations. Not to mention in countries, where English is recognized as the native language, like Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K., English users there have their own national and, very often, subnational way of speaking the language. Even in the U.S., the so-called American accent is only heard in certain parts of the country, and from certain groups of speakers. Therefore, if you have been obsessed with the value of “American English” from a utility perspective, you are reading the whole English market pretty wrong. Considering the fact that English acts as a lingua franca almost everywhere in the world, it is much more likely for one to speak English in order to communicate with non-American, or even with English as a second language speakers.

 

More important, the essence of language lies in enabling people to communicate with each other. And when it comes to communication, what is important is usage of appropriate words, sentence structure, and clarity, not the imitation of an American accent. A few years ago, a Korean documentary film team conducted a blind test of people’s reception of English. Koreans and native English speakers from different were provided with a short audio clip of English spoken by an old man. While the English speakers evaluated the man’s English as elegant and sophisticated, the Koreans thought his English was “somewhat rustic”, “mediocre”, and “not desirable” because of his strong accent. As the man of the mysterious voice turned out to be Ban Ki-Moon, the former U. N. Secretary-General, whose speech still resonates as one of the greatest in the 21st century, there is blood running on the Korean participants’ faces.

 

Indeed, there would be no single English speaker who would value a tenth-grade Pennsylvanian boy’s English more than that of Jawaharlal Nehru, Kofi Annan, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If there is a hierarchy within the use of English as a language, it certainly does not stem from one’s accent, but from one’s capacity to deliver thoughts clearly.

 

Tonight, I might call Jamie, and tell her that I find her English much more polished and delicate, compared to that of her friend who is never able to finish a sentence without using “like”, “literally”, or “so”, literally like, so much.

© Kyuwon Lee, 2020.