A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Native Speaker Fallacy: a Recipe for Confusion (and ridicule!)

M. R. Vishwanathan

“Professor Henry Higgins: Why Can’t the English? By Henry, look at her, a prisoner of the gutter, condemned by every syllable she ever uttered. By law she should be taken out and hung, for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.

Eliza: Aaoooww!

Higgins (imitating her): Aaoooww! Heavens! What a noise! This is what the British population, Calls an elementary education..”(My Fair Lady)

In the film Life of Pi, Piscine Patel (Pi Patel) wins millions of hearts with his sterling performance, a brilliant narrative rendered in flawless Indian English, signalling a remarkable turnaround in attitude to non native varieties of English; truly, Indian English has come of age. A victory for linguistic human rights and for Periphery Englishes! A slap in the face for the purists arguing for native speaker norms.


The Native Speaker Fallacy owes its origins to Phillipson’s (1992) ground-breaking work on ideology in English teaching and learning where he identified as fallacious the faith imposed on native speaker norms and models, created under laboratory conditions in the West and certified as universal in applicability, and the belief that native speaker teachers are suitable models for emulation in an ESL/EFL context. An attendant fallout of the native speaker fallacy is the endorsement of phonetics and supra segmental features (stress, rhythm and intonation) as an effective tool to teach learners the spoken language.

A case in point is the teaching of stress, rhythm and intonation to Indian speakers of English in second language classrooms. A lot of effort goes into making learners lose MTI (Mother Tongue Influence) as if it were a sin to speak English with a local accent. It is explained to students that to be able to speak like a fluent user of language, one must get rid of one’s accent and practise speaking like a native speaker, a very common occurrence in language labs in engineering colleges. Again, one variety of English-R.P. - is regarded as the standard variety and the students are trained to speak English in keeping with the demands of that variety.

It is surprising that at a time when theories have emerged that challenge the notion of native speaker, there are pockets of support, ironically, in those very institutions that ought to jettison these anachronistic views and models. Aiming for a standard variety is tantamount to stigmatising local, non native varieties as inferior while not supplying reasoned arguments for upholding the superiority of one dialect/model over others.

The study

My baptism of fire with the English language communication skills laboratory began sometime in 2006 when a multipurpose language lab was set up for the first and the third year students of engineering. On the first day of the lab and subsequently in the other lab sessions, when facing 50 plus students and the prospect of teaching phonetics as outlined in the syllabus, I encountered more than I had bargained for: whispered giggles, confused looks, indifference and even mild annoyance from students. Informal interaction with the students revealed a host of reasons why they seemed cold to the idea of going “native”: difficulty in being able to produce certain vowel sounds (/ ǝƱ/ as in old, sold,etc / eǝ/ as in air, hair, etc. ) , inability to memorise all the rules of word stress and the fear of being mocked by fellow students for trying to sound phoren. One student summed it up admirably when he wondered aloud why one needed to take the trouble to sound native when plain Indian English was enough to communicate with a fellow Indian, and that the attempts to erase mother tongue influence were simply unrealistic.

An epiphany followed by introspection brought forth this study as I wondered how colleagues in colleges were coping with stress (pun intended) and supra-segmental features and the strain of teaching them.

To investigate the teaching learning of phonetics and suprasegmental features in engineering colleges and to find out if it was helpful to learning spoken English in any way, a survey was conducted in three engineering colleges affiliated

to a state university in Andhra Pradesh. Three teachers and 120 students participated in the study. Classroom observation was spread over 6 lab sessions (two in each college) and it included interaction with teachers and students where the study was organised.

In college A, the lab session lasted over two hours and the teacher taught students phonetics using chalk and talk to start with. She told the learners that without stress, rhythm and intonation English speech becomes “meaningless.” Then she corrected the pronunciation of a few learners and played a few songs by British bands. One of the songs was “Another day in Paradise” by Phil Collins. It was assumed the song would be used as authentic material for teaching listening.

Surprise awaited me. The teacher picked out words like “this”, “that”, “embarrassed”, “another”, “twice”, “think” etc. to teach learners how to pronounce /θ/ and / ð/ like a “native speaker”. But from the way she overdid it, it was evident that she was confusing the learners. They were made to sing after the song and repeat the words with precision. ‘Think’ sounded like ‘sink’ and ‘twice ‘like ‘swice’. Learners were also asked to correct themselves every time they said ‘this’ so that it sounded more like ‘zis’ and ‘that’ like ‘zat’. The whole exercise appeared futile because learners wondered why they had to say that since everyone understood this and that the way the words were normally pronounced. When asked if she wasn’t being too rule bound and sacrificing logic in the process, the teacher replied with a sharp retort: “I have been asked to do it and I intend doing it my way!” The next 45 minutes saw learners being taught rules of stress. They were then directed to the computer and asked to copy down the rules and terms. She was heard mispronouncing words, saying “adshektive” for ‘adjective’ and ‘vousher’ for ‘voucher’. The observation clearly showed that she had misinterpreted the sounds / d Ʒ / and / tʃ/ by separating / d/ and /Ʒ / and /t/ and / ʃ/ when she ought to have pronounced them together, as / dƷ / and / tʃ/ respectively!

Canagarajah’s (1999) observations about how many periphery professionals spend undue time “repairing their pronunciation or performing other cosmetic changes to sound native” (1999, p. 84) were true in what had been observed. Her emphasis all along was on getting students to lose their accent, while she herself had an accent that was a cross between a call centre General American and Telugu.

The learners did not relate to what the teacher spoke glowingly of: sounding native. If Canagarajah spoke for the fraternity struggling with accent and pronunciation, he was perfectly correct in this instance since the teacher was telling the researcher how she herself spent a lot of time improving her own pronunciation, though going by what was in evidence it looked more like a pseudo accent, and even that, she did not get right going by what she had been doing!

Informal interaction with the students led to amused silence to start with followed by complaints: they were keen to speak but not using R.P.; they wanted group discussions, debates and role plays to enhance their communication skills but not phonetics as it was taught. Many of the students were first generation learners who were only then coming to grips with the spoken language and wanted to speak in broken English just to conquer stage fear.

In college B, the sessions were not as monotonous as in college A; but nevertheless boring and stifling. There were looks of disdain in students who were unsure why they were being drilled in the rules. The entire session was devoted to teaching the rules of stress, learning where to place stress markers, and so on; the phonetic chart was projected onto a screen for students to copy from and then began intense practice in speech sounds.

The students registered their displeasure at having to take part in what they saw as a waste of time; the teacher however maintained that they had to find some use for the software, having purchased it! When it was suggested that moving on to situational dialogues and role plays in authentic situations, such as sitting an interview or participating in a group discussion etc, could be done, the teacher retorted that it couldn’t be done until they learnt intonation!

The situation was reminiscent of an observation so appropriately made in the context of L2 learning by Vivian Cook (1999):

... teachers, researchers and people in general have often taken for granted that L2 learners represent a special case that can be judged properly by the standards of another group. Grammar that differs from native speakers’, pronunciation that betrays where L2 users come from (emphasis mine) and vocabulary that differs from native usage are treated as signs of L2 users’ failure to become native speakers, not of their accomplishments in learning to use the L2. (pp 194-195)

In college C, the teacher was not sure of the rules herself. The students were asked to take down the sentences featured in the software they had been using and I was to know later that the very sentences they had copied down were set in the end exam paper! Neither GD nor debates ever figured in the sessions and the students were unhappy that close to 5 months were dedicated to teaching phonetics when the academic year was just 7 months long! The teacher complained that a top down curriculum was to blame while doing little to “tweak” and tinker with the curriculum to make it student friendly and useful.

The classroom observations made it all too apparent that teaching phonetics was not just a waste of breath (literally!) but a waste of useful hours which may have been better used to teach English that students needed to get on in life.

The following recommendations emerge from the study:


  • Restrict phonetics to the speech sounds; the 44 sounds should be taught minus value judgements about RP/General American.
  • Phonetics is useful when using a dictionary; when looking up a headword, students will find next to the headword an entry in slant brackets –the word as it is pronounced by native speakers of English, and awareness of speech sounds will guide them in so far as pronunciation is concerned.
  • English is an Indian language; it has been appropriated to meet our needs and therefore it needs to be used like an Indian language, where meaning-making is entirely context based.
  • Mutual intelligibility should be the determining criterion in language use and not absolute norms; the English one speaks should be comprehensible to the receiver. L2 speakers are a distinct group who cannot be judged using the native speaker yardstick.
  • The speech sounds that English deploys may not find an equivalent in a learner’s L2. In such cases approximation not only becomes necessary but inevitable too. For instance, in Indian English there is a tendency to merge strong and weak forms, /Ʌ / and / ǝ/, as well as the short and long vowels / ɔ/ and / ɒ:/, as in cot and caught.In such cases it is the context alone that works in the meaning making process, not pronunciation.


It is time to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure our attitude to certain practices and approaches in ELT. This is in acknowledgement of the fact that the periphery varieties are not “deficient imitations of the core norms,” (Phillipson, 1992, p. 198), but legitimate varieties in themselves. It is necessary to call time on ELT principles and practices which instead of aiding language learning end up handicapping the learner.


Canagarajah, A.S. (1999). Interrogating the “native speaker fallacy”: Non – linguistic roots, non pedagogical results. In G. Braine (Ed.), Non native educators in English language teaching (pp.77-92). Mahwah , NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cook, V. (1999).Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), 185-209.

Netter, Gill, Ang Lee & David Womock (Producers), Lee, Ang (Director) (2012) Life of Pi. USA, Fox 2000 Pictures.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 Warner, Jack (Producer), Cukor, George (Director). (1964). My fair lady. USA, Warner Bros.

M. R. Vishwanathan

M.R. Vishwanathan, PhD in ELT, is currently working as Assistant Professor of English at NIT Warangal. His interests include bilingualism and bilingual education, academic writing and ideology in language teaching.

vishwanathanmrv@ gmail.com