Published: April 13, 2023

Name: Abigail Renfrow
Advisor: Prof. Raichle Farrelly
Project: Honors Thesis
LURA 2023


Recently, a Chinese student at Harvard went viral with a video she recorded in which she stated that she had decided not to try and improve her English anymore (Wenxin, 2022). The student, Tatala, gave her reasons for her decision in the video. She explained that “she has always been a good student when studying English; however, she never felt satisfied and her confidence has wavered throughout the journey of learning the language” (Moon, 2022, pp. 1). Tatala clarifies that, “language can cause people to judge personality, background, and intention since language is considered to be a part of one’s identity… even if I am just not perfect at English, so what? This is my second language. This is the lingua franca I was pushed to learn” (Moon, 2022, pp. 1). While Tatala’s story made headline news, her position is not unique and, in fact, voices many of the frustrations experienced by English Language Learners or ELLs (Blommaert, 2009). It was, therefore, worth uncovering and analyzing some of the reasons that so many ELLs feel pressure to sound like what can only be described as a minority of English speakers and how these factors impact the curriculum of EAL (English as an Additional Language) programs (Stevens, 2019).

The primary objective of this study was to better understand the perceptions of NESSs (Native English Speaker Standards) from the viewpoint of ELLs in multilingual contexts (regions where individuals come across multiple languages daily). The main question that provided the foundation of this study was: What are the factors in EAL classrooms that introduce or reinforce NESSs (e.g., teacher beliefs, learner goals, texts, assessments)? The process of learning another language can be negatively impacted by these NESSs that are established by both EAL teachers in the classroom and by learners’ perceptions. The aim of this study was to identify what these NESSs are and where they come from – either presumably the EAL teacher, society at large or the learner themselves. What follows is only a very brief summary of one of the findings from this study based on data collected via an online survey of 63 participants. All additional findings, discussions, and implications for pedagogy and research are presented in the larger thesis paper. Please also note that for privacy reasons participants have been given pseudonyms. 

Survey results indicated that those who learned EAL as a required subject in school for the purpose of traveling and consuming media tended to answer that they did not feel the need to adhere to NESSs when talking with NNESs (non-native English speakers). Conversely, those who learned EAL, either independently or in school, for the purpose of business opportunities had largely different perceptions, with 100% reporting feeling pressured to adhere to NESSs when talking with anyone in English. The main reasons that were given in their answers revolved around how their English would be perceived in a workplace. Stacey commented, “For a job interview, not sound[ing] like a native [English speaker] may affect the decision.” Similarly, Candice wrote, “…I try to sound good so they perceive me as well educated and professional. Unfortunately, language proficiency can be perceived as a level of intelligence.” 

But where did these perceptions, of what a NESSs is, come from? The study showed that the majority of pressure on accents was being introduced in classrooms rather than in genuine interactions with NESs (Native English Speakers). This theory was reinforced by participants’ responses. “Teachers pressured [me] to get rid of it [my accent] but English native speakers did not do that, they even encouraged me to be ‘authentic’” (Eva). As discussed previously, pressure from a teacher to change an accent can cause a shift in identity that an EAL learner may not want. Adam remarked, “My English teachers taught me that having an accent was an undesirable thing. They did not say [it] to me but their actions and occasional comments made me want to get rid of any trace of an accent and it made me not want to talk in class anymore.” A teacher in a classroom holds a considerable amount of power over their learners’ perceptions of any given language; if an EAL teacher displays unhappiness or frustration with a particular accent, it is understandable that this can have considerable consequences for the self-esteem of a learner (Blommaert, 2009). 

An EAL teacher’s priority should always be their learners and how they can help them achieve their goals with English. If they want to embrace their L1 accent, then an EAL teacher should help support them and if they desire to step away from their L1, that should be equally respected. But the price for learning EAL should never come at the cost of a learner’s relationship to their L1 or force a shift in their identity. 


Image credit 

Tima Miroshichenko


  1. Blommaert, J. (2009). A Market of Accents. Language Policy, 8(3), 243-259. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.
  2. Moon, R. (2022, September 6). Chinese Harvard Student Decides ‘Not to Learn English Anymore’. Yahoo.
  3. Stevens, P. (2019). Viewpoint: The Silencing of ESL Speakers. Alexandria, VA: SHRM Publishing.
  4. Wenxin, L. (2022, September 8). Chinese Harvard Student Decides ‘Not to Learn English anymore’. Today Online.