A Matter of Accent: Student Research in Linguistics and Hispanic Studies

The fall 2015 issue of The Monitor, Journal of International Studies, published at W&M in order to promote interdisciplinary research among our students, and to contribute to multicultural understanding, features an article by Nicole Fitchett (HISP & Linguistics ’15) on accents among students of English in both Norway and Spain: “Native Language and Cultural Relevance- A Study on the Acquisition of English Phonology“. The initial ideas for the project originated in a personal journey to Norway and during the two semesters of her study abroad experience in Seville, Spain.

Nicole Fitchett ('15)

Nicole Fitchett (’15)

“I visited a friend in Norway one summer and was surprised not only at how well most Norwegians spoke English, but how well they sounded. Many people I met sounded like they could have been born and raised in any U.S. city, and I had a lot of trouble distinguishing the other Americans I met there from the Norwegians- I always had to ask! Then in Sevilla the next year studying abroad I took an advanced phonetics class and I realized just how difficult it was to dig into another language, accent-wise. My interest was piqued, and I decided to dedicate my research grant to exploring the topic more profoundly.

“I’ve always been interested in the process of language-learning, and at the time that I was researching phonetics was the most relevant to my life. During that period I spent two semesters in Spain over the course of two years and my biggest focus was trying to improve my accent to sound more native (or less foreign, depending on how you look at it). Now I use what I’ve learned to help my students in Galicia improve their pronunciation in English so they can communicate more effectively. It takes a certain amount of finesse because I can’t just tell them to “palatalize!” I have to adapt my explanations to their level of understanding, and I’m still working on it.

Since graduating last May, Nicole has been working in a school in Galicia, in northwest Spain, as a language and culture assistant. She describes her experience as follows:

Fostering intercultural insights in the classroom

“My formal job title is Auxiliar de conversación, or language and culture assistant. I was placed in a small-town primary school to help teachers of bilingual classes. Certain days of the week I help in the Art classes and other days in Physical Education, both of which are taught in English. The teachers are not always native English speakers so my purpose is to expose the students to a native speaker’s accent, expressions and culture, and help the teachers with any doubts they may have. Sometimes I take small groups aside for personalized attention, I lead activities if the main teacher needs to help one particular student with an assignment, I make presentations about U.S. holidays and cultures, and all of the other routine tasks that come with working in a classroom (behavior management, technique instruction, etc.) If you asked my students though, they’d probably tell you my job consists of handing out incentive stickers! For a lot of the students I’m the first American they’ve met in their lives, and it’s important for them to be confident communicating in English as Spain continues to globalize. It’s truly amazing how the same children who wouldn’t make eye contact with me in October now run up to hug me in the hallways with a “Hello Teacher! How are you?”

“Currently I’m developing a correspondence program between the students at my colegio and students at an elementary school in the U.S. While it’s certainly not easy coordinating the logistics between five classes in two time zones with two legal frameworks for privacy laws regarding minors, it’s definitely my favorite project so far. I get to witness the excitement of all of these students opening letters from halfway across the world, learning about how other cultures see them and adapting their worldview to accommodate their new friends.

During her time at the College, Nicole, a Monroe scholar, Phi Beta Kappa inductee, and Sigma Delta Pi member, was awarded the J. Worth Banner Award in Hispanic Studies for the rising senior with the highest overall GPA. She was also a grader for conversation classes in our HISP program.

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