A few days ago, I drove to a nearby village to visit my parents who live there. My little son joined me and as he’s really into trainspotting, we walked to the train station to enjoy the stunning speed at which the freight and express trains pass by.
After a while, I spotted a couple of backpackers getting off the train that had just arrived from Olomouc. I wasn’t paying much attention until the guy approached me and addressed me in English. I wasn’t really surprised because a millisecond before he started speaking, my brain infallibly detected his foreign features.
While his (girl)friend was sitting on the ground a short way off, he asked me about the train schedule. He explained that they had originally been headed to Olomouc but accidentally disembarked one station earlier. My intuition didn’t fail me – his accent revealed his British origins. I spontaneously replied that I had no idea because I wasn’t local, but then I turned to my mom ask asked her. She promptly remembered the exact time of the departure of the train they needed, which was in about fifteen minutes. I translated everything into English and the couple looked grateful and truly relieved. We exchanged a few of more utterances when the man asked: “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Šternberk” (I really don’t know why I thought he would know where it was).
He said: “Oh, you’re Czech. I thought you were a native speaker”.
I said: “No, I’m an English teacher, you know, so….”.
He said: “I see”.
Then my mom and I said goodbye and left the backpackers to their own devices.
However, the sentence I thought you were a native speaker lingered with me for a while. At first, I felt really flattered. My pron must be really good, I thought. Then first doubts started to come in. It occurred to me that perhaps the man only felt relieved and he just wanted to say something nice because he appreciated the fact that he’d bumped into someone who could speak English. We hadn’t conversed long enough for him to judge my level of proficiency anyway. It crossed my mind that maybe he was well aware of the situation in the ELT world and knew that almost every L2 learner strives to sound like a native-like speaker. Or maybe he’d traveled around the world for too long to maintain his ability to recognize NESTs from NNESTs.
Then another train of thought arrived; I asked myself why I felt so flattered by his remark in the first place? Why do I think it’s such a big achievement to sound native-like? And no matter what I say out loud to the world, my emotions, the way I instantly feel, will reveal my true beliefs. And the truth is I was proud of my alleged native-like pronunciation. Full stop.
I remembered this story after I had watched this YouTube series with David Crystal on Global English.