Situated between South Asia and East Africa, Oman, the second largest Gulf state, is home to considerable numbers of expatriate workers from outer circle countries (to use the Kachruvian paradigm), as well as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Analogous to other Gulf states (Boyle 2012), English is used commonly as the lingua franca in many work-related contexts between Omanis and the non-Arab expatriate labour force. English is the medium of instruction for most degree programmes in the tertiary sector, a policy intended to bolster the country's national modernisation project and facilitate Omani students' access to international educational opportunities (Al-Shmeli 2009; Al-Issa and Al Bulushi 2012).1 The policy also facilitates the employment of ethnically and linguistically highly diverse teaching staff. Omani students are usually required to complete one year of intensive English language training at a foundation institute (a preparatory school attached to the university providing intensive language training) before enrolling in a tertiary degree. Typically, teachers at such institutes come from different inner and outer circle countries, and the wide range of accents in English students are exposed to here and on their degree programmes contrasts with the (primarily) standard UK or US accent used in imported EFL materials.
Despite the multinational composition of academic staff at foundation institutes, hiring policies endeavour to give preference to inner circle native English-speaking teachers (NESTs), a practice evidenced by the wording of job descriptions posted on many institutions' online recruitment sites. In gatekeeping contexts, perceptions that some speakers use the language more ‘correctly’ than others may influence decisions concerning the recruitment and contract renewal of non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) English teachers (Anya, Avineri, Mason Carris, and Valencia 2011). This may lead to the prioritisation of native English-speaker (NES) status over professional criteria such as relevant qualifications and work experience due to the psychological salience of particular NES varieties (standard US and UK dialects in particular), which are often believed to be more ‘correct’ and prestigious (Dalton-Puffer, Kaltenboeck, and Smit 1997; Kubota 1998; Luk 1998; Lasagabaster and Sierra 2002; 2005; Marr 2005; Callahan 2006; Jeon and Lee 2006; Ladegaard and Sachdev 2006; McKenzie 2008; Li 2009; Evans and Imai 2011). Private institutions reliant on fee-paying students may claim that preference given to NESTs responded to ‘market demand’, that is, students expect to be taught a foreign language by NESTs. Previous research has suggested, however, that while EFL learners may claim to prefer NESTs, they may have trouble recognising NES accents from an audio cue alone, particularly accents which do not conform to the idealised UK or US standard (Yook and Lindemann 2013).
Social information such as nationality or ethnic group (Al-Kahtany 1995; Ladegaard 1998), age (Hay, Warren, and Drager 2006) educational background and economic status (Ryan and Bulik 1982) attributed (correctly or incorrectly) to the speaker may mediate how a speaker's accent is perceived (Lindemann and Subtirelu 2013). Such attributions and the resulting perceptions of a speaker's accent have social outcomes. Speakers with particular accents may be judged less suitable for certain jobs (Hosoda and Stone-Romero 2010; Hosoda, Nguyen, and Stone-Romero 2012). Results from a survey of the 27 European Union members reveal that 30% of Europeans felt that ‘the candidate's way of speaking, his or her accent’ would potentially put job seekers at a disadvantage in their own country (European Commission 2012: 87). According to Collins and Clément (2012) and Lippi-Green (2012), discrimination based on language and accent is one of the few forms of prejudice practised openly that does not carry a strong social stigma. Previous research has documented how in educational contexts certain social and status values may be attached to particular (typically NNES) dialects or accents in English and that perceptions of a teacher's NS status and degree of foreign-accented speech may influence students' confidence in the person's teaching competence (Kelch and Santana-Williamson 2002; Boyd 2003). This practice may have significant repercussions on a teacher's professional opportunities (Kang and Rubin 2009). While previous work has addressed the unequal status of NES and NNES teachers in East Asian (Kubota 1998; Jeon and Lee 2006) and North American (Mahboob, Uhrig, Newman, and Hartford 2004) contexts, such issues are equally relevant in Gulf countries (Karmani 2005; Ali 2009).
Socio-psychological responses to accents
The use of the term ‘accent’ is often misleading; while it is often reserved for those whose pronunciation differs from the listener's or differs from an abstract standard, in reality everyone speaks with an accent (Gluszek and Dovidio 2010; Lippi-Green 2012). When used in reference to foreign language speakers, it usually refers to a manner of pronunciation that is influenced by the speakers' first language (or another previously learned language). While the relative strength of an accent is not necessarily related to level of language competence, the former is often used as an indicator of the latter (Boyd 2003; Gluszek and Dovidio 2010). In Boyd (2003), judgements by both Swedish school administrators and pupils of foreign teachers' accented speech influenced their evaluations of the teachers' general language and even professional competence.
Attitudes reveal implicit belief systems held to varying degrees by individuals or a particular social group in relation to another. They entail cognitive, affective and behavioural dimensions insofar as they encompass beliefs, and emotive responses and behavioural outcomes (Cargile, Giles, Ryan, and Bradac 1994). Statements claiming certain accents to be more ‘correct’ or ‘nicer’ than others or acts such as enrolling in a particular course because of the teacher's accent are manifestations of attitudes towards language use. While attitudes may be socially shared, as Cargile et al. (1994: 223) point out, ‘individuated information’, dependent on the hearer's life history, also contribute to the formulation of attitudes; thus students who experience particular regional accents in the UK or US during a study abroad semester may be more likely to have positive attitudes towards such non-standard accents.
Since Lambert's early work in the 1960s (e.g. Lambert, Anisfeld, and Yeni-Kosmshian 1965) which employed the matched-guise technique to examine the social significance of accents and languages, numerous studies have identified the ease with which speakers form judgements of speakers, whether they be the condition of being a native or non-native speaker or by indexing certain abilities, behaviours or traits that are associated with particular accents (see Cargile et al. 1994 for an overview). While much work has been conducted on English speakers, the attribution of social values to different accents has been documented in the case of Danish (Ladegaard 1998; Jørgensen and Quist 2001), Galician (Loureiro-Rodriguez, Boggess, and Goldsmith 2013), German (Klink and Wagner 1999) and Spanish (Tsalikis, Ortiz-Buonafina, and LaTour 1992).
The ability to distinguish between in and out-group speakers emerges early (Nesdale and Rooney 1996; Girard, Floccia, and Goslin 2008). Young children tend to respond preferentially to speakers with whom they share the same language and accent (Kinzler, Shutts, DeJesus, and Spelke 2009; Kinzler, Corriveau, and Harris 2011), and attitudes develop towards different accents and languages concomitant with an individual's acculturation. Young people's identification with local sociolinguistic values appears to increase through their teenage years (Lambert, Giles, and Picard 1975). Thus in Nesdale and Rooney (1996), the level of intercultural contact experienced by children studied influenced the solidarity ratings assigned to particular accents of the slightly older group, but not of the younger group.
Adults tend to continue to give preferential social ratings to their own native accent (Lambert et al. 1965; Tsurutani 2012); this can mean distinguishing between localised varieties of the same language. For instance, in Abrams and Hogg's (1987) study investigating listeners' attribution of social and status values to two Scottish and one RP-accented speaker, Scottish listeners rated the in-group accent (Dundee) more highly in opposition to a Glasgow accent, but this in turn received higher ratings when compared to the RP-accented speaker. Adults may also, however, defer to other accents perceived to be more prestigious by downgrading their own. In Bayard, Weatherall, Gallois, and Pittam (2001), for example, New Zealanders (and to a lesser extent Australians) downgraded their own accent vis-à-vis US-accented speakers for some traits such as solidarity. In-group accents are thus not invariably preferred to those signalling out-group status, rather attitudes may depend on contextual factors.
Contextual information may also influence NES' perception of NNES accents. Similar to results from studies using different social varieties of a NES accent (Seggie, Smith, and Hodgins 1986), some NNES accents may evoke associations of low social prestige and competence. Thus in Kalin and Rayko (1978), NES listeners downgraded foreign-accented job seekers compared with Canadian-English accented speakers for high status jobs, but not for low status jobs. Some NNES accents may evoke positive associations in the context of specific high status professions. In Cargile's (1997) matched-guise study, a Chinese-accented English speaker received the same ratings as a US-accented English speaker by Anglo-American listeners (but not Asian Americans), who were informed that the speaker was applying for job (different positions of varying status were given); the same speaker received lower ratings when the listeners understood the speaker was an English professor in an educational setting, however. This discrepancy may be explained in terms of listeners' indexing particular social values; in some contexts (but not all), Chinese speakers evoke associations of competence and competitiveness to Anglo-American listeners. Not all NNES accents are perceived to be equally foreign; accents of European languages such as French or German may be perceived as ‘less’ foreign to Anglo-American listeners than many Asian accents (Cargile et al. 2010). In Hosoda and Stone-Romero (2010), Japanese-accented speakers were rated as less suitable than French and standard US-accented speakers for positions with high communication demands, while French speaker ratings were comparable to the US-accented speaker.
Such contextual information may also affect listener comprehension. Rubin's (1992) study on accent perception using the matched-guise technique demonstrated that American undergraduate students perceived a foreign accent and attained lower scores on the listening comprehension task when informed that the speaker was an Asian and presented an Asian (Chinese) visage than when they were informed that the speaker was a White American with the corresponding visual. In both cases the speaker's accent conformed to standard American English, leading the author to conclude that discrepancies in students' performance and professed perceptions of accent were attributable to socio-psychological factors.
NNES students have also been shown to express different attitudes to teachers depending on their perceived NES status. In McKenzie's (2008) verbal guise study, Japanese students assigned higher status evaluations to teachers they perceived to be US and UK NESs. Butler's (2007) matched-guise study examining Korean primary school children's comprehension of and attitudes towards US and Korean-accented English revealed that although comprehension was not affected by the two accents, children judged the pronunciation of the US-accented guise more positively. It is not unusual for EFL students to perceive NESTs as better models of ‘correct’ accent (Luk 1998; Lasagabaster and Sierra 2002; 2005; Callahan 2006; Li 2009), although EFL students may not always recognise NES accents, especially when they diverge from the standard US or UK varieties (Kelch and Santana-Williamson 2002; Scales, Wennerstrom, Richard, and Wu 2006; McKenzie 2008).
While EFL students may also downgrade their own accent in comparison to standard US and UK accents (Dalton-Puffer et al. 1997; Luk 1998), students may nevertheless assign high solidarity ratings to speakers with their own accent (McKenzie 2008; Sasayama 2013) or may rate their own accent more highly than other NNES accents (Chiba Matsuura, and Yamamoto 1995).
In Gulf country like Oman, where a plethora of accents in English co-exist in the educational sector due to the reliance on expatriate workers, no work has yet been done on the attitudes students may have towards accents in English in their own environment. Although both the institutional gatekeepers and the students themselves profess to preferring NESTs for English language tuition, nothing is yet known about how students perceive the accents of NNESTs and to what extent the NES criterion influences judgements of teacher competence or whether, analogous to previous findings (McKenzie 2008), Omani students may rate speakers with their own accent more highly than other NNES accents.