One of the best things about the conference was gaining a real sense of how diverse our industry is, meeting teachers from so many different countries and contexts. It’s humbling and exciting to be reminded that your own teaching context is such a tiny cog in a huge international machine of language education.
It also instilled a sense of pride to feel part of an industry which clearly cares about equal opportunities for all. For example, we learnt how you can ensure that online materials are accessible to everyone, regardless of disability. In her talk on materials design, Katherine Bilsborough recommended the websites AbilityNet and WebAIM, and quoted Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web:
“The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential.”
Katherine pointed out that since the web breaks down barriers to communication, it’s pointless to be designing materials that build them back up again by preventing someone who is visually impaired, for example, from accessing those materials.
It was also great to hear we’re part of an industry which cares about feminist issues, when we encountered The Fair List for the first time. The Fair List encourages gender balance among speakers at ELT conferences in the UK, so everyone has an equal opportunity to present at events like IATEFL, regardless of whether they’re a man or woman.
Similarly, it was exciting to learn about Plan Ceibal – a remote teaching project in Uruguay touching the lives of around 120,000 primary school children in over 1,000 schools. Paul Woods and Mercedes Viola explained how telepresence team-teaching enables a classroom teacher with low level English to manage the class physically, while a remote teacher is also present via video link-up, usually from the Philippines. In this way, children in Uruguay who might not be able to learn English otherwise have access to language education, regardless of geographical location.
In spite of all this, it was disappointing to find that there are still people in our industry who feel it is acceptable to perpetuate myths related to the RP accent and feed into stigma related to non-native and regional accents. We were saddened to hear an audience member in the Q&A after one presentation use the term ‘bad accent’ in reference to non-native speakers’ pronunciation. Unfortunately, our industry still has a long way to go before there are equal opportunities for all regardless of accent. While the ‘bad accent’ comment made our blood boil, we were equally disheartened to hear another presenter insinuate that regional native accents are sub-standard.
We do not deny the continued prestige attached to RP, but we do wonder why such apparently open-minded, educated, passionate people sometimes seem to display the attitude ‘if you can’t beat ’em join ’em’? Do we fall back on that kind of defeatism when it comes to disabilities or sexism? Evidently not. Yet when it comes to accents, discrimination appears still to be tolerated, even perpetuated, by some.