Position Statement on Students who are Non-native Speakers of Standard American English

[Approved: January 2011]


Position Statement

The San Francisco State University Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences (SLHS) promotes linguistic diversity and views the use of different languages and dialects among its students as an asset to our academic and professional community. The program holds the position that students who use non-standard varieties of American English – whether because English is not their first language or because standard American English (SAE) is not their primary dialect – are no different from their peers in their ability to provide competent speech-language services to persons with communicative disorders, so long as they have met our program standards for academic and clinical performance. This is consistent with the official position of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (1998), which states:

It is the position of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) that students and professionals in communication sciences and disorders who speak with accents and/or dialects can effectively provide speech, language, and audiological services to persons with communication disorders as long as they have the expected level of knowledge in normal and disordered communication, the expected level of diagnostic and clinical case management skills, and if modeling is necessary, are able to model the target phoneme, grammatical feature, or other aspect of speech and language that characterizes the client's particular problem. All individuals speak with an accent and/or dialect; thus, the nonacceptance of individuals into higher education programs or into the professions solely on the basis of the presence of an accent or dialect is discriminatory. Members of ASHA must not discriminate against persons who speak with an accent and/or dialect in educational programs, employment, or service delivery, and should encourage an understanding of linguistic differences among consumers and the general population.

The SLHS Department is committed to academic and professional excellence. All graduate students whose degrees are received from a postsecondary institution where English is not the principal language of instruction have to meet our minimum English proficiency standards prior to admission. All applicants must meet our program’s minimum writing proficiency requirements to be considered for admission. All students upon admission, regardless of their linguistic background, are held to the same standard of written English proficiency.


Purpose of the Position Statement

It has come to our attention that graduate students who do not speak SAE as their native language or dialect are sometimes discriminated by their employers, instructors, peers, colleagues or clients for their ways of speaking, even when the students display adequate academic and clinical competence; these incidents have been reported both in our local community and nationwide. The purpose of this statement by the SFSU SLHS Department is to take a position against such discrimination and to state our commitment to linguistic diversity.


Support for the Position

The position is based on our department's core values. In formulating this position statement, we also offer responses to frequently expressed concerns about issues related to students and professionals who are non-native speakers of SAE. 

It has been argued that since language is not only a tool for the practice of speech-language pathology (SLP) but also the very object of our practice, SLPs trained in U.S. institutions should demonstrate native-like fluency of SAE.

We acknowledge that all students should demonstrate high standards of proficiency in both spoken and written English. The expectation for native-like SAE fluency, however, is neither reasonable nor attainable for most speakers who learn SAE as a second or additional language. Most people who learn additional languages beyond early childhood retain features of their primary language(s) to differing degrees (Doughty & Long, 2003). The primary role of an SLP is not to teach English or any other language, but to facilitate optimal communication between persons through language and other symbolic means. 

It has been argued that clients seeking SLP services in an English-speaking setting have a right to expect their clinicians to provide the best possible help, which most effectively provided by a native speaker.

This belief has been referred to as the native speaker fallacy in the field of Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) (Philipson, 1992). Teachers of English as a second language (ESL) who are non-native speakers of English are often perceived to be less qualified and less effective than their native-speaking counterparts (Langdon, 1999); however, because these teachers have personal experience with learning English and often possess more explicit understandings of the structures of English, it is not uncommon – especially when they share the same first language as their clients – for many non-native English-speaking teachers to be even more effective instructors than colleagues who are native speakers (Braine, 1999). 

It has been argued that SLPs who do not speak SAE with native fluency may not be able to model SAE sound patterns or linguistic sequences that their clients need to learn and would impede their clients' progress.

Some features of SAE may not within the non-native English-speaking clinician’s repertoire, but that does not necessarily mean that the clinician would not be effective in helping their clients acquire those linguistic features. Non-native English-speaking clinicians can support their clients by providing indirect modeling (e.g., use recordings of native speaker speech or work with native speakers who can model). Clinicians must use their clinical judgment to determine whether their inability to model the target features is negatively affecting their clients' outcomes. If so, a referral to another therapist would be warranted. The ASHA Code of Ethics stipulates that all clinicians have the ethical obligation to “engage only in those aspects of the profession that are within the scope of their competence, considering their level of education, training, and experience.” 

It has been argued that SLPs are professional communicators and should therefore demonstrate flawless mastery of SAE, which is the acknowledged language standard in our country.

The notion of a “best” English is a prescriptive one and not a descriptive one. Prescriptive linguistics focuses on measuring language use against standards of “correct” versus “incorrect” forms; in contrast, descriptive linguistics focuses on describing the languages forms that are actually used by speakers. In SLP, and other professional fields, the use of standardized forms is an expected skill for academic writing and in professional reports. SLPs are also expected to demonstrate clear, respectful, and professional spoken language skills that result in effective communication with their interlocutors. However, conversational English (even in professional settings) is much more variable depending on context. Native speakers of English rarely speak the idealized version of English that is found in formal writing. Their speech is influenced by geography, occupation, age, gender, social status, family history, and more. It is worth noting that language is a form of cultural capital, and that the dialects and varieties of English often considered “poor” versions of English tend to be those spoken outside of the mainstream middle class. Rather than adhering rigidly to a standard, the mark of an excellent professional communicator is being able to adapt their communication form and style effectively to meet the needs of their communication partners. 

There is now a growing consensus among scholars that there is not one English language anymore, but many world Englishes (Bhatt, 2001).

There are many varieties of English spoken just within the United States alone. Many are tied to deep histories and distinctly American cultural identities, including African American Vernacular English, Spanish-Influenced English, and many other dialects with creole or other regional origins. Globally, the different English languages being spoken around the world represent diverse linguistic and sociocultural traditions. The diffusion and nativization of English has grown far beyond the traditional bases of English (United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) where native-speakers are commonly assumed to originate. In places like India, Ghana, and the Philippines, an estimated 150-300 million speakers use English natively and regularly throughout their lives. Because the features of the English varieties spoken in these contexts differ from those found in the traditional bases, speakers of many World Englishes are often misunderstood as “non-native” speakers. ASHA Fellow, Dr. Li-Rong Cheng (2010) stated, “English is never a singular term when we think of the globalized world we live in…Because we have a world of Englishes, we should be able to diversify our own concepts of phonology, syntax, morphology, and semantics, and allow these diverse variations to coexist with our own repertoire” (p. 2). Correspondingly, instead of urging students to “reduce” their accents, she advocated for “improving one’s linguistic repertoire.”

The goal is for all of us to widen our communication competencies, rather than limiting each other to a prescribed standard. The situation that urgently needs our attention is not the shortage of native-speaking SAE clinicians to work with SAE-speaking clients, but the dearth of highly qualified clinicians to work with the multitude of clients speaking languages/dialects besides SAE who currently have little or no support.


Program Commitment

  • The SFSU SLHS Department is committed to promoting the expansion of linguistic competencies and diversification of repertoires for all students and professionals, regardless of their linguistic backgrounds.
  • We maintain that no student, faculty, or staff shall, on the basis of their linguistic background, be excluded from participation, be denied benefits, or be otherwise subjected to discrimination.
  • We encourage all students to gain fluency in additional languages/dialects via the resources for language learning on campus and in our diverse community.
  • We encourage all students who wish to further their mastery of SAE to take advantage of the supports available in the SLHS clinic.



  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (1998). Students and professionals who speak English with accents and nonstandard dialects: Issues and recommendations [Position Statement]. Retrieved December 15, 2010: www.asha.org/policy
  • Bhatt, R. M. (2001). World Englishes. Annual Review of Anthropology, 30(1), 527-550.
  • Braine, G. (Ed.). (1999). Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Cheng, L.-R. (2010, March, 2010). Expert Q & A: A conversation with Dr. Li-Rong Cheng. Diverse Voices: CSHA Diversity Committee 2010 Newsletter, 2.
  • Doughty, C. J., & Long, M. H. (Eds.). (2003). Handbook of second language acquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Langdon, H. (1999). Foreign accent: Implications for delivery of speech and language services. Topics in Language Disorders, 19(4), 49-65.
  • Philipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.