Accents, motivations and cultural identities: The things you learn from your students

Can we ask you a question? We’ve been wondering all class [which explains why they were talking the whole time and disrupting the kids next to them] … where are you from? Coz, like, you don’t have an accent in English, or, I mean, whatever, but you have a really good accent in Spanish. So we were just wondering…

This came from 2 girls in a class I substituted for a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago. They approached me sheepishly after class. What they meant was that I sound like a native speaker of English, but to their 200-level learner ears, I also sound like a native speaker of Spanish. I was flattered and used it as an opportunity to encourage them to work hard in class and study abroad if they can, but there’s something else afoot, no? Their usual teacher, as they mentioned, has lived in the US for 10 years and still has a very heavily accented English. He knows more colloquial American expressions and cultural references than I do for any Latin American or Spanish culture, but they’re tuned into pronunciation, not word choice. This made me wonder, does their perception of us have an impact on their learning? Do they pay more attention to me or him? Are they more motivated by one or the other of us?