By Geoffrey Vitale, Quebec, Canada (illustration: Russian MIG pilot, source unknown)
In the days of "secret classrooms", I learned my Russian, day-in, day-out at the British joint linguists camps in Coulsdon and Wythall. One of the activities was to learn to recognize and understand a wide array of NN Russian speakers (Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, etc) who were communicating with their bases from planes, tanks, trawlers, etc.
This was done by having us listen to recorded live conversations between, for example, Mig pilots and their control towers; Russian tank commanders communicating with their lieutenants as they rolled through East Berlin.... Much later, working in teacher training, I was emphaziing the problem of numbers, addresses, telephone numbers, etc and how frequently indeed NNS found themselves required to understand numbers - over the phone, in a railway station, a shop, etc. etc.
I devised a number of tapes of conversations using a wide range of accents --"native accents" for the most part -- middle class English, cockney, the classless "Michael Caine" accent, Tarheel, Texan, and New England, Irish, Glasgow .. oh yes and a few Indian, Quebecs and Iranian speakers .. all in home-made sketches involving numbers and directions.
The early activities started with repetitions, especially when there was a radical change of accent, and then got up to a more aggressive one-time only speed.The students job was simply to listen and fill in grids.
At the end of each test, we went over the answers, checking for mistakes and misunderstandings orally -- and students would reproduce them in the more neutral accent they were actively learning to emulate. It was effective. It also confirmed what I had long suspected -- once a students gets used to hearing a range of accents, comprehension accelerates. Obvious.
Of course -- just as obvious as realizing that a NNS hearing "non-English" accents every day of his life will soon find his or her way around and recognize them. As someone pointed out, the NNS often spends more time with other NNS than with NS-- for reasons that have nothing to do with linguistics.
I would have thought that a more serious problem would be the danger of their adopting the NNS accents they hear and spending their lives sounding like Peter Sellars..! If disheartened, always remember Ludwig Bemelmans, the delightful Austrian writer, and author of the "Madeleine" books, who once claimed that he spoke "five languages ... all with an accent."