Removing teachers with "accented" speech?

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It's been widely reported that the Arizona Department of Education has begun working to remove teachers whose English-language skills are viewed as inadequate. According to press reports, the evaluators aim (among other things) to remove teachers with "accents", which probably means Spanish accents in most cases. Casey Stegall, "Arizona Seeks to Reassign Heavily Accented Teachers", Fox News 5/22/2010, wrote:

After passing the nation's toughest state immigration enforcement law, Arizona's school officials are now cracking down on teachers with heavy accents.

The Arizona Department of Education is sending evaluators to audit teachers and their English speaking skills to make sure districts are complying with state and federal laws.

Teachers who are not fluent in English, who make grammatical errors while speaking or who have heavy accents will be temporarily reassigned.

"As you expect science teachers to know science, math teachers to know math, you expect a teacher who is teaching the kids English to know English," said Tom Home, state superintendent of public instruction.

The basis for this crack-down is said to be a clause in the Federal "No Child Left Behind" act, which makes it a condition of federal aid to states that teachers be fluent in English. According to the same article,

In 2000, [Arizona] voters passed a referendum which stipulated that instruction of these classes be offered only in English. Then in 2003, President Bush's No Child Left Behind act stated schools couldn't receive federal funding unless an English teacher was totally fluent in the language.

The date given in this article appears to be wrong — the No Child Left Behind act was passed by Congress in 2001, and signed by the president in January of 2002. The text of the law does state, in any case, that

Each eligible entity receiving a subgrant under section 3114 shall include in its plan a certification that all teachers in any language instruction educational program for limited English proficient children that is, or will be, funded under this part are fluent in English and any other language used for instruction, including having written and oral communications skills.

It seems appropriate to require English teachers to be "fluent in English". However, there's nothing in the law about "accent", and the information on teacher quality evaluation at the U.S. Department of Education doesn't seem to say anything about this either. This omission is probably for good reason, as explained at length in a statement from the Linguistics Department of the University of Arizona on the "Teachers’ English Fluency Initiative in Arizona".

This statement was sent to Governor Jan Brewer and Superintendent Tom Horne, with the following cover letter:

Dear Governor Brewer and Superintendent Horne:

I am attaching a statement prepared by our faculty in response to the news that "the Arizona Department of Education recently began telling school districts that teachers whose spoken English it deems to be heavily accented or ungrammatical must be removed from classes for students still learning English."

As scientists, as educators, as citizens, and as state employees, we feel it is our duty to provide the scientific facts that are relevant so that  state leaders and citizens can make informed decisions.

If there's anything we can do to help or clarify this, please let me know.

Sincerely,

Mike Hammond
Head, Linguistics
U. of Arizona

They express the relevant facts, as they see them, as the following eight points:

1) ‘Heavily accented’ speech is not the same as ‘unintelligible’ or ‘ungrammatical’ speech.
2) Speakers with strong foreign accents may nevertheless have mastered grammar and idioms of English as well as native speakers.
3) Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don't speak Spanish.
4) Exposure to many different speech styles, dialects and accents helps (and does not harm) the acquisition of a language.
5) It is helpful for all students (English language learners as well as native speakers) to be exposed to foreign‐accented speech as a part of their education.
6) There are many different 'accents' within English that can affect intelligibility, but the policy targets foreign accents and not dialects of English.
7) Communicating to students that foreign accented speech is ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ is counterproductive to learning, and affirms pre‐existing patterns of linguistic bias and harmful ‘linguistic profiling’.
8) There is no such thing as ‘unaccented’ speech, and so policies aimed at eliminating accented speech from the classroom are paradoxical.

The remaining five pages of their statement explain these assertions and back them up with references.

Does anyone know what formal criteria the Arizona evaluators have been told to use? Since the Fox News report on the situation seems unable even to get the date of the NCLB law correct, I'm reluctant to trust their assertions about the nature of the Arizona teacher evaluation. There are other press reports that seem to be less careless — the Arizona Linguistics Department's statement references (what I take to be) this WSJ article — but still.

[Some commentary on various sides of this issue:

Matthew Balan, "CNN Spins Arizona's English Ed. Standard as Accent 'Crackdown,' 'Ban'"
Andrei Codrescu, "Arizona Education Loses The Accent Of America"
David Edwards, "Arizona cracks down on teachers with heavy accents"
"Arizona English Educators Under Scrutiny (Video) Teachers And Accents"
Maya Prabhu, "Arizona law worries non-native educators"
Christopher Peterson, "Strong Accents Define America"
Amanda Terkel, "Arizona Superintendent: It’s A Big Problem If Teachers Have Accents And Pronounce ‘Comma’ As ‘COH-ma’"
Valerie Straus, "How Arizona is checking teachers’ accents"
Valerie Strauss, "Concern over accented teachers not original to Arizona"
Bret Kofford, "Life Out Here: They could not teach in Arizona"

In particular, note this CNN story:

And compare the commentary on it by Matthew Balan, linked above, which sees the CNN report as helping to "perpetuate the liberal talking point about Arizona's supposedly racist campaign against illegal immigrants". Then you could throw Andrei Codrescu's commentary into the mix: "This would be a much better country if everyone just kept quiet and handed his proof of citizenship to the police."

Politics aside, the most useful discussion that I've found of what's actually happening comes from a blog post by Valerie Strauss, which includes this material supplied by Amy Rezzonico, a spokesperson for the Department of Education:

2008-09 school year - The Arizona Dept of Education monitored 73 School Districts. Seven of these were cited “for a fluency problem.”

Number of teachers observed: 1,529.
Number of teachers found to have pronunciation problems: 25

School districts are required to submit a plan to the education department about what they will do to help the cited teachers.

"Not one plan submitted by a school district talked of removal of the teacher," she wrote. Instead the plans said that professional development would be provided to ensure the teacher is highly qualified....

2009-10 school year -- The education department monitored 61 districts and found 9 districts were cited for fluency.

Number of teachers monitored and cited for fluency issues is not yet known because the data is still being compiled and evaluated.

Other reports suggest that some teachers have been re-assigned, but I'm not sure how to square those reports with this information. Perhaps those are local reactions rather than moves mandated by the state?

Via Strauss, Rezzonico also provides excerpts from the monitoring form that evaluators are using, which includes this bit of unintentional irony:

If the monitor hears a message that is incomprehensive in English from the instructor, this constitutes a “NO" response.

Presumably "incomprehensive" is a malapropism for "incomprehensible" -- the OED does allow the meaning "Not to be comprehended or understood; incomprehensible", but flags it as obsolete, with the most recent citation in 1791.  This seems to count as an instance of the very next item on the check-list:

If the monitors hear words used that are impeding communication, this constitutes a “NO” response.

Quis cusdodiet ipsos custodes?]



109 Comments

  1. GWS said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 7:23 am

    I have watched tv news in a number of English speaking countries and it is only in the USA where I have seen subtitles used when the speakers were from Scotland, Ireland and sometimes England

  2. Fred said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 7:29 am

    "Heavily accented" according to whose judgement? I'm English. I'd expect to find a native of Arizona speaking in a heavy American accent …

  3. SWG said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 7:29 am

    Well, it would be a little odd if they subtitled the Scots in Scotland.

  4. david said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 7:42 am

    Come on people, be pragmatic. There may be no universal definition of what constitutes a "heavy accent", but to me it's a complete no-brainer that English teachers in an English speaking country should be native speakers and thus not have any foreign accent. (Full disclosure: I speak English with a slight foreign accent)

  5. Philip Newton said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    Also, what's meant by "make grammatical errors"? For example, is a split infinitive a "grammatical error"? What about contractions in writing? The use, or lack thereof, of a comma before the conjunction in a series such as "Tom, Dick[,] and Harry"?

  6. K.B. said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    So, if a person from Boston (or Newfoundland, or Georgia, etc.) moves to Arizona to teach, will they too be removed from their position due to their "heavily accented" speech?

    I know people from countries around the world, all with varying English-speaking abilities. Hands-down, the hardest time I have ever had understanding someone's speech, was with a co-worker from Newfoundland (born and raised there), and I'm Canadian, and somewhat use to the "Down East" accent one finds here. Second hardest? A bus driver from Scotland. Note that both these people were speaking English.

  7. Nik Berry said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 8:07 am

    God bless Strunk & White – if they use their wonderful book to judge 'ungrammatical' there will soon be no teachers in Arizona.

  8. Mariana said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    Yes — ever since I'ver heard about this, I've been trying to find the actual act/bill/referendum (or to find out who these "evaluators" are or the criteria involved) but my searches have turned up empty. If anyone can find a reference to this that doesn't originate from the WSJ or WaPo article, please let me know. I think there might be a little bit of scaremongering going on…

  9. notrequired said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    Another law that aims to eliminate Hispanics from the workforce.

  10. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    "There are many different 'accents' within English that can affect intelligibility, but the policy targets foreign accents and not dialects of English."

    Indeed. Ban Geordie teachers from Arizona!

  11. Mark P said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    I suspect that the intentional effect of this law is to eliminate Arizona teachers who have a Hispanic accent. I doubt that native speakers of German or French, or even Southern US English, are causing much indigestion among the whitest Arizonans. (Once while traveling in Colorado I had to translate my native Georgia pronunciation of "ice" into something a store clerk could understand.)

  12. Jen McGahan said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    My high school French teacher was Hungarian, with a charming and good-enough, but not authoritative command of the English Language. I always wondered if the French I learned was correct. When I took French in college I discovered that some of the pronunciation I learned was not correct, but "good enough." I'm not sure about the grammar because I never became fluent in the language, but I expect my teacher's conversational French was slightly off, albeit certainly understandable; in the same way her English was.

    I do like the idea of English class taught by teachers whose first language is English, for correct pronunciation and grammar, yes; but also because a native reader and writer of English would probably understand better the culture and heritage from which the great works of English literature originate, if for no other reason than because they themselves originally read and learned these works in English. (I think they are still reading English books, and not translations in K-12.)

    If there not enough native-speaking English teachers to go around in Arizona schools, maybe they could hire them from outside the state.

  13. Roger Lustig said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    @Mark P: just so long as you wanted it by the bag, not by the piece. Friend of mine learned the hard way…

  14. Pepe said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 9:56 am

    Teachers should only be removed if their accent severely impairs the ability of students to understand the lesson. I've had quite a few foreign teachers and college professors, some with extremely thick accents (with one, to the point that I only understood about 75% of his sentences), but some of these were fantastic teachers. Evaluations should look at the big picture, not just at the accent.

  15. anchorageite said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:12 am

    This post made me think of Andrei Codrescu, who speaks better English than most Americans, and with a wonderfully heavy accent. It turns out he has a commentary on the topic:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126480169

    He says:

    "And let's not stop with the foreign-born: Ban all accents. Southern accents, for instance, or Yankee ones. Actually, there isn't anyone who speaks without an accent, so let's just ban communicating altogether. This would be a much better country if everyone just kept quiet and handed his proof of citizenship to the police."

  16. Greg said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    They express the relevant "scientific facts", as they see them

    It almost sounds as if you're taking issue with these points (or maybe their presentation of them?). After reading the statement, my guess is that they were trying to strike a balance between (1) dumbing things down a bit (so the points would be intelligible to non-linguists), and (2) strongly asserting that these are very real, widely held understandings in the field of linguistics.

    [(myl) That wasn't my intent -- I agree with all eight points, and think that they are well supported empirically, though as usual in areas outside of mathematics, I'm sure that there are some well-informed people who would disagree to some extent with some of them.]

  17. Ellie said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    I'd like to suggest that Arizona educators of all backgrounds immediately start speaking with a thick Irish brogue in protest.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    My high school French teacher was Hungarian, with a charming and good-enough, but not authoritative command of the English Language. I always wondered if the French I learned was correct. When I took French in college I discovered that some of the pronunciation I learned was not correct, but "good enough."

    If your own pronunciation, as an American speaker taught by a Hungarian, was considered "good enough", I would think that your teacher's pronunciation (which you probably did not reproduce exactly) was very good, although not exactly what your prof was used to. In French, as in English, there are different accents, so what is "correct" for one region might not be for another: for instance, British and American speakers have their own ideas about the correct way to pronounce "class" or "student", not to mention Northern and Southern speakers of American English about how to say "ice" or to pronounce "pin" and "pen". There are similar cases in the pronunciation of French.

    I'm not sure about the grammar because I never became fluent in the language, but I expect my teacher's conversational French was slightly off, albeit certainly understandable; in the same way her English was.

    You cannot make this assumption. It is quite likely that your Hungarian teacher learned French earlier in life and more formally than English, if he or she learned English as an adult and on the ground, so to speak, by living in the US rather than being taught it systematically. So your prof probably spoke French better than English.

    a native reader and writer of English would probably understand better the culture and heritage from which the great works of English literature originate, if for no other reason than because they themselves originally read and learned these works in English.

    The great works of English (as opposed to American) literature originate from a culture which was vastly different from the present one and for which there are no reminders in America. By that I mean that in England, for instance, you can till see around you (in some places) the landscapes and the architecture that Shakespeare or Dickens or even Chaucer saw and the places where they lived, and there are many other, less concrete reminders of a past way of life predating the expansion of English into America. And do you think that anyone from a non-English-speaking country who studied English literature must necessarily have done so from translations? I can attest to the falsity of this assumption. Courses in "X literature in translation" seem to be particularly American. In European countries, if you are going to study the literature of another language, you do so by reading the original works.

  19. Adrianne said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    I don't know… I did quite poorly in multivariable calc in college because the teacher, from China, had such poor English skills that I couldn't understand what he said most of the time (didn't have the gumption to realize I could have just transferred to a different section; relied on a roommate whose mother came from China to "translate" some things in recorded lectures for me, but didn't work all the time)… and I ended up leaving the teacher certification program in Texas (and teaching in Catholic schools instead, for whom resume was more important than certification) when the English teacher giving classroom management instruction was unable to form a complete sentence, and I realized that that level of ability in fellow teachers would not bode well for future career relations. Similarly, when living in Braunschweig, I met an unfortunate German who'd learnt English as an exchange student in Abilene, and his acquired twang (strongest I've heard — and I'm a native Texan) made his English relatively useless in the international setting. I really think that there may be more to it than the critics think — "accent" may truly mean "unintelligible to native speakers of standard American English", not just "with slight regional variations," and "ungrammatical" may truly mean "unable to grasp basic subject-verb agreements, verb tenses, and the makeup of a simple sentence," not just "having slight disagreements on the serial comma." Thinking of the various instances where high school math teachers can't pass a standardized 8th grade math test, etc.

    Just pointing out that a bit more knowledge of what the issues truly are on the ground, as it were, might assist in better judgment of measures taken.

  20. Boris said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    I don't know what the exact parameters of the bill are, but accents and fluency in English do need to be enforced up to some standard. I've had two professors whom I have had trouble understanding, one due to heavy accent (Indian, Computer Science) and one due to insufficient proficiency (Chinese, Economics, He seemed to make up his own words and expected us to understand them).

    Teachers and professors need to know their material, know how to teach it, and speak the relevant language(s) well enough to teach the material. While native Spanish speakers may be better qualified to relate to Hispanic students, if they're teaching English to those who still don't know it well, they need to be capable of almost unaccented English. For more advanced courses and students, it is less necessary for the teacher to speak Spanish and less necessary to speak English without an accent, as long as they know and can convey the material they teach.

  21. Geoff Nunberg said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    In fact if the state cannot demonstrate that the teacher's accent is an impediment to job performance — which as the U of Arizona linguists' statement notes is not as clear-cut a matter as some people seem to think — the EEOC would consider the dismissal an instance of national origin discrimination. The classic law review article on accent discrimation is Mari Matsuda's "Voices of America: Accent, Antidiscrimination Law, and a Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction" in the Yale Law Journal for 1990.

  22. Cecily said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    @Jen: Re "I do like the idea of English class taught by teachers whose first language is English, for correct pronunciation and grammar"

    Having English as your first language doesn't guarantee that, quite apart from the near impossibility of defining "correct pronunciation".

    Standard pronunciation (I don't think "correct" is the right word) varies hugely between NYC, Austin, London, Edinburgh and elsewhere.

    Surely the issue should be intelligibility, not accent?

    For instance, there was recently a case in England where a classroom assistant working with young children wanted to wear a full burka (face veil, with only the eyes visible) and the headteacher thought it compromised the children’s ability to understand her, to which end she wanted the woman either to remove her veil in class or leave her job. The school won – eventually. It wasn't about race or religion, but about the need to be understood.

  23. Elizabeth Braun said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    I had a Chinese/translation teacher who is Chinese, and had a very strong accent with his English – which was otherwise impressively fluent and colloquial.

    On the other hand, what does 'fluent' mean? I was e-mailing one of my former students the other week (I used to teach on the first year Chinese language classes and he's now on the 2nd year, year abroad phase) and, in response to his wondering what level he should be aiming at from his year abroad I said that he should aim to get his fluency up to standard. That might seem a tall order for only a 2nd year student, but what I meant was, not that his knowledge would be anything like complete, but that he could use what he did know so smoothly that people wouldn't really know the difference! Extra vocab and expressions were to be added in during further study at the home University.

  24. C Thornett said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    Standing in long lines at theme parks during family vacations over many years has given me ample opportunity to observe the language skills displayed by people in charge of large groups of children. These are frequently rather low, whatever the accent. By this I mean the range of vocabulary and grammar displayed generally seems very restricted.

    Similarly, anyone who has or has had children at school, in summer camps or after-school activities and who has an interest in language may have felt concerned at the level of language skills often displayed by native speakers who work with young children. Good communication with young children, in particular, takes considerable skill and accent is largely irrelevant.

    I have NNES ESOL colleagues who are brilliant teachers and who use their own language learning experience to enhance their teaching, accent or no, but again, I can think of colleagues in Adult Basic Skills education, both NES and NNES, who do not have very good language skills.

    It takes considerable skill to put complex information into simple terms for people with limited English or with learning difficulties, or for young children.

  25. Cecily said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    @ C Thornett: I think it's acceptable to have slightly lower linguistic standards for ancillary staff, e.g. on school trips, than for teachers of English. It would be lovely if everyone one's children encountered used perfect English, but till then, I'd rather focus on how well the pupils can understand the content of their lessons.

  26. marybeth said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    Questions I have about this:
    1. Is there an assumption that they are targeting native Spanish speakers because it's Arizona? The teacher in the video is from Brazil so her native language would be Portuguese.

    2. They found 25 out of 1500 teachers to have pronunciation issues but it doesn't say what happened to them. Were any of them reassigned? I've found that school boards (or any bureaucracy) like to do things that are more show than accomplishment.
    3. I would have found the teacher's (in the video) English acceptable so I wonder why she is concerned about her evaluation. Does she lack confidence in her ability? Are there other issues with her job performance and she's trying to divert attention from that to make it look as if any censure is due to her accent? I would rather have seen interviews with people who have been reassigned. The lack of that makes me think that the average listener would have agreed with the reassignment (if there have been any).

  27. Andrew said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    Just as a counterpoint, I was taught *in first grade* by a woman who spent more of her life living in Colombia (or perhaps it was Ecuador) than in the English-speaking world. Our reading curriculum included Phonics, and couldn't pull it off because she didn't *have* the correct sounds. It was endlessly frustrating to be in her class, and I nearly failed.

    Would I object to her teaching a literature course at the middle-school level? Not at all. But I'll never agree with her assignment to teach six-year-olds the basics of language. That was a mistake.

  28. Mark P said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    When I went to graduate school at the advanced age of 30, I heard a fair number of undergrads complain about not being able to understand teachers (probably some Indian, some Chinese). I found that there was a period of adjustment and that after some reasonable time, the effect of the accent pretty much disappeared, at least for me. I once watched a British production of Hamlet on TV. There was a double whammy – British accent and Elizabethan English. But after watching for a while, it became much easier to follow the dialogue. I suspect younger students are often less inclined to accommodate than to complain. Maybe it would have done some of them good to have been exposed to different accents before they reached college. Or the real world, for that matter.

  29. Wea said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    Does this law apply to teachers not teaching English? There are cases in the article stating that it doesn't ("you expect a teacher who is teaching the kids English to know English", "unless an English teacher was totally fluent in the language"), but some parts seem to imply that it applies to all teachers ("to audit teachers and their English speaking skills to make sure districts are complying with state and federal laws"). Speaking grammatically correct English is important to young students or those learning the language, but in higher level classes, the ability to understand the teacher becomes more important than the little mistakes they make.

  30. Nick Lamb said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    Boris "to speak English without an accent" is nonsense. What you mean is "with the same accent as me". On this basis it makes only as much sense as firing a teacher for being "not like us", which is of course the real intention and the sort of thing that gave Americans their reputation for parochialism or outright xenophobia.

  31. Ken said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    I have heard/read that many of the people affected by this law were actually recruited by the state. There was a time when there was a shortage of bilingual teachers in Arizona, so they went to Central and South America and recruited people to fill the positions. Later, they turned around and said "No Spanish in the classroom", so many of the bilingual staff became English teachers.

    [(myl) I've read similar reports. What I haven't seen is any quantitative account of what this has to do with the current situation: How many such teachers were there? How many of them are still teaching in ELL classrooms in Arizona (the English-only law was passed ten years ago, in 2000)? Is there evidence that significant numbers of them are not fluent in English?]

  32. dw said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    BE IT ENACTED BY THE STATE OF ARIZONA…
    That all teachers employed by this State shall have the cot-caught merger.

  33. Adam said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    How about a crackdown on politicians "who make grammatical errors while speaking"? Somehow I doubt we'll see that any time soon.

  34. michael farris said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    The poison pill of English only legislation is that to be enforced the idea of English or American English has to be defined, which it isn't at present. Good luck to anyone who wants to try.

    That said, I do think that some accents in some contexts will be more or a hindrance than help to students. Also, an ESL teacher in the US needs to be able to make certain distinctions that are uncontroversially part of SAE. A speaker who can't distinguish thin and tin (or sin) or who can't present a reasonable distinction between man and men or luck and lock or bed and bet is not a good model no matter how fluent they may be in other ways or how good a teacher they are.

    [(myl) How about pin and pen, or cot and caught, or peel and pill?]

    I also think it's easy to come up with a practical test for measuring the pronunciation of teachers. One way would be dictation tests. The teacher is recorded in spontaneous speech and read segments. Subjects (native speakers of SAE) are then asked to transcribe the sentences with similar samples recorded by an SAE speaker as a control. If the subjects do worse at transcribing the teacher than the control (to a significant degree) then I think there's a problem that just thinking good thoughts won't make go away.

    Probably the only fair solution would be to make all teachers take the test.

    [(myl) All teachers in ELL classes are being "evaluated", though the criteria are vaguer and more subjective than your suggestion. But I haven't seen any specific and credible claims that there are a significant number of ELL teachers in Arizona (or even any!) whose accent would pose a functionally significant difficulty in transcription of read text -- so it would be prudent to determine whether there's really a problem, before subjecting thousands of teachers to such testing.]

  35. Paul said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    As a (non-rhotic) British speaker I'd like to say never mind the confusion caused by people who call commas comas: why's this guy going on about karmas?
    ;-)

  36. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    I agree with Andrew that it would probably be disconcerting for first-graders to be taught the fundamentals of their native language by a teacher whose speech is markedly different from theirs. At one time California recruited some young teachers from Spain to teach Spanish to Mexican-American children, and what I heard from a couple of these teachers was that (except for a girl from Andalusia) their accent was a marked impediment to their effectiveness.

    When it comes to teaching a foreign language to beginners, on the other hand, native speakers are probably the worst, since they usually have no appreciation of the learners' difficulties with the language. For this reason I agree with the third point of the UA linguists' statement, namely, that [t]eachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don't speak Spanish.

    In my case, I was lucky to have what would now be called an Israeli (back then it was a Palestinian Jew) as my first teacher of English, an Estonian as my first teacher of French, and a Polish Jew (my father) as my first teacher of Hebrew. I also taught myself Spanish and Catalan out of books written by a German and a Brit, respectively. In all these languages I am usually (mis)taken for a native speaker. By contrast, I learned almost nothing from my Taiwanese teacher of Mandarin (who, incidentally, flaunted her mastery of the Beijing accent).

  37. Mark F. said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    If somebody has a sufficiently thick foreign accent, so as to make them difficult for students to understand, or to give them difficulty in teaching English pronunciation, then it is legitimate to count that against them in hiring for teaching positions. What is not legitimate is to go on a statewide witch hunt looking to purge teachers based only on that criterion, when there are so many other reasons that teachers can be bad, many of which, I'm certain, cause a lot more problems than teachers with accents.

    [(myl) It's clear that there's at least a PR problem here. The Brazilian teacher featured in the CNN piece clearly has an accent, but equally clearly, she's fluent in English and her accent is nowhere near to being a problem in practical terms. So if she's concerned about this evaluation, then either the evaluation is inappropriate, or it's being pitched in a way that leads to it being misunderstood.]

  38. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    Are Arizona schools so ghettoised that these teachers are the only speakers of English that the students will ever be exposed to? If not, then what exactly is the problem, given that study after study has shown that young learners adopt the accent of their peers, not their parents or guardians?

    This, incidentally, is the crucial difference between a teacher of English in the USA and a teacher of language which is not also the local vernacular, wherever they might be.

    [(myl) As I understand it, there are significant numbers of Arizona schoolchildren, especially in the early grades of elementary school, who mainly hear Spanish at home, and mainly play with other Spanish-speaking children. This doesn't mean that these children will not learn English eventually, but it seems to be a valid reason not to trust that letting nature take its course will work out well for them, especially if the rest of their schooling is in English.]

  39. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    Oh, and an anecdote about the presence of non-native speakers of English in US college classrooms: This was a well-known hazard in my day, particularly for students majoring in maths or the sciences. Many would select their lecturers based on surname, avoiding any that appeared Asian. A contemporary of mine related how this backfired rather spectacularly one year at his college when one of the grad students with an English surname turned out to be from Glasgow. (For his part, he always preferred lecturers of South Asian origin because he never had any difficulties understanding them.)

  40. michael farris said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    "[(myl) How about pin and pen, or cot and caught, or peel and pill?]"

    The cot/caught distinction is not necessary for SAE.
    With pin/pen an English teacher should be able to distinguish them in isolation, in connected speech it's less important (like many other potential contrasts).
    In what variety of SAE are peel and pill homophones? I can maybe imagine some varieties where someone will pill and orange, I can't imagine someone taking a peel for a headache in SAE.

    My suggestion also wasn't meant really as a serious policy suggestion but just to demonstrate one way of determining an accent that falls within the acceptable boundaries (which should be pretty wide) if you wanted to do such a thing.

    "The Brazilian teacher featured in the CNN piece clearly has an accent, but equally clearly, she's fluent in English and her accent is nowhere near to being a problem in practical terms."

    Agreed, though I'd be concerned if she's held up as a model pronunciation for studetns to emulate. But for most practical kinds of classes she's fine.

    "So if she's concerned about this evaluation, then either the evaluation is inappropriate, or it's being pitched in a way that leads to it being misunderstood"

    IME teachers do not welcome any outside auditing or evaluation, ever.

  41. Noelle M. said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    The main problem I see with the argument that we shouldn't have non-native English speakers teaching English to English language learners is this: that they are not the only models of English that the children will encounter. ESL teaching in American schools has a clear goal: to teach non-English speaking children to communicate in the dominant language of their community and country. It's not as if English exists solely within the confines of the classroom; their native peers, other teachers, people they encounter at the stores — most of them will be native English speakers. (Of course, the degree to which this is a likelihood might be slightly less here in the Southwest, but nevertheless, the point still stands.) So what if their ESL teachers do not have perfect pronunciation! As long as they give their students enough knowledge and confidence in communicating in English, their pronunciation or grammatical errors can be fixed throughout their interactions with others. This would be especially true for younger ESL learners, it seems to me. We seem so invested in the idea that teachers are the last word that we forget that children learn about the world in many, many ways, from a myriad of sources. This is *especially* true when it comes to language.
    On the other hand, I have had occasions where I was initially frustrated by a professor's accent (I don't recall ever having a teacher with a non American accent until college); however, one can become used to a non-standard pronunciation rather quickly (granted, I'm a native speaker; I fully admit I have no idea how easy this would be for a non-native one).

  42. Mark P said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    @michael farris
    In my area (Georgia/Alabama) in the past it was not uncommon for some people to pronounce peel and pill pretty much identically. I don't hear that much any more.

  43. Shauna said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    From personal experience, I've found it easier to learn Spanish from native speakers than from Americans who were fluent in the language. A few points though: my FIRST spanish teacher was American. I thought the class was boring, but she could explain things in English that we didn't understand. Spanish 3 was a woman from Argentina; some things were difficult to understand (and we had a lot of mis-communications because we weren't fluent enough in Spanish for her, and her English wasn't fluent enough for when our Spanish failed), but I picked up the language faster by listening to her. Once I hit college, I had an American teacher and then a Mexican one (both were bilingual). I feel like I understood the Mexican teacher's Spanish better than the American one. Now, that may have been that I improved in fluency, but it may also have been the accent.

    Other than that…

    I found this article a little confusing. Are they auditing ELL teachers? Regular English teachers that everyone has (English/Language Arts, English Lit, etc.)? All teachers?

    I don't think I agree with what Arizona is doing, but I'd like it to be clearer just who they're auditing.

  44. Vicki Baker said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Mark said:
    "either the evaluation is inappropriate, or it's being pitched in a way that leads to it being misunderstood."

    Michael Farris said:
    IME teachers do not welcome any outside auditing or evaluation, ever.

    People tend not to welcome outside auditing or evaluation.In the US educational system, it's the state that certifies that teachers have the basic competence and training, and the local system that monitors teacher performance. It could be argued that this isn't working, and that there needs to be a more centralized system where state officials conduct spot checks of teacher effectiveness. The fact that the state wants to come in to local school district classrooms and monitor only certain teachers on one criteria only, is what people find objectionable, I think.

  45. Vicki Baker said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Sorry, I forgot to close a bold tag above

  46. Nijma said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    I always wondered if the French I learned was correct. When I took French in college I discovered that some of the pronunciation I learned was not correct, but "good enough."
    Students should have access to a native speaker, even if it's only a recording. If language acquisition means "reading, writing, speaking, and listening", students need to learn to be able to understand a native speaker.

    How about pin and pen, or cot and caught, or peel and pill?
    This is almost impossible to teach, even though students are sometimes very interested in learning about various accents, and want to lose their own accent. Even if students can understand and hear the difference between ship and sheep, the pronunciation habits from their first language will be very strong. They will only learn this in time through continuous exposure to the language, if at all. I'm not saying don't try to teach it–I do teach it anyway, and it's something I want to know about when I study another language, even if I can't reproduce it accurately.

    Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don't speak Spanish.
    The policy for our adult ESL program is that classes will be taught in English, period. When I am observed and evaluated, there is a box on the evaluation form for the observer to check whether or not I used English. I try to get around it, especially for beginning classes, by asking students to translate words into their language so I can check their comprehension, but it's always something I get a comment about from observers. Another place I taught in the area had the policy too, so it's not just one school.

  47. transplanted northerner said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    @michael farris & mark p on pill/peel:

    My daughter was 10 when we moved to Tennessee ten years ago. She knew the difference between a pill and a peel, and had no problem. But she insisted that those things in Holland are "windmeals" and the exercise machine is a "treadmeal." Not having heard the words before (or at least not often), she learned them from native southerners, who pronounced them as indicated.

  48. Alexander said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    @michael farris

    I'm curious: why do you propose to treat cot/caught and pen/pin differently? Is your differentiation based on a claim about unpracticed cross-dialect intelligibility? If so, is there evidence for this? Or is the differentiation based rather on the different demographics of the two cases? And if so, what differences matter? Is the idea that caught/cot merger, despite being occurring in a numerical minority of Americans, occurs in (some? many? all?) regions whose topolect is substantially more similar to "SAE" than that of typical regions with pen/pin merger?

  49. Chris Garcia said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    I wish they'd have put something like this into effect when I was in school. I had several teachers, especially in Junior High, whose accents made it nearly impossible to understand them. Two Indian professors, one Thai, a particularly troublesome Boston accent and one that I'm not sure where they were from, but I basically had to teach myself algebra because I didn't get a word they said, ever.

    Yes, it seems like Arizona may be applying these to get rid of Spanish accents, but it can be troubling having a teacher with an accent you can't understand. On the other hand, giving individual teachers a Voice and Articulation class would be a much better way to solve these problems.

  50. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    "Also, an ESL teacher in the US needs to be able to make certain distinctions that are uncontroversially part of SAE. A speaker who can't distinguish thin and tin (or sin) or who can't present a reasonable distinction between man and men or luck and lock or bed and bet is not a good model no matter how fluent they may be in other ways or how good a teacher they are."

    As a British English speaker, I think a speaker who can't distinguish between "Mary", "marry" and "merry" should not be allowed to teach English.

    A couple of unrelated points.

    1) This thread reminds me of the joy I used to experience hearing legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel talk. A Dane by birth and upbringing, after many years of living in England he developed a near perfect and very thick Mancunian accent. It's so unusual hearing non-Brits speaking BrE with a "good" accent that isn't an approximation of RP or estuary, that the effect was really quite unnerving. That said, you do sometimes encounter a similar effect with foreigners in Scotland

    2) The whole discussion (and the thinking behind the legislation) seems to miss the point that, once the students start actually using the words in their daily lives, their pronunciation is going to be affected far more by that of their peers and by the community in which they live than it is by their teachers. Now, obviously there's some overlap – in school many of the peers will be students learning from the same teacher – but I suspect that the accent influence of second language teachers for students actually living in that second country is vastly overestimated.

  51. Roger Lustig said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    re: pill/peel: I know plenty of people from western states who "fill good" about themselves. Quite a few of them are from Phoenix, too!

    No, rilly.

  52. Jane Lapham said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    Dear Arizona Department of Education: The Queen of England called. She said to tell you that, A) People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, and B) It's high time you pesky Americans learned to spell.

    I hope the majority of these rumors stem from scaremongering. But in any case, these news articles have brought about some interesting public conversation. I'm surprised at the number of people out there who believe that a non-native English speaker must necessarily be a worse teacher of English than a native English speaker. As if "native" and "non-native" are so easily defined in the first place!

  53. Jim said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    [(myl) How about pin and pen, or cot and caught, or peel and pill?]

    That would be a Southerner, and there are other reasons why such a teacher might be problematic – maybe teaching US history rather than English though.

    "As a British English speaker, I think a speaker who can't distinguish between "Mary", "marry" and "merry" should not be allowed to teach English."

    These don't present homonymy problems. As for "s" and "th", do you remember the viral video afew years ago where a British skipper calls in a mayday to a German Coast Guard station – "We're sinking, we're sinking"? Silence and confusion in the watch center, until finally the officer of the watch asks "What are you sinking about?"

  54. Charles said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    The reductio ad absurdum regarding serial commas and caught/cot aside, it seems this would be very easy to test for. Ask the students, "do you have difficulty understanding your instructor?" As noted by other posters, this was a problem for some math and physics instructors at my university, and people lost their teaching positions based on their incomprehensibility. The fact that those people were largely from mainland China that doesn't automatically mean it was a racist policy.

  55. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    That video annoyed me, since it showed ignorance of the fact that perception exceeds production. Many a child knows full well the difference between "look" and "rug" long before they can articulate it themselves, and I've yet to meet a German who couldn't perceive the difference between /s/ and /θ/, whether or not they could consistently distinguish the sounds in their own speech.

  56. Jason B. said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    I'd be interested in seeing the criteria by which speech can be classified as "heavily accented" or "unintelligible". Frankly, it seems that the only way to test this is to survey a class of students. As someone who went to a college with a very high proportion of instructors for whom English was a second language, being able to understand a professor most of the time is an alluring prospect. My gut instinct though is that this law won't solve that problem (at least using this methodology) and will end up being a big pain in the ass for many instructors who have even the slightest accent.

  57. Sean Edison-Albright said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    I was a first-time English teacher in Slovakia last year, and going in I took some comfort in the fact that, as a native speaker, I had an innate recognition of correct and incorrect English. That comfort evaporated, of course, the first time I corrected a student and was asked, "Why?" Even with some formal linguistic study (and 8 years of Catholic school grammar), I found myself re-learning English grammar in a much more rigorous way so I could teach it actively, rather than reactively. This is something that fluent, non-native speakers have already accomplished, and it seems to me that it would be an asset in the classroom.

    As for accents, should I feel guilty about all those Slovak students who will forever tell stories about "yuge wooderfalls?"

  58. Rubrick said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    David, way up above: If by "a complete no-brainer" you mean "believed only by those with no brain", I agree.

    I for one would have felt rather priveleged to have Conrad or Nabokov as an English teacher, but then I don't live in Arizona.

  59. michael farris said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    "As a British English speaker, I think a speaker who can't distinguish between "Mary", "marry" and "merry" should not be allowed to teach English"

    I would certainly not in a million years think myself qualified to be a model of pronunciation for any kind of British English (and have turned down work where specifically British, as opposed to American or 'International', English was called for.

    Could I teach some kinds of English courses in Britain? Maybe.
    Is my accent a model that ESL students in Britian should emulate? Not in the slightest.

  60. Josh said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    I'm from Arizona, and had a related experience back in high school. My German teacher was a native German speaker. She also was fluent in English and Spanish. Since the popularity of German as a second language tends to vary a lot from year to year in AZ, she would often teach Spanish or English classes as needed to fill out her schedule. I can't say for her Spanish, but her English was accented. It wasn't heavy, and I never had an issue understanding her, but many parents did get quite upset that a non-American, non-native English speaker was teaching English to their kids. Eventually the school stopped having her teach English courses, though I think she did continue teaching Spanish. In this case, it wasn't a state or even district level policy, but the complaints were significant enough that the school felt compelled to do something about it. This was back in 1997/98 or so.

  61. Arizona Linguists Take on the “Fluency” Issue « Shitty First Drafts said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

    [...] Jun Mark Lieberman at Language Log reported today on the Arizona law requiring educators to meet certain (rather vague) standards of English fluency [...]

  62. Mark F. said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    (myl) It's clear that there's at least a PR problem here. The Brazilian teacher featured in the CNN piece clearly has an accent, but equally clearly, she's fluent in English and her accent is nowhere near to being a problem in practical terms. So if she's concerned about this evaluation, then either the evaluation is inappropriate, or it's being pitched in a way that leads to it being misunderstood.

    Oh, I think it's xenophobia, pure and simple. I don't know if my original comment was clear enough on that point.

  63. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    There's been a lot of comment about

    3) Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don't speak Spanish.

    I notice that's the only point that the U. of A. linguists don't substantiate with research. I'd certainly prefer to be taught a foreign language by a native speaker—learning French from NNFSs, I was always in doubt about whether I was getting the real goods—though I don't know of any research on either side.

    As Nijma said, there's a belief in the ESL world (which I think is widespread, though I've seen only a corner of that world) that ESL teachers must never use the students' native languages and their competence in the students' native languages does not matter. (Training in TESL matters, though.) This contradicts that point 3. I really wonder what the research shows.

    I agree with michael farris that people who merge Mary, marry, and merry, as I do, shouldn't be teaching ESL in Britain. Likewise I'd consider it preferable not to have people with foreign accents such as Geordie or RP teaching ESL in Arizona. But you don't always get what you prefer—a good teacher with a foreign accent might be better than a bad teacher with a native accent.

    Cot-caught and Mary-marry-merry mergers are acceptable in Arizona and large parts of the United States (though Americans have made fun of me for the latter), but you-Jew and sheep-ship mergers, such as many native speakers of Spanish have in English, are much less acceptable from people who grew up here, imo. Acdeptable to the majority of Americans, that is.

    Has anyone asked children in ESL classes and their parents what they think of this policy?

    People have been saying that the effect of ESL teachers' accents on children is overestimated. Maybe they posted after myl's reply to Daniel von Brighoff saying that many children of Spanish-speaking immigrants in Arizona may indeed hear English only from their teachers.

  64. marie-lucie said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    3) Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don't speak Spanish.

    There are two things that are conflated here: teachers as models, and teachers as explainers. As models of the language, native speakers (speaking a more or less standard version of their language) have no peers. As explainers, people who have had the same experiences as their students (eg Spanish speakers teaching English to other Spanish speakers) are often better than native speakers of the language taught. When you teach your own language, it is very difficult (especially at the beginning) to put yourself in the students' shoes, but if you teach a language you have yourself learned in school, you can remember your own difficulties and assume that the students share them. And in my experience, the native teachers who are least effective are those who themselves dislike learning other languages, but think that the students who have the same dislike just need to "work harder".

    About the American-born parents who were upset that non-American teachers were teaching English to their children, the problem may have been that parents saw those teachers simply as models, and not as explainers. Moreover, even if the teachers were quite qualified to teach English, the fact that they may have known standard English better than the parents may have rankled.

  65. dw said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

    @Jason B:

    for many instructors who have even the slightest accent

    Sorry to shout, but EVERYONE HAS AN ACCENT!

  66. lucia said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    I also think it's easy to come up with a practical test for measuring the pronunciation of teachers. One way would be dictation tests.

    I don't think there is an easy test. However, in graduate school (mechanical engineering) many of us thought the following test would work and should be applied when any students complained a teacher was incomprehensible: Record the teacher having a simple conversation with someone asking fairly simple interview questions that would elicit 2-3 sentence long answers. Have 5 somewhat randomly selected college students from the university listen to each answer and write down what their best guess about what the teacher said. Each student could also be asked to say whether they thought they understood that teacher.

    If students with no particular axe to grind found they couldn't understand anything a particular teacher said, these teachers should be removed from classes.

    As a control, some native English speakers could be included in the group of recordings.

    Most faculty and graduate students with foreign accents would have passed this test. Even most whose accents bothered some students would have passed. Some TA's would not have passed. I knew a fellow research assistant who grew up in Arkansas who would not have passed during his first semester, but whose accent moved toward the local Illinois accent in about a month. I don't think anyone who ever lectured a class I took would have failed. The teacher in the CNN video would certainly have passed; I doubt if any engineering students would even have complained about her accent.

    Some faculty members I'd met at professional society meetings would not have passed and a few TA's I met who taught in other departments would not have passed the test I described. (Some of these faculty members taught at foreign universities, so I didn't mind the fact they were incomprehensible to me. Unfortunately, I met more than one who taught at American Universities.)

    It's worth noting that the test I propose doesn't necessarily cover bad grammar, and it would be fairly expensive and time consuming to administer. It probably to costly to apply unless a group does some initial screening based on complaints about the thickness of the accent. However, I think it would screen out people whose accent made them really, truly unintelligible to the local population of students.

    Closing: I don't know if the AZ law is a good law or bad law, nor do I know how it will be implemented. But, at least in principle, it is possible that some people have accents that are so incomprehensible to the local population to make them unsuitable as teachers in schools.

    Also, while I don't know if this is relevant to my opinion, my very first language was Spanish. My parents were American, but we lived in El Salvador, Mom and Dad both worked outside the home and my nanny was El Salvadoran. We moved to the US and my best language is English; my Spanish is now wretched. I do speak French. I suspect I'm fairly tolerant about accents, and pleased when French people are willing to deal with my accented French and do try to understand people regardless of accent. But I do think some people's accents make them unsuited to teaching in American schools.

  67. C Thornett said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

    @ Cecily, I meant that accent alone should not be an issue, so long as a teacher is otherwise competent and can be understood by the class. (The most brilliant math teacher at my daughters' secondary school was an Arabic speaker who would occasionally forget and write right-to-left on the board. This would not have done in a class of 5 year olds, but didn't cause problems among bright teenagers.)

    I do feel that good language skills are not valued or selected for enough in people who work with young children. Pay and conditions probably have a lot to do with this.

  68. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

    "The reductio ad absurdum regarding serial commas and caught/cot aside, it seems this would be very easy to test for. Ask the students, "do you have difficulty understanding your instructor?"

    That's fine in non-English classes, but surely for ESL classes, the non-native speakers are going to be more easily understood by their students than the native speakers (assuming for the sake of argument that the students are all speak the same first language as the non-native speaking teacher). I'm not denying there could be issues, but the test isn't so simple, and it's certainly not one that would replicate the ostensibly intended effects of the law.

    "I agree with michael farris that people who merge Mary, marry, and merry, as I do, shouldn't be teaching ESL in Britain."

    Why? Why should all ESL in Britain be teaching British accented English? I mean, it certainly isn't right now. Most English speakers do not speak with a British accent (or rather, one of the many British accents). And people with American accents are perfectly well understood in England (well, "water" aside). Indeed, in London, you'll be much better understood with a "strong" regional American accent than you would be with a strong Geordie or Glaswegian accent.

  69. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    I think marie-lucie's model/explainer distinction is a very helpful one and it is useful to consider that the relative importance of the model side of it may vary considerably depending on the context (more important in elementary school than high school in terms of "accent"; perhaps more important where parents or other adults the children will encounter outside school are unlikely to model some sort of standard/prestige pronunciation). It's also useful to consider that the salience of the model function (and the relevance of accent to that) might be the sort of thing that different parents / communities / school boards might place differing amounts of weight on, so that perhaps not every school system in the country would or should adopt the same policy.

    I know nothing of the U. Ariz. linguistics department or its areas of research strength. My sense of some other linguistics departments suggests that scholarly insight into how school-aged children can best improve their English skills is no more likely there than it would be in a chemistry department, and that such linguistics profs would thus have no greater ability to vouch for the accuracy of claims #3, 4, 5 & 7 than the chemists would. And claim #8 is sort of silly and show-offy and prescriptivist. If you're going to be a descriptivist, accept that by "accented" most regular people mean in context "having an accent other than the one considered in context to be standard/expected/unmarked."

  70. dw said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    @J.W.Brewer
    And claim #8 is sort of silly and show-offy and prescriptivist. If you're going to be a descriptivist, accept that by "accented" most regular people mean in context "having an accent other than the one considered in context to be standard/expected/unmarked."

    Claim #8 gets right to the heart of the matter. I would be willing to bet that the people who came up with this proposal think of themselves as having "no accent". Using "accented" to mean "people with accents different from my own" is like using "colored" to mean "peple with skin color differnent from mine".

  71. Stephen Jones said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

    I thought the problem stemmed from the fact that Arizona had bilingual education and hired a large number of Mexican teachers to carry out the program.

    However in 2000 immersion took over from bilingualism and Arizona found itself with a load of Spanish-speaking Mexican teachers who instead of losing their jobs were told to teach in English. Understandably not all of them were, or are, up to it.

    [(myl) As I wrote in response to an earlier comment, I've also read this, but find it hard to interpret without some additional information: How many such teachers were there? How many of them are still teaching in ELL classrooms in Arizona (the English-only law was passed ten years ago, in 2000)? Is there evidence that significant numbers of them are not fluent in English? ]

  72. J. Goard said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    A couple nights ago, I was out drinking with a group of foreigners (relative to Korea, thus including myself), almost everybody from a different country, and the only one I had any trouble understanding in English was the Irish guy. (I honestly think I understood more of the Spanish conversations than his English, and I really don't know Spanish.)

  73. Gordon Campbell said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 12:37 am

    @nijma
    "How about pin and pen, or cot and caught, or peel and pill?
    This is almost impossible to teach … I'm not saying don't try to teach it–I do teach it anyway"

    I agree – it’s hard to teach, but a while back Prof Liberman cited some research on techniques that showed results: (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=328 ). Students see a minimal pair (e.g. bit/beat), then hear one of the words spoken. They decide which word it was, and are immediately told if they’re correct. Repeat with lots of pairs (bit/beet, sit/seat, sin/seen, etc.) and with different speakers. When I was teaching ESL I tried this and found it worked well.

  74. Chas Belov said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 2:44 am

    Nobody doesn't make grammatical errors.

    And that wasn't a grammatical error.

  75. sammy said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 3:05 am

    This is beginning to border on fascism. Hope Arizona doesn't go after university profs. as some of the best professors in the entire country are foreign with heavy accents, but we still hire them out because they are the best. For example, visit any engineering and physics department of any university in the country and you'll feel like you're in southeast Asia, not Kansas.

    I suspect if Arizona continues their policy making in this manner, there might be a minor, yet costly brain drain that will leave the state bereft of some of the most valuable teachers. I also see a lot of immigrants leaving the state for good and driving labor costs up.

  76. Y Ding said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 4:37 am

    While it would be ideal for all teachers, especially English teachers, to have the perfect enunciation that actresses like Audrey Hepburn were trained to have, it is clearly unrealistic. How many Americans actually have good accents, even though they are considered "native" speakers of English?
    I am of foreign nationality and I grew up in Asia, but English is my first language, and no one has ever had a problem understanding my English in America. Conversely, I often have huge problems understanding Americans with strong Bostonian, African-America, or Southern accents. And while English may be my first language and my teachers were mostly English, I still struggle with apropriate grammar — a side-effect of being fluent and therefore always depending on the "feeling" of the language rather than having formally learned the strict rules of it.

  77. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 7:42 am

    I take it that no one out there actually has audio of any of the 25 teachers deemed to have "pronunciation problems," from which one could get a sense where their speech fell along the continuum in terms of raising actual comprehension issues or not? Nor any information about the extent to which some/all of those 25 were flagged as also having other fluency issues (e.g. if you read a transcript and thus pronunciation was off the table was syntax and lexical choice at a native-speaker level of fluency)?

    Insofar as the Arizona authorities seem to be expressly drawing a distinction at the K-12 level between teachers teaching English versus those teaching other subject matters (in terms of the possible salience of "accent" to being suited for the position), I expect that any English-challenged foreign grad students trying to explain differential equations to aspiring engineering majors at the U. Ariz. are perfectly safe for now. This of course doesn't necessarily mean what Arizona is doing is pedagogically optimal, but it does suggest a sense of proportion not necessarily possessed by all the commenters on the issue.

  78. Mark P said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    @J.W. Brewer
    There is a natural tendency to question the motives of Arizona's education department because of the timing of this policy, regardless of how innocent and good it might be. With the recent move to make living in Arizona while dark into probable cause for asking for identity papers, a move to purge schools of foreign-sounding teachers seems suspicious. Of course it might be that neither of these moves is really as bad as I make them out to be, but within the context of current immigration politics, and politics in general, quite a few people might well think the motivation of Arizona officials is tinged with xenophobia and chauvinism.

  79. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    Mark P.: except the fluency-monitoring policy was apparently in place for the 08-09 academic year per the indication above, prior to the passage of the other controversial law. To the extent the fluency-monitoring is intended (whether successfully or not — I'm skeptical any of the research in what educational strategies are optimal in this area is very good) to promote the ability of children from non-Anglophone immigrant family backgrounds to grow up speaking "unaccented" (i.e., not marked as outsiders whenver they open their mouth) standard American English, by providing modeling/reinforcement in the classroom they are unlikely to get at home, I would view that as the opposite of a xenophobic/chauvinistic policy.

  80. Mark P said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    The anti-immigration frenzy started a while back, certainly long enough ago that it would include the 08-09 school year. But my point is that the motives behind this type of policy are likely to be questioned perhaps more intensively because of the timing and the origin, no matter how well justified or intentioned.

  81. Bruce B said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    Wonder if a person who says "comer" for coma, or "pizzer" for pizza( the so called Boston accent) would be allowed to teach in the Arizona schools?

  82. Andrew Kokelj said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    Does that mean all the native born citizens who can't speak 'without accents' will have to go back to school too before they can teach?

  83. Aka said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    While this sounds harsh for teachers who are already in this position, I fully understand the need for this change. Who hasn't failed – or doesn't know someone who has failed a course due to a teacher they couldn't understand? Heavily accented will always mean incomprehensible to some of the students.

    My father has a classic anecdote about a calculus class he failed in college. His teacher was fond of a curious expression "lotennen dangle darfa" and he couldn't tell what he meant by this… much later, it became apparent that he was trying to say "rotate the angle to alpha" but it was too late in the class at that point.

    I have narrowly passed courses where the teacher's instructions were just unintelligible noise, and I basically had to teach myself with what was in the textbook – that's not what I paid for with my tuition; I wanted actual instruction.

    So this isn't a pogrom against foreign language speakers, it's a very real functional issue that is causing untold numbers of students to fail because their teachers can't speak English at a level needed for public speaking.

  84. Jim said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    ' How many Americans actually have good accents, even though they are considered "native" speakers of English?"

    Y Ding, if they are native speakers, then their accents are by definition "good". At least that's what I understand the standard for langauge competence to be among despcriptivist.

    However, you say that your teachers were "English". That means your accent is patterned after a regional minority variety of the language. So how "good" is that?

  85. Joe said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    It's rather obvious that the directive was written without consulting linguists. Can anyone imagine a directive about, say, banks without consulting economists?

  86. Jim said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    "It's rather obvious that the directive was written without consulting linguists. "

    That kind of scruple never stopped William Safire from making a fool of himself on similar subjects, God bless him.

  87. Slavito said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

    Jen McGahan wrote:

    "If there not enough native-speaking English teachers to go around in Arizona schools, maybe they could hire them from outside the state."

    Kudos to the native speaker! It's pretty obvious that you've mastered your own language to perfection.

  88. marie-lucie said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

    if they are native speakers, then their accents are by definition "good". At least that's what I understand the standard for langauge competence to be among despcriptivist.

    In the abstract, that is true. On the other hand, especially in a pedagogical situation, descriptivists can also point out that certain ways of speaking are valued or frowned upon by some parts of the community that speaks the language in question, so that a learner or unsure speaker can become aware that not all forms of this language are considered equally appropriate in the eyes or ears of the speakers themselves. This is a societal judgment, not a linguistic one.

  89. Matt G said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

    Two things. First of all, to Mark P: It is generally accepted here in AZ that this policy has much more about Tom Horne's wishing to move up the political food chain (I believe that he's a candidate for AG) than it does about any concern over quality of instruction.

    And secondly, I am a teacher in AZ who has a very distinctive accent that's a weird amalgam of lowland Scots, Geordie, and my father's BBC/Oxbridge. Last month I was voted by my school's graduating class to give the address at the school's Awards Day. Apparently they didn't think that my accent was an impediment to wanting to hear me blether on about Foucault, Marx, and Tolkien for many minutes. :)

  90. Nijma said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

    @Gordon Campbell
    Thanks for the link, yes there's almost this same exact exercise in the first book of the old Lado ESL series (as in linguist Robert Lado). When I did the exercise in a class a couple of years ago, it took about two or three hours of class time and had students classify words as "like ship" or "like sheep" after studying specific words in the two categories. They actually did get most of them, and were very focused, very interested, but I'm not sure how valuable the exercise was. One of the reasons it worked for that class was they met for several hours every day. I think it would be less successful in the classes that meet only a few hours a week. If a student works all day then comes all the way to the center for ESL class at night only to spend two hours on "ship or sheep", they might conclude it wasn't worth their time and not come back. They want to assimilate quickly, but they also have jobs and family responsibilities.

    As far as why pronunciation is not being taught like that now (a question asked in the linked post), schools have committees that determine which textbooks are "approved" and which can only be used as supplements (along with all kinds of standards and rubrics, which the textbook companies do pay attention to ). Sometimes the "approved " texts do have some pronunciation notes or exercises, but nothing like the several hours of practice recommended in the link.

    I usually teach pronunciation/phonics on the spot when I can't understand the student or when I hear several students making the same mistake. I always feel bad when I do that though, since it takes precious time away from verbs and tenses and other stuff in the text that they really need. (The common wisdom is that their pronunciation/accent will self-correct in time, so if I can understand the student, and if they're not saying anything that will embarrass them–like if it sounds like a swear word–I let it pass.)

  91. Jose Altube said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

    I once witnessed a conversation between our front desk secretary (New York city native, several generations American behind her) and a North Carolinian guy (US native also) and they wouldn't understand each other. Seems that the problem is a bit older.

  92. Linguistic Anthropology Roundup #7 – Society for Linguistic Anthropology said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 2:21 am

    [...] issue has attracted the attention of the good people at Language Log, for instance in this recent blogpost. Among other things, this issue could help us discuss the perceived relationship between accent and [...]

  93. Peter said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    It's blatant racism, though of the sort that can't recognize itself as racism.

    Let me explain. My in-laws are from Argentina, though they moved here almost 25 years ago (when my wife was still young enough that most people don't think she speaks with an accent). One day my mother-in-law told me that one of the reasons she and her husband had liked me so much from the time they met me was that I "treated them like they're like everyone else."

    I looked at her and asked, 'Why is that so unusual?" They're smart, warm, hard-working. As wonderful as 2 people can be.

    She looked at me almost with pity at my innocence. Because they speak with an accent, most people treat them as if they're stupid.

    We all speak with accents. What is wrong with a Mexican accent if you teach English well?

  94. Holly Steel said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    If this initiative were to pass in my school (South Florida), one of our math teachers would be gone…

    …even though he's way better than the other math teacher who speaks American-accented English.

    I remember being told by one of the sophomores in my school, "Chemistry is really hard because the teacher has, like, a Jamaican accent so you can't understand anything she says." When I became a sophomore and took that chemistry class, I found that the teacher's (Nigerian!) accent was a little hard to understand for the first few minutes, but I quickly got used to it. The class was hard because the material was difficult and the teacher was very picky, not because of accent.

    This makes me wonder how many people who claim they couldn't pass because "accents are hard!" just couldn't understand the subject material? There are cases where accents are incomprehensible and then there are heavy accents. The two do not always meet.

    [(myl) Just to keep the facts straight, the AZ policy (as I understand it) is only aimed at evaluating those who are responsible for teaching English to students whose native language is something else (overwhelmingly Spanish), not (for example) math teachers. ]

  95. M. Oxley said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    @Aka "While this sounds harsh for teachers who are already in this position, I fully understand the need for this change. Who hasn't failed – or doesn't know someone who has failed a course due to a teacher they couldn't understand?"

    Me. I have never in my life failed a course due a teacher whose accent I couldn't understand, and I have never in my life had someone I know inform me that they failed a course due to a teacher whose accent they couldn't understand.

  96. bloix said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    My father once told me that before WWII the New York City school system required teachers to pass a speach test to show that they spoke unaccented English. This was a test, he said, that many native New Yorkers could not pass. My father said that many speakers from Jewish households failed because they spoke with what he called a "lall," which he said was a "lowered letter L." I've never seen any other reference to this and I don't even know if a lall exists – perhaps a linguist would know.

  97. Qov said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

    "English teachers in an English speaking country should be native speakers and thus not have any foreign accent."

    If many American-born people speak with that accent is it a 'foreign' accent? If it is the normal accent of a country where English is the official language is it a 'foreign' accent? In Canada, someone who speaks English with a québecois, Dene, or Inuktitut accent is not speaking with a foreign accent, but one who speaks like the governor of Arizona is.

  98. Mark F. said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 12:27 am

    I want to back down a little bit from my confident assertion before that it's "xenophobia, pure and simple." I think Mark's recognition of the possibility that it may not be as bad as it looks is probably more appropriate.

    It still looks pretty bad to me, though, but it's starting to look like a policy whose bark was worse than its bite. They wanted to be able to say to the electorate that they were cracking down on Spanish in the classroom, but they didn't really set out to purge all teachers with any kind of an accent (and yes, I know that everyone has some kind of an accent; please contextualize my comments to the region in question). I'm basing this on the fact that supposedly only 25 teachers were reassigned; I'm sure many many more than that have Spanish accents.

  99. Sven Holmström said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    GWS: "I have watched tv news in a number of English speaking countries and it is only in the USA where I have seen subtitles used when the speakers were from Scotland, Ireland and sometimes England"

    Recently I even saw an Australian being subtitled for American TV. Really quite bizarre from my point of view (as a non.native speaking European).

  100. Szwagier said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    I went to school in Edinburgh, and had a couple of teachers who had 'thick' RP accents, one with a 'thick' South African accent, and one with a 'thick' Morningside accent (Morningside is a district of Edinburgh where "sex is what you carry coal in"). Somehow I managed, despite the fact that Scottish English was not my native language…

  101. Szwagier said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    Jerry Friedman said:

    "Has anyone asked children in ESL classes and their parents what they think of this policy?"

    In response to this, the only thing to do is requote myl's own piece of rant on a similar topic:

    The trouble is, most people are much more ignorant about language than they are about history or computer science, but they reckon that because they can talk and read and write, their opinions about talking and reading and writing are as well informed as anybody's. And since I have DNA, I'm entitled to carry on at length about genetics without bothering to learn anything about it. Not.

    .

  102. Jonathan said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 2:30 am

    My wife was assisting a year one class in East End Lunnon (London) a few years ago, including phonics lessons. It must have been quite an experience – apparently her modified Australian accent was more acceptable to the kids than that of the class teacher fresh from NZ!

  103. Rodger C said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

    @Sven: I've several times seen my fellow West Virginians subtitled on television originating in Britain.

  104. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

    Compare the reported Estonian crackdown on public school teachers (obv. from the Russophone minority) that fall short of some standard or other of fluency in Estonian: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/world/europe/08estonia.html.

  105. 4ndyman said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    "If the monitors hear words used that are impeding communication, this constitutes a “NO” response."

    It sounds like an instructor might be facing censure of some sort if he has a larger vocabulary than the monitor. "I don't know what ad hominem is, so that makes this a NO response."

  106. tel çit said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    When I went to graduate school at the advanced age of 30, I heard a fair number of undergrads complain about not being able to understand teachers (probably some Indian, some Chinese). I found that there was a period of adjustment and that after some reasonable time, the effect of the accent pretty much disappeared, at least for me. I once watched a British production of Hamlet on TV. There was a double whammy – British accent and Elizabethan English. But after watching for a while, it became much easier to follow the dialogue. I suspect younger students are often less inclined to accommodate than to complain. Maybe it would have done some of them good to have been exposed to different accents before they reached college. Or the real world, for that matter.

  107. Vladimir Menkov said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 2:24 am

    Unlike Arizona, some Commonwealth jurisdictions actually formalize English proficiency requirements by requiring prospective immigrant teachers (and certain other professionals) to take standardized tests, such as IELTS. For example, to apply for a permanent residence in Australia on the basis of one's being a qualified teacher, the applicant first must obtain a "skill assessment" from an agency called AITSL, which, along with the diplomas, transcripts, requires a test report from IELTS with a score of at least 7.0 (out of 9) on each of the 4 module: reading, writing, listening comprehension, and speaking ( http://www.aitsl.edu.au/ta/webdav/site/tasite/shared/Skills Assessment/2010/AITSL Assesment_Application_Form.pdf ).

    AITSL offers exemption from the test requirment to prospective teachers who studied for their teaching degree in an English-speaking country. However, interestingly enough, the immigration ministry itself now requires the IELTS or OET (another test, Australia-based) from all prospective skilled applicants, regardless of background or citizenship, if they want to receive "full credit" for English proficiency: http://www.immi.gov.au/skilled/general-skilled-migration/175/eligibility-english.htm

  108. Maura said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 12:58 am

    Interesting thread.

    No one has mentioned the potential impact of an auditory processing disorder. Students who cannot properly distinguish or interpret speech sounds will find foreign-accented teachers very difficult to understand. They may struggle to understand native English speakers from different parts of the world, or local speakers who have to speak over background noise.

    This condition may explain why some posters failed classes taught by non-native speakers, while others adjusted to such situations after a few hours of exposure to the accent.

  109. LGonz said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    In my experience in education, a teacher with a heavy non-standard accent does make a difference, especially for young children. In areas of high poverty, where students are learning new vocabulary and being exposed to "school English" (standard English), it is important that they are being provided with models of standard English. This is true for our ELL students as well as students who speak non-standard dialects.

    Rather than weeding out any teachers with non-standard accents, a real (and sometimes difficult) conversation should occur with all teachers, telling them why speaking in a standard manner is crucial in the classroom (again, especially for students speaking non-standard dialects), and support should be provided to them to help them continue to teach more effectively, in the same way that a standard-accent teacher would receive support and coaching for areas of instruction that need to be bolstered.

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