Mark Lieberman at Language Log reported today on the Arizona law requiring educators to meet certain (rather vague) standards of English fluency in order to keep their jobs. This has widely been reported as an effort to crack down on “accented speech” in the classroom. The entire post is worth reading, as Lieberman attempts to suss out exactly what the law demands, but I thought the eight points submitted by the University of Arizona linguistics department to the Governor and Superintendant were worth citing here:
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 statement, which is linked to Lieberman’s post, rigorously backs each of these points up with sources representing the best work in the linguistics field.
I’ve pointed out before just how our “what about the children” concerns about non-standard and emergent forms of English–like textspeak–reflect a not-so-subtle form of xenophobia (not to mention classism and ableism), but the Arizona law stands as a pretty blatant example of it. While I do believe that educators who are teaching English should be proficient in the language to the extent that they can be understood and communicate English-language concepts effectively, it simply is not correct to conflate accent with non-standard grammar or lack of intelligibility. If Arizona wished to apply their laws fairly–as Lieberman demonstrates–then they would have to reprimand or reassign white native English speakers who misuse words or speak “ungrammatically” as well, but that’s probably not going to happen. And as I have pointed out, enforcing draconian standards with regard to grammar are often a way of arbitrarily leveraging privilege as well.
Additionally, as Language Log commenters Jen Mc-Gahan and marie-lucie point out, most foreign language instructors in U.S. schools are not native speakers of that language. How are “fluency” standards established in those cases? Does their Spanish pronunciation/accent have to be able to pass muster in Mexico City? Every foreign language teacher at Evangelical High, where I went to school, was U.S.-American. They were masters of the grammar and, in some cases, idiom of the language they were teaching, but even my AP French teacher acknowledged that she does not speak perfect Parisian France and probably wouldn’t be understood in Canada or Senegal, both French speaking countries with different accents. Nevertheless, she was an excellent teacher, well versed in French literature and culture and effective at teaching us high school level French.
It is also worth pointing out that the teachers targeted by laws like this seem to be those teaching English to immigrant students. Perhaps that is an incorrect perception, but it seems to me that having a native Spanish speaker teaching English to native Spanish speakers presents the very same benefits and challenges as having a native English speaker teach French to native English speakers: the baseline level of mutual comfort in the common language can help the instructor to convey difficult grammatical concepts in the foreign language in an intelligible, helpful way.
Ultimately, before U.S.-Americans can address this problem objectively and effectively, we need to take a long, hard look at the intersections between racism and language bias in this country. Why is it, for example, that we insist that some English accents (British, Irish, New Englander, even Southern) are legitimate (and even charming!) and some are not? Why are we so very uncomfortable with non-native English speakers speaking amongst themselves in their own language? Why do we insist that immigrants assimilate linguistically effective immediately, when anyone who has taken a foreign language class knows that fluency take years to develop? And whose comfort/welfare are we really considering when we make those demands? The children for whom English-proficiency will not only impact their future career prospects but the degree to which they may experience marginalization? Or those of us who just don’t want to be reminded that Other People live here too and don’t want to work a little harder to understand the person sitting across the table or behind the lectern.
Update: From The Washington Post–Students learn a second language better if the instructor has the same accent as themselves.
Update II: From The Journal of Extension
Communication is a two-way process. Both the speaker and the listener have a responsibility for the act of communication. While different or foreign accents can sometimes interfere with the listener’s ability to understand the message, accents can conjure up negative evaluations of the speaker, reducing the listener’s willingness to accept their responsibility in the communication process. Sometimes, it becomes easy to say, “I simply can’t understand you,” placing full responsibility for the communication process on the speaker.