Arizona Linguists Take on the “Fluency” Issue

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.

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10 thoughts on “Arizona Linguists Take on the “Fluency” Issue

  1. Well, this is fascinating. As a native English speaker educated in Australia, who returned to post-secondary teaching in North America, I would definitely meet the criterion of having “accented” speech.

    In fact, students over the years have commented on my intelligibility (a lot of it is moaning about using big words), and there was that one time a student complained that I was “harder to understand than a French person.”

    Looking at this discussion, even though I am fair and blonde, and might not otherwise have trouble spending time in Arizona without running afoul of their “papers please” laws, I really shouldn’t bother applying for teaching jobs in that state, because I arguably couldn’t meet their requirement.

  2. My husband has been taking evening French classes this year and has been taught by several different teachers. The teacher he has found hardest to learn from was the one who is French. So there you go!

  3. 4. Exposure to many different speech styles, dialects and accents helps (and does not harm) the acquisition of a language.

    I think this is the most important point, and it should be first on that list, IMO. Children grasp language so easily, and hearing the same word pronounced in several different ways can make them reflect more deeply on the rules of language and why those rules exist. Challenging children to think slightly harder is generally a good thing, and I think it makes them more insightful to be exposed to people who don’t speak identically to them.

  4. Wonderful post.

    One minor nitpick though, which, as a Canadian I am obligated to point out: Quebec isn’t actually a country. They have come very close to seceding from Canada in the past (the 1994 referendum to secede was split nearly exactly fifty-fifty), but they are just a province right now.

    That doesn’t detract from your main point at all, so I do apologize for quibbling with what is otherwise a superlative piece of writing.

    1. I apologize if it looked like I was referencing Quebec as a whole separate country. I am aware of the sensitive political issues involved and will try to clarify that.

      Edit: I now see what I did there. Sorry for the confusion.

  5. 8. There is no such thing as ‘unaccented’ speech, and so policies aimed at eliminating accented speech from the classroom are paradoxical.

    THIS, oh gods this. I have had this argument over. and over. and over again with people who are in favor of this kind of rule, because they keep insisting they don’t want their kids “learning an accent” – and I keep pointing out that their kids ARE learning an accent ALREADY, it’s just that they’re learning the accent which is unmarked for the region they’re in. I absolutely despise the privileging of certain accents as “good” and therefore invisible, as if that’s how English “naturally” sounds and all other variants are substandard. Gigantic pet peeve.

  6. “Students learn a second language better if the instructor has the same accent as themselves.”

    That statement actually seems to encourage accent-discrimination :/

    1. That wasn’t the intent, though I can see how that statement could be interpreted that way out of context. The context, of course, is that the big freakout in Arizona schools is over non-native English speakers being taught English by teachers who do not have an “American” (whatever that means) accent.

      The lesser but related concern is over English-speaking students encountering teachers that they “can’t understand,” in which case the accompanying (but not necessarily contradictory) claim that being exposed to different accents is good for you comes into play.

      1. IMO, the accent isn’t the deal breaker either way. If they have an accent that makes it easier for them to be understood, well halleluja, and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter because the accent won’t matter if they’re a good teacher anyway, they’ll find a way to overcome it.

        I don’t think context changes the meaning of the quoted text though. It’s true no matter what. Sure, in this context, it can be used to support native Spanish-speaking ESL teachers. But if it is in fact true, that having a common accent between teacher and student makes for easier learning; it doesn’t change the fact that a Chinese immigrant student won’t get any extra benefit from said ESL teachers.

        Most people, for some reason, desire to erase any trace of foreign accent and pass for native when they study a language. Whether it’s right or wrong, some students undoubtedly desire such, even if it’s just to escape discrimination and prejudgments, or to be more employable. And while listening to a wide variety of accents is and can be useful, the way to achieving the accent you desire is to listen or be taught by a native. I had a Spanish teacher that was non-native and couldn’t roll “R’s” to save her life. It didn’t help me to reproduce or even recognize the sound when my own teacher couldn’t show me what it was.

        Another thing that comes to mind is the different accents in Spanish-would a native Spanish speaker from Spain or Argentina have an accent that would help or hinder the learning of a student from Mexico or Cuba?

        Sometimes you can’t think about how things should be; people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their accents. But they will be, and it’s not doing any disadvantaged children a favor by ensuring they’ll have an even stronger accent.

        And I probably seem like I’m trying to pick this apart or something ;D but I just love languages. And no, I don’t think Arizona has the right to bring up fluency or accents. If a teacher was truly unintelligible they wouldn’t be hired in the first place, and “fluent” and “good accent” are far too subjective a term to judge a person by in an official capacity. I can’t even imagine what rubric one would use in this case.

        😛 sorry if this double-posts, didn’t realize I’d forgotten to fill out name, email, etc.

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