Tag Archives: Arizona

You Don’t Get to Talk About Immigration Without Talking About Race

On television, on the internet, from members of my family, I keep hearing things like:

“I’m just concerned about the rule of law.”

“I’m just concerned about the drain on our resources.”

“I’m just concerned about the impact on our school system.”

“I’m just concerned that their children won’t have the English skills to succeed.”

Statements like these are usually preceded or followed with some variant of, “It’s not about race.”


We do not ever, EVER get to talk about the U.S.-Mexico border without talking about race. We do not ever get to talk about immigration without talking about race. We do not ever get to talk about second language issues, especially pertaining to Spanish/English, without also talking about race. Why? Because race is a part of the history of The Border, just as it is a part of the history of slavery, of the Holocaust, of the War on Terror, of apartheid, of North American Indian Reservations, and of Jim Crow. It is, in the broadest sense, part of the history of the Western Hemisphere. It is a history in which light-skinned European adventurers came to this hemisphere and displaced, enslaved, and exterminated millions of indigenous people because of greed, because of hubris, because of religion, and because of race, because they believed that the people they found here were less human than they were.

This is not a history in which you personally took part. Your family may not have been directly responsible for perpetuating those insidious crimes. This is not a history that you can go back and erase or ameliorate. It simply is. It simply is a history that resulted in Person A having a nice house in the suburbs and shopping at Whole Foods and Person B enduring a poverty so crushing that they would risk life and limb and personal liberty in order to mow the lawn and clean the house and diaper the children of Person A and harvest the produce that is sold at Whole Foods, making an hourly wage that is less than what Person A spent on coffee this morning. And it is a history in which Person A can say, without paying very many social penalties, that the problem with Person B is that she did not respect the law and hasn’t worked hard enough to perfect his English.

That’s called Privilege. If you are Person A, it is not something that you can relinquish, but it is something that you can be a total dick about if you aren’t careful. And given the history I just described, I have to say that when you say stuff like,

“It’s not about race, I just can’t understand what they’re saying.”

“It’s not racial profiling. I don’t even know what an immigrant looks like!”

You sound fucking ridiculous.

I know you probably weren’t thinking about race when you said it. I know you believe that deep down inside you really don’t harbor any ill will toward those who look and speak differently from you. I know that from your perspective, race probably doesn’t have a lot to do with anything. But that’s because in the Historical Lottery, you hit the genetic jackpot. Whether you are aware of your privilege or not, you have cashed in on it. You benefit from the historical inequities I described, and while that doesn’t mean that I think you should hand over your suburban home to an immigrant family, I do think that you should shut the fuck up until you’ve done a lot of reading and a bit of introspection on the issue.

I’m just saying.

*This post is not directed at any of the commentariat here. It is the product of an ongoing fight with a family member and the headache-inducing results of typing in “accent discrimination arizona” into Google in order to research this post.

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.