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University of Arizona Linguistics Department Speaks Out

June 1, 2010

Last week we discussed the new immigration and ethnic studies laws that were passed in Arizona, and the subsequent audit of teachers with foreign accents. Now, the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona has offered a statement in support of teachers.

The Wall Street Journal reported on April 30, 2010 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.’ It is our position, based on decades of scientific investigation into the nature of language, and of language acquisition and learning, that such a policy undermines the effectiveness of the teaching and learning of English by non‐native speakers and may lead to additional harmful socioeconomic
effects.
Their position is summarized as follows. A more detailed discussion of each point can be found 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.

This statement is reminiscent of one that was released by the Linguistic Society of America in 1997 concerning the Oakland Ebonics controversy. Once again we’re reminded that whether it be a foreign accent or African American English, linguistic prejudices die hard.

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