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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/25/2010

Concern over accented teachers not original to Arizona

By Valerie Strauss

The state of Arizona has gotten a lot of attention lately for its decision to remove teachers who speak with pronounced foreign accents and/or whose speech is ungrammatical from classrooms with students learning to speak English.

But the idea wasn’t original to the Arizona Board of Education.

Almost 20 years ago, there was a proposal to ban teachers with accents from some elementary classrooms where kids were still learning English in Westfield, Mass., according to a 1992 New York Times story.

The city’s mayor, George Varelas, a Greek immigrant who spoke with an accent, actually agreed with the proposed ban. He was quoted as saying:

"Persons like myself -- and I cannot be confused with someone from Boston or Alabama -- should not be in a self-contained classroom for a full year teaching 5- and 6-year-olds the multitude of phonetic differences that exist in the English language. I would only impart my confusion and give them my defects in terms of language."

But the teachers were never reassigned.

The office of the State Attorney General said such a proposal would have violated the state's anti-discrimination laws, and the school board never adopted the measure.

Times have apparently changed; Arizona officials don't seem worried about being accused of discrimination.

It is also safe to assume that they never saw a research study conducted in Israel that I recently wrote about, which concluded that students learn a second language better from a teacher who speaks in the same accent as they do.

The study, published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, said that students learning from a teacher with the same accent have an easier time understanding the material because they don’t have to spend time trying to understand the English in a different accent.

Why let facts get in the way?


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 25, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Learning  | Tags:  arizona and accents, arizona remove teachers with accents, foreign accents and teachers, research on teachers with accents, teachers with accents  
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This problem is scarcely limited to Arizona - it goes on in university campuses around the country. I had a professor whose English was so bad it was pointless to attend class except for the exams. Plenty of my friends, with many different schools represented amongst them, report similar experiences. My professor, however, was safe in his job due to the fact he brought in lots of research money.

Personally, I see no easy solution to this problem at the K-12 level. On one hand we have the study you cite, which shows students learn a foreign language better when learning it from somebody who possesses the same accent as them. On the other hand, how do you teach proper pronunciation with a heavy accent? Yes, yes, we have different accents amongst native English speakers (Southern, Brooklyn, New England, etc.), but if you wanted to learn to speak Russian like a native, would you hire a native French speaker, with a French accent, to teach you?

I'm certainly not an expert. In fact, I have the hardest time understanding people with accents different than mine no matter how hard I try. I end up saying "I'm sorry, I'm not trying to be rude, but I just don't understand you, could you repeat what you said?" a lot. But if we're going to use 'kids learn better when their teacher has the same accent they do', then shouldn't we separate kids by accent and put them in different classes with teachers who have the same accents?

I'm no big fan of Arizona's new policies, but as long as what the legislature is doing can pass constitutional muster, they're free to do what they want. If any ethnic group doesn't like it they have two options: 1) get more of themselves elected; 2) vote with their feet and move.

Posted by: SeaTigr | May 25, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

"have the hardest time understanding people with accents different than mine no matter how hard I try."

That's precisely the point. If all your experiences in your formative years are with people who sound like you, you won't learn to understand those with different accents. I consider myself fortunate that my college professors were from all over the world, with lots of different accents, so I had to learn to understand them. Now, my coworkers are from all over the world, and I can understand them without any difficulty.

Posted by: plurie | May 25, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I didn't have "all" my experiences with people who sound like me. I was a military kid and spent time growing up in Ohio, Florida, Washington, California, Virginia, and Maryland. My parents put me in public schools so, trust me, I encountered a wide array of accents. I've traveled to Mexico, the Bahamas, England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republica, and Poland. I even lived in London for a while - you might think that wouldn't be much different, but the English joke that the minority population in London is native Brits. I worked in an area popular with immigrants from the Middle East.

I've had plenty of exposure to accents, but I still have a hard time with them.

Posted by: SeaTigr | May 25, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

The Arizona problem stems from the fact that they hired Spanish dominant bilingual teachers for the early elementary years to teach the students in Spanish. Bilingual education means both languages, but in kindergarten the child is learning mostly in his native language. By fourth grade it is more like 70% English and 30% Spanish. The idea is to make sure they can read in their own language, then learn to read in English.
The bilingual teachers can control the classes better because the little kids can understand them. If they have a question, they can ask it in their own language and understand the response. In places where you have one large language group that is not English, this is a good idea in that the kids develop a positive attitude towards school, the parents have no trouble communicating and the kids don't become illiterate.
In 2000 Arizona stopped the bilingual programs and called the classes English as Second Language Classes. Some of the same heavily accented (in English) teachers were in the classrooms. This probably because they were successful with their students.

Then it got political.

I guess it would be easier if everyone grew up speaking the same language. But they simply don't and it is not like you can learn a language overnight. It takes time. It would also be great if there were a pool of talented multilingual teachers with perfect accents in all the languages they spoke. Good luck with that.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 25, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

You call the heavily accented teacher issue discriminatory, which doesn't surprise me because your opinions seem to run with a "bad America" theme. It was my understanding that the heavily accented teachers were actually to get remedial or additional training. Oh well -- I guess we don't want any Hispanic feelings to get hurt.

Posted by: wmpowellfan | May 25, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Like all of you assume it is only HISPANIC>

I was in a school recently where I could not understand a word the person was saying - he was Indian, brilliant but heavily accented (8th grade)
I myself am an Irishman and many people have a hard time understanding me.
So I guess I should not teach, even though my ENGLISH skills (meaning I know appropriate and proper English would not be welcome say in the SOUTH - where I dont' understand a word they say)

Hate runs eternal in this country.

Posted by: racerdoc | May 25, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Should we insist that all teachers should be from the same town as their students? Not only do accents differ markedly in different parts of the country, but the words and speech patterns differ. My brother, who has lived in Texas for 40 years, noted on a trip to Ohio that from Nashville on north, every time he asked for directions he was told in time ("about 1/2 hour away"); until then he had been given directions in miles ("about 10 miles up the road"). My college friend who grew up in Pennsylvania and has lived in New Jersey for about 40 years advised me when I was visiting her that I should remember to ask for "soda," not "pop." My mother once asked for a "chicken liver" sandwich in Chicago and got exactly that--she had grown up in Chicago but had lived in southern Ohio long enough to forget that it is called braunschweiger or liverwurst in those areas. I grew up surrounded by Mennonites and River Brethren, and when I first traveled to Amish country and saw the booklets of "funny" Amish sayings, I didn't see anything funny--all my neighbors talked like that!

Besides, by the time today's kids grow up they will have spent enough time talking to technical support people from other countries that they will have heard just about every accent there is!

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 25, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

"It’s best to learn from a teacher who teaches with a majority accent - the accent of the language being spoken, or an accent like your own. If not, it’s an added burden for the student.”

The above is a quote from the researcher you cited, Valerie. It doesn't indicate that it's best to learn English from someone who shares your own accent; far from it. It indicates that, of two teachers neither of whom is a native speaker of English, a student will learn better from the one with whom s/he shares an accent than from the speaker of a third language. And to tell you the truth, that conclusion too is based on pretty thin evidence. When we provide foreign language instruction for US children, we go for teachers who speak accent-less versions of the foreign language, not teachers with a thick "American" accent in that language. I can testify that, having had both a native speaker of French as a high school French teacher, and also one with a thick "American" accent to her French, the one with no discernible accent was MUCH better at helping us pronounce correctly.

Posted by: jane100000 | May 26, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

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