Arizona’s War Against Unacceptable Accents

Should it matter if a teacher has an accent?

The State of Arizona has apparently gotten into the practice determining what is and isn’t an acceptable accent for a school teacher to have:

PHOENIX — When Guadalupe V. Aguayo puts her hand to her heart, faces the American flag in the corner of her classroom and leads her second-graders in the Pledge of Allegiance, she says some of the words — like allegiance, republic and indivisible — with a noticeable accent.

When she tells her mostly Latino students to finish their breakfasts, quiet down, pull out their homework or capitalize the first letter in a sentence, the same accent can be heard.

Ms. Aguayo is a veteran teacher in the Creighton Elementary School District in central Phoenix as well an immigrant from northern Mexico who learned English as an adult and taught it as a second language. Confronted about her accent by her school principal several years ago, Ms. Aguayo took a college acting class, saw a speech pathologist and consulted with an accent reduction specialist, none of which transformed her speech.

As Ms. Aguayo has struggled, though, something else has changed. Arizona, after almost a decade of sending monitors to classrooms across the state to check on teachers’ articulation, recently made a sharp about-face on the issue. A federal investigation of possible civil rights violations prompted the state to call off its accent police.

“To my knowledge, we have not seen policies like this in other states,” Russlynn H. Ali, the assistant federal secretary of education for civil rights, said in an interview. She called it “good news” that Arizona had altered its policy.

Silverio Garcia Jr., who runs a barebones organization called the Civil Rights Center out of his Phoenix-area home to challenge discrimination, was the one who pressed the accent issue. In May 2010, he filed a class-action complaint with the federal Department of Education alleging that teachers had been unfairly transferred and students denied educations with those teachers. The Justice Department joined the inquiry, but federal investigators closed Mr. Garcia’s complaint in late August after the state agreed to alter its policies.

“This was one culture telling another culture that you’re not speaking correctly,” Mr. Garcia said.

The state says its teacher reviews were in line with the decade-old federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that only instructors fluent in English teach students who are learning English. State education officials say that accents were never the focus of their monitoring.

“It was a repeated pattern of misuse of the language or mispronunciation of the language that we were looking for,” said Andrew LeFevre, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. “It’s critically important that teachers act as models when it comes to language.”

But the federal review found that the state had written up teachers for pronouncing “the” as “da,” “another” as “anuder” and “lives here” as “leeves here.”

This strikes me as ridiculous on a number of levels. First of all, while regional variations are becoming less prominent as we become a more mobile society, what is a a “normal” accent often depends on what part of the country you’re in. A teacher in South Boston may have an accent that some might find distracting, but in their part of the country it sounds perfectly normal. The same goes for a teacher from Jackson, Mississippi or from the Cajun-influenced areas of Louisiana. Unless the NCLB regulations are going to require that all our school teachers speak The King’s English (which has its own accent of course) it seems ridiculous to me to say that any variation from “normal English,” what ever that might be. Second, the fact that this particular teacher had a class full of largely Latino students suggests to me that her accent is likely far less of a problem for them than it is for the bureaucrats in the school system and the contractors selling them on training in “American English,” one of whom is quoted in the linked article.If the students aren’t haven’t a problem understanding her, then what’s the problem?

I don’t think it’s hard to figure out part of what’s going on here. Arizona has been at the forefront of several battles in recent years related to immigration and related issues, and Hispanics are the fastest growing population in the state. Clearly, there is a cultural battle going on between whites and Latinos and language is at the forefront of that battle. Eleven years ago, for example, Arizona voters approved a referendum that required all classes to be taught in English just as the state had started hiring teachers from Latin America to teach the children entering their schools who were primarily Spanish speakers. Now, there may be a valid educational reason for teaching students in this matter, but that’s a pedagogical issue not one that really ought to be decided by voters. The referendum, quite obviously, was an expression of the culture clash that was already happening in that state. Given that,  I have to wonder if that teacher from South Boston would be treated the same way if she moved to Tucson.

None of this is to suggest that a teacher who is clearly too difficult for students to understand shouldn’t be required to undergo some kind of retraining, but it’s worth noting that a teacher with an accent isn’t necessarily a bad teacher. Back when I was in middle school I went through a series of math teachers, all of whom spoke the accent-free suburban American English that Arizona seems to prefer. Despite that, they were bad teachers. For the second half of Algebra II, I had a teacher who had come to the United States from Cuba after Castro’s revolution. She spoke English with a pretty strong Spanish accent, but nobody ever had any trouble understanding her, and she was the best math teacher I’d had in two years. In Arizona, they probably would’ve said her accent was unacceptable, but then her students would’ve been deprived of an excellent teacher. That makes no sense at all.

H/T: Rod Dreher

FILED UNDER: Education, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. vex act says:

    I learned how to talk in Kentucky. Now I dont believe anything from anyone with a souuthern accent.

  2. Trumwill says:

    As it pertains to Ms. Aguayo, it’s really hard to say without knowing how thick the accent is. Some people, including myself, have a lot of trouble with really thick accents. And though it may be true that “nobody ever had any trouble understanding [a former English teacher of yours]” it’s possible that some people did have trouble but were just getting along as best they could. Or maybe her accent wasn’t as strong as Aguayo’s. One of my computer science professors in college, who I am sure was a very intelligent man, was useless to me because I couldn’t understand him through his accent.

    Given that this is Arizona, I am disinclined to give that state the benefit of the doubt. But I am not ready to say that concerns over accents should be immediately interpreted as racism. The ability to communicate is pretty important to a teacher’s job. And people can have difficulty understanding for reasons other than hostility to the other.

  3. john personna says:

    I think that what generally happens is that we add an “ear” for a new accent without much trouble, and don’t lose our starting place either.

    I had an early ear for Scandinavian and Hispanic accents, but sound generic OC myself.

  4. Ben says:

    I agree with you except for the line about someone from South Boston’s accent sounding normal, even to people from there. I grew up a long bikeride from the Boston area, and the Southie accent still annoys the crap out of me. 😉

  5. mannning says:

    Speaking of accents, I took a physics course from a professor who happened to be Chinese, and he had an accent and knowledge of English grammar that I would rate virtually unintelligable. Fortunately, he appeared to be teaching slavishly from the textbook, so the cure was simply to study the book well ahead of him, work all the problems, and find other written sources for the subject. I have no idea why that professor was allowed to be teaching at all, but complaints had no effect.

    This sort of workaround isn’t easy for a K12 schooler to execute, I imagine, but it isn’t impossible if the parents help out at home. I feel, however, that if such a difficulty is the rule rather than the exception in a given school, I would move my children to another public school promptly where they could be exposed to excellent models of well-spoken English–American style. Lacking that possibility, I would strongly entertain home schooling or even private schools if I could afford them.

    One other thought occurs to me. My children were brought up through K to 6 in the US, in the DC and Boston areas, and were then enrolled in the Dutch public school system forthwith. Besides being taught in Dutch, they were exposed to all manner of accents: Dutch-English, French-English, Dutch-German, Dutch-French, true Dutch, Twense, and true UK English, and were taught to read, write, and speak properly in all four languages: Dutch, English, French, and German (They did well in those schools after an initial three months of forgiveness for their lack of Dutch!).

    After their college time, I could detect no residual damage at all to their American English. This I attribute to the fact that their first ten or eleven years of exposure was at home and in American schools, which set them up in a native America accent “for life,” that was not Bostonese, (caa for car, etc.), or Dutch-modulated either!

  6. mannning says:

    The fun part of this is that the family rapidly became able to detect a Dutchman speaking English, a German speaking Dutch, an Englishman speaking Dutch, a Frenchman speaking any language, and so on! It became a game we played around the Dutch TV programs.

    As an aside, we discovered that Holland sports a distinct Dutch accent practically for each city in the nation, so the game was extended to naming the speaker’s city!

  7. Bennett says:

    @mannning: As it pertains to university level teachers and their lack of a command of English, it has to do with research money. If a professor pulls in lots of grant money, it matters less how they perform in the classroom. It’s a different set of problems than K-12 teachers, but a discussion worth having.

  8. ponce says:

    In case you missed it (because it’s not mentioned in the post), John Huppenthal, Arizona’s schools superintendent, is a Republican.

  9. An Interested Party says:

    That makes no sense at all.

    Well of course it does, if you are part of the dominant ethnic group in a state and you are very worried about a minority group that is rapidly growing and will someday be the majority…

  10. John L says:

    @Trumwill:
    The Times article includes a couple of audio clips. She’s really not at all difficult to understand. She just has an accent.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My wife is from Spain. I stopped hearing her accent about our 3rd or 4th date (I was 46/7). I doubt very much any of this teachers children had any difficulty in adapting to her accent. My wife still has an accent. She always will. I do not hear it, but everyone else does. (I do have to point out, that when she gets tired she reverts to Spanish grammer )(much to my hilarity)

    All of which leads me to point out that some are worried about the American born parents of children understanding their children’s teachers, but nobody (except educators) worry about the foreign born parents of American children… The kids are all right. It is the parents who have a problem.

    This has nothing to do with the children.

    ps:For the record, my sister is a teacher. So is my other sister. So are several of my friends.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    I don’t think we need to look for innocent explanations on this. Arizona has a long history of race hostile attitudes by the state. As such, when something like this comes up, they long ago lost the benefit of the doubt. Hmmm, this is something I just said to my eleven year old son. I added “Trust is a valuable thing and once you’ve lost it, it is very hard to get it back”.

  13. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    “The referendum, quite obviously, was an expression of the culture clash that was already happening in that state. Given that, I have to wonder if that teacher from South Boston would be treated the same way if she moved to Tucson.”

    I don’t know, is your hypothetical teacher “brown?”

  14. Ron Beasley says:

    When I was in college my “German” teacher was Swiss. Shortly after graduation I found myself living in Germany only to discover I didn’t speak German but Swiss. Of course I was in Bavaria and they don’t speak German either but Bavarian which was actually closer to Swiss German than standard German.

  15. Herb says:

    Sad thing is that the Spanish accent is fairly compatible with English. The two languages share many of the same sounds. An “S” is just a little more “S”ier in Spanish.

    The accents that I would worry most about are Asian ones. Some of their native languages don’t have English sounds so they have to approximate it with some mush-mouth equivalent. Those guys are hard to understand…especially over the phone.

  16. sasik says:

    Accents are natural part of spoken languages. It is important to realize that no accent is better than another. It should also be stressed that accents are not a speech or language disorder. The term ‘accent’ describes the combination of pitch, stresses and rhythm of someone’s speech, as well as how they pronounce all their vowels and consonants.An accent is the way you speak.An accent can often reveal a person’s cultural background and should be considered only as a difference in how one pronounces words within a shared community.

    http://www.neutralaccent.com

  17. rodney dill says:

    If you’re teaching phonetics then I would think accent is an issue to the extent it deters correct pronunciation, after that its a case of if the teacher can be understood by the students, ya der hey.

  18. Andre Kenji says:

    In fact, the problem of Spanish is that the Latin Structure is completely different from the Anglo-Saxon structure. I must police myself all the time to not write things in English using a Latin Structure.

    But, we come to another problem: I always thougt something ridicule to see all these “gringos” that can´t read a line in another language complaining about how other people speak or write in a second language.

  19. Scott says:

    This reminds me of the time in 1977 when I drove from Indiana down to the Texas town of Presidio. I was helping a friend collect some plant species for his doctoral thesis. On the way out of town helding north, we got pulled over by a Sheriff running a road block for whatever reason. He came over to the car and mumbled something. It took two or three repetitions to figure out what he was saying. He talked like he had marbles in his mouth. No, he wasn’t Hispanic, just a good ol boy Texan. I’ve lived in Texas some 18 years now and still run into people I cannot understand. I actually have less trouble understanding the Hispanic accent than people who swallow their words.

  20. Lyn says:

    I strongly support Arizona’s “war.” It is reasonable to set standards for teachers. One problem is that certain groups claim “racism” any time they are judged or expected to meet minimum competencies.

    Who do you want teaching your kids? If the majority of Arizona parents want native speakers of English or at least people who can speak standard American English as teachers then so be it. Jobs – like teaching jobs – are precious things. Americans should guard them jealously.

  21. Herb says:

    @Lyn: “Who do you want teaching your kids?”

    Certainly not Latinas with accents!

    “If the majority of Arizona parents want native speakers of English or at least people who can speak standard American English as teachers then so be it.”

    Only it’s not clear that the majority of Arizona parents DO want that. And even if they did, why do they think they’re entitled to get it? You can’t always get what you want, Mick Jagger once said.

    Bottom line is this: America is a free country. You can speak with an accent. It’s your right.

    PS. Would someone please use the old “nanny state” saw here? If putting calorie counts on menus counts, certainly policing the accents of teachers does too. If I was a parent uncomfortable with the teacher’s accent, I would just remove my kid from that class. I would not endeavor to remove the teacher. It’s not my world, after all. I’m just living in it.

  22. mattb says:

    @Lyn:

    Jobs – like teaching jobs – are precious things. Americans should guard them jealously.

    Except of course when the teachers are collectively negotiating contracts. At that point, it seems that the usual conservative rhetoric is that teachers (even those who speak without an accent) are greedy, overpaid, civil servants and we should get rid of the whole lot of them and find people who are willing to do it for less.

  23. Just Me says:

    I think this kind of policy makes some sense on paper-but the problem is application. There just seems to be too many variables and I think it can too easily be used to discriminate.

    I generally have no real issues understanding a Spanish or French accent, but I had a college professor from India who could not make quite a few common sounds in the English language. It was difficult to impossible to understand him and there were classes where it could be very frustrating. I was an adult and had been around long enough to work out ways to accommodate the accent and learn the material through other meas. Many young kids aren’t going to know what to do.

  24. Concerned Parent says:

    This political correctness crap has gone too far.

    Speaking as a parent who lives in Phoenix, It is inappropriate that my child should have to suffer with lessons given by a teacher who is either hard to understand, or who doesn’t speak English correctly, regardless of their nationality.

    I don’t know Ms. Aguayo or of her ability to speak English, but if she or any other teacher can’t speak the language of this nation properly then she should not be allowed to teach our kids until she has fixed her problem.

    Why should the quality of my child’s education be allowed to suffer just because of what some liberal tree huggers think is PeeCee or have managed to ridiculously contrive into an anti-Hispanic issue?

    If you decide to emigrate to the US then you should be prepared to learn English and integrate properly. Its as simple as that. I did it, I don’t see any valid excuse why others can’t.

  25. “If you decide to emigrate to the US then you should be prepared to learn English”

    1-) Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language? It´s hard. You can read a lot of documents, you can listen and talk to several people that speaks that language as a native language and you still write with errors, you still speak with accent.

    It´s easy to say “learn English” if you never tried to learn.

    2-) Well, sorry: the world is bigger than the United States. I always listen to the BBC World Service and I began to note that I learned to differentiate accents from Arabs and from Africans. There is a world of people that speaks English as a second language and American children will have to learn to speak to them.

  26. Herb says:

    “I don’t know Ms. Aguayo or of her ability to speak English, but if she or any other teacher can’t speak the language of this nation properly then she should not be allowed to teach our kids until she has fixed her problem.”

    Well there’s your problem. I mean, you could click through the story and listen to Ms. Aguayo speak, but why go through the trouble when you already know your kid’s education is going to suffer if the teacher speaks in soft S’s?

    Also….why is the solution to remove teachers of questionable accent rather than remove your kid from their class? You complain of liberal tree huggers foisting accented teachers on your child, but doesn’t the ultimate responsibility for your child lie with you?

  27. Rob in CT says:

    This political correctness crap has gone too far.

    Typical.

    The alleged PC here is what, exactly? The claim that a teacher should *not* be fired simply b/c she has an accent? That’s now “PC crap?”

    Jesus (Hay-zeus) Christo!

    I wonder if this is a peculiarly American thing. I notice that our TV stations will often caption someone who is speaking perfectly understandable English, but who has a bit of an accent. It’s pathetic, really.

    Similar to dubbing the 1st Mad Max movie – ’cause, you know, it’s just too hard to understand Aussies.

  28. Concerned Parent says:

    @André Kenji de Sousa:

    in answer to your point 1): Why are you assuming I was born an American? Yes I’ve done it. Read my post. Notice I said “I did it?”.

    I’ve also lived/worked in 3 differerent European and 1 African country before I emigrated to the US.
    In each country I learnt the language and followed the customs of that country. As I said, I’ve done it. It means getting off your butt instead of expecting others to compromise to fit you. Yes its an effort at first but suck it up. Its not that hard.

    @HERB & @ Rob in CT:: Comment on what I ACTUALLY wrote instead of what you selectively misinterpreted in I wrote.

    My claim is that if someone (of ANY nationality) is not able to do a good job of teaching because of some limitation then they shouldn’t be allowed to teach until they have successfully improved themselves past the limitation, otherwise their lack of ability punishes the kids.

    Note I specifically avoided making a judgment either way about Ms. Aguayo. I said “I don’t know” and “IF she OR ANY OTHER can’t”, so I ACTUALLY addressed any teacher in general.

    The fact that you guys reacted with all these incorrect sterotypical assumptions before properly reading what I wrote is a perfect demonstration of exactly what I meant about PC gone too far.