Balancing Act: Accents in Arizona’s Schools

Andrei Codrescu’s editorial on NPR commenting on Arizona’s decision that teachers with “heavily accented English” be identified and made to improve left me torn. I want to agree with him. But my agreement with his premise that people like Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger contribute much, despite their accented English, is tempered by my memories of my frustration and struggles as an undergraduate chemistry student; I was attending lab classes at a major university in the 1970s taught by Asian grad students whose English was incomprehensible. No matter how closely I listened, I had no idea what these grad students were saying; the frustration literally brought me to tears. How could I pass a required course when I didn’t know what my teachers were saying? (I had to get help from a student using the same text at another university.)

According to The Washington Post, “Arizona’s education department has sent people into schools to audit teachers on comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar and good writing. Teachers who fail may try to improve, but if they don’t, school districts can fire or reassign them.”

The conditions and timing of the remediation are not fully explained in the Post or a recent Wall Street Journal article on the subject. What both articles say is that teachers who are not fluent in English will be given opportunities and training in order to improve, but the length of time for training or quality of training provided was not explained in the articles by what I consider to be substantial, respected news sources. Why not? Didn’t anyone ask the question? And read carefully: “comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar, and good writing.” That list goes way beyond accent to the fundamentals of the language.

I was disappointed by Codrescu, a scholar and commentator whose work I have admired:

That was in 1966, and now in Arizona in 2010, the police can target both my trench coat and my accent. The Arizona Department of Education has told schools that teachers with “heavy” or “ungrammatical” accents are no longer allowed to teach English to kids just learning to speak the language.

Oh boy! Did I land back behind the Iron Curtain half a century ago? My last 40 years of teaching would have never happened if the Arizona law had been the law of the land in 1966. Forty years of accented instruction gone by the wayside! Gone also the 40 years when American education, lower and higher, finally recognized the diversity of America.

Fluency and accent are not synonyms, which leaves me as a reader uneasy about the politicizing of the issue by school officials and reporters and Codrescu. While pronunciation is important, the series of words that form grammatical units within sentence structure are even more important. The example of “tink” for “think” or “biolet” for “violet” are not examples of pronunciation that obscures meaning in a grammatically correct sentence: I “tink” that flower is a “biolet” is comprehensible versus “flower tink biolet” which is not  comprehensible. How weak was Codrescu’s English at the beginning of his 40 years? If it was so incomprehensible his students wouldn’t have understood him, it is selfish of him to think that he should have been their teacher. Whose education is it anyway?

Like most issues in life, there is a balance, a reasonable point at which to draw the lines. The power does go to the ones drawing the lines, however, which in this case, is the state of Arizona. Since the teacher issue unfortunately surfaced during the immigration discussion surrounding the new Arizona law that gives police powers to challenge people on the streets about their citizenship, timing may be everything in terms of emotion that brings confusion with a heavy dose of logical fallacy.

Recently, a teacher I know who is Puerto Rican was told she needed to take more Spanish credits to be highly qualified to teach Spanish at an American public high school: No Child Left Behind standards. She is complying and understands the standards. Spanish teachers need to know Spanish. Does that seem unreasonable? I don’t think that expecting teachers who take a job teaching in English to speak the language rises to the level of intimidation that asking anyone for citizenship papers does.

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