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Accentism in Arizona

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on May 12, 2010 2 Comments

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye, summarized in these unsettling lines:

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 being reported that the state’s education board has been quietly sending folks to “to audit teachers on comprehensible pronunciation, correct grammar and good writing.” If the teachers fail on any of these accounts-and don’t improve when given a chance- the districts may reassign them or terminate their employment.  Because this comes on the heels of the “most restrictive” immigration bill in the country, critics are naturally inclined to think that this is in continuation with the recent anti-immigration policies being enacted by the current state administration.

The Arizona Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne recently gave this clarification with reference to the furor over reassigning/firing “bad” English teachers: “We don’t object to simply having accents, it’s only when it reaches the point where the teacher is not fluent, meaning bad grammar or significantly mispronouncing words so that students would learn the words wrong.” Being “fluent” means not having “bad grammar” or “significantly mispronouncing words”? These terms-“fluent”, “bad grammar,” and “significantly mispronouncing words”-will be assessed subjectively-with arbitrary standards-since there does not seem to be an assessment measure in place (that I could locate online).

Don Tenant, commentator for IT Business Edge, argues that this policy, along with others being enacted in Arizona, have “an ethnic-cleansing dimension.” Don Rittner, of the Times Union, refers to Arizona as a “Nazi/Neanderthal” state. Critics are coming out loudly against the policy, but there is no talk of reversing the policy or even rethinking this.

The governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently joked: “I was also going to give a graduation speech in Arizona this weekend. But with my accent, I was afraid they would try to deport me.” The joke is only painfully funny. As a person of color, the idea of even visiting Arizona-as a result of the Bill and its encouragement of racial profiling-bothers me. As a former ESL teacher in the United States who proudly carries the traces of an Indian accent, my heart goes out to English teachers who are and will be at the mercy of such discriminatory practices. Here’s hoping for things to change-and soon.

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2 Responses to “Accentism in Arizona”

  1. daveski on: 14 May 2010 at 7:44 am

    I’m right with you. This is outrageous…I just heard, on NPR, Andrei Codrescu talking about his 40 years of accented instruction starting in the 1960s that would have been impossible in the 2010s. He takes it a step further toward the ludicrous in the end, saying “This would be a much better country if everyone would just keep quiet and hand their proof of citizenship to the police.”

    Food for thought….

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126480169

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 14 May 2010 at 9:40 am

    Thank you, Dave, I’ll check out the story. Maybe you’ll offer us a follow-up post? How about your experience speaking in languages that are not your own (Korean, Japanese, Spanish, French)? How has your accent been perceived by others?

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