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Teaching English Well

The latest in the string of "hate-filled" stuff from the state of Arizona is this idea that people with very heavy accents probably shouldn't be teaching non-native speakers of English the language. It's racial discrimination, you know, if someone who can't pronounce English words "properly" or uses "incorrect" grammar can't have a job teaching these students how to string a good sentence together. Only a racist would suggest that children need to learn English from people who can speak it well.

And who's to say what constitutes proper language usage, anyway? We're hardly the French. Next thing you know, philosophises some intelligent navel-gazer in the comments of this article, we'll be weeding out New Yawkers or people with a Southern twang from the teaching pool. And what bigot decided that prounouncing "violet" as "biolet" or "think" as "tink" is wrong? And as to punctuation and spelling, arguments that lack of standardisation muddy understanding are just ludicrous. Jwerzel Mc PERkinnickers XHufWepPzijjk-sieeeel, right? Why get all picky? We all know it's just a racist cover-up.

Guess I'm super-racist because I'd even go so far as to state that only native speakers of English ought teach the language in publicly-funded schools. And I also think that teachers of Spanish ought to have Spanish as their first language. French teachers ought to have French as their primary language. I SUPPOSE we can cut a pass for non-native speakers of Latin and Esperanto. But only because I'm gracious.

Seriously. Imagine Peggy Hill teaching YOUR kids Spanish if YOU lived in Mexico, and see how racist this article's argument really is.


  1. lol If you heard my French you'd know why I'm not teaching this. I can make myself understood but I absolutely mangle a beautiful language! ☺ I don't like hearing mine mangled either.

  2. My ASL professor in college was not a native signer, but she was a professional translator who was well respected in the community., I don't know if someone needs to be a native speaker to teach, but they absolutely should have a solid grasp of the language--and also the culture (most likely).


  3. I don't think this a question of just having a foreign accent. I think it's about having SUCH and accent that one cannot be understood by Americans. This is why the people in call centers in India undergo language coaching in American English. There have been some cases recently (New Jersey comes to mind, maybe two months ago?) where an immigrant first-grade teacher who had been teaching several years could not be understood by American parents of children in her class. They finally got her out. It's clear to me that some people really need ACCENT coaching, yet are unwilling to do it. For example, I've tutored several adults here in the Middle East who were learning English. They wanted only to concentrate on grammar, and yet could not be understood when they spoke. I tried to work on pronunciation with them (which is actually my specialty), but they were not interested. One even told me, "I'm not a native speaker, and English speakers have to learn to understand me with MY method of pronunciation."

    I know I have the same problem with French. If I get in a taxi and give them directions in French, they often tell me (in French), "I don't speak English, Madame." I'm sorry to say I always reply rather rudely, "Don't you speak French??" When he replies in the affirmative, I give the directions again. Now I've managed to learn the directions in Arabic, and they don't seem to have trouble understanding that. But the trouble is coming from my ACCENT, which is in English CADENCES and English ways of pronouncing the French language. I could use some language coaching myself, but no one is interested in providing that kind of teaching!!

    Mary, of Expat Abroad (in the Middle East)

  4. I love a good "King of the Hill" reference as much as the next person, but I have to say that I find the comparison of Peggy to the people discussed in the WSJ article link to in the Think Progress piece is unintentionally insulting to the people affected by this law. The problem with Peggy was that she not only mispronounced things, but she clearly did not understand the words she used or the culture of the Spanish language. She came off as a buffoon, which I don't think you'd describe the teachers in the article as being. In fact, I am sure that is not the case at all with the teachers who are affected by the Arizona law. I suspect that most of them have a better grasp of the intracacies of the English language, including grammar and word etymology, than your average native-born teacher. (Yes, I would include native-born English teachers in that, too.)

    I also would have to say that, yes, if a Southern or Bostonian accent was strong enough, then they would warrant serious examination under the current version of this law and with that a possible reassignment or removal from the classroom. If, as the WSJ article explains, part of the problem is the culturally ingrained way of dropping the "g" sound from words is grounds for reassignment for a Latino teacher, then why wouldn't it be grounds for a teacher with a Southern accent? If the rules of the law are applied more harshly to non-white, non-English speakers, then the law does become racist, regardless of original intent of the law. Isn't the biggest problem of all with this law is that it, like the so-called "show your papers" law, is entirely arbitrary and leads to racial/ethnic profiling?

    I just would hate to see good teachers removed from a classroom because someone doesn't like their accent, even though it probably makes very little to no difference in the learning that's taking place. There probably are numerous, more serious factors affecting the success of ESL students than their teacher having the same accent as them, and those are the things that deserve focus.

    Anyway, sorry for the long post. I love your blog and love reading about the adventures of you and your children. I came here once after reading your discussions at From the Trenches, and I was hooked. I really respect your opinions and insights, even when I disagree. This time I finally had to comment because for some reason the discussion of this topic has really affected me.

  5. Ganeida, I do a terrible, awful job of teaching my children Spanish. But we're not living in Mexico, and I'm not being paid to teach it, so I'm guessing a crummy job might be better than none at all. Or maybe not. Probably not. :)

    Luke, I had no clue what ASL would be and when I googled it, it came back as "American Sign Language." I don't know if fluent English is necessary to teach ASL or very much about ASL at all. I know a few signs as we tried to get Woodjie to use signs of any kind when he would not speak. When that didn't work, we moved to PECs. PECs, I know a little about.

    Mary, that's just what I'm talking about. What if children are taught the language by someone who is not understandable? It just strikes me as very unfair to the kids.

    Hi, ANoniMouse! I'm glad you dropped by to comment. You're right that the Peggy Hill thing is an extreme exaggeration and in fact so is her character. But I was using exaggeration to prove my point, and I don't think it's "hate" to remove teachers who can't speak clearly from the class.

    You might (mayyyybe) have a point about the non-native speakers, though I think it opens the door to all kinds of mispronunciation in the name of racial tolerance. (IMO, though, it has little-to-nothing to do with that as obviously there are plenty of native-speaking Hispanics and people of other non-white races who can pronounce their consonants properly and not employ double negatives on a regular basis.)

    I do think that whatever criteria is used to judge the teacher's effectiveness, it ought to put the children's needs first. These kids need good models of the language, at least in English class. The need of the teacher to keep her employment ought come second to the main purpose of her job: to effectively teach the children under her care to speak English well.

    So... maybe I'm further on the "speak English properly if that's your job" spectrum than you are, but then again, I'm not the one sifting through the available applicants for teaching positions.

    Maybe it's an entirely moot discussion if English teachers with good grammar and diction aren't to be had in the poor public school's price range.

    I do hope you will come back and comment again sometime as you have me thinking more deeply on the topic. :)


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