Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Arizona's Grammar and Accent Police

The Wall Street Journal recently uncovered a new policy by Arizona Department of Education to forbid English teachers with "heavily accented" or "ungrammatical" English from the classroom. Evaluators are now allowed to come into classes and remove teachers whose English is deemed as substandard. While it may be natural for a state to regulate the quality of their teachers, many see this as another means- more arbitrary and camouflaged- of discrimination based along ethnic lines.

State education officials say the move is intended to ensure that students with limited English have teachers who speak the language flawlessly. But some school principals and administrators say the department is imposing arbitrary fluency standards that could undermine students by thinning the ranks of experienced educators.

Flawlessly? I'm not actually sure what "flawless" English sounds like anymore. By whose definition?

Arizona's enforcement of fluency standards is based on an interpretation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That law states that for a school to receive federal funds, students learning English must be instructed by teachers fluent in the language. Defining fluency is left to each state, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said.


Attempting to dictate what is and what is not acceptable- or even fluent- English for students can be pointless exercise. This is mainly because so often this determination is based on factors that have little to do with communication and much to do with maintaining a kind of hierarchy or status quo. As Arnold Toynbee noted in "A Study of History"

We shall also find that languages, like human beings, are unable to win victories without paying a price; and the price a language pays for becoming a lingua franca is the sacrifice of its native subtleties; for it is only on the lips of those who have learned it in infancy that any language is ever spoken with that perfection which is the dower of nature and the despair of art.

In this way, language can used as a means of subtly separating peoples as well as uniting them. You belong in our club because you speak like we do. You, however, must leave. Adios.

Sometimes even being a native speaker doesn't mean a lot to the purists. I have encountered this kind of discrimination in a milder form over my years of English teaching. I recall, for instance, being told by one of my students that he no longer wanted to learn American English because it was "rude." Of course, I was bit taken aback and asked where he had heard this. He told me that the British teacher I was sharing the class with had told him so and that American English was "unacceptable." A form of inter-teacher sabotage. (And the most notable offender was a teacher with such a strong Cockney accent that he rarely bothered to pronounce a "t" sound at all.) I have heard this sort of opinion very often, so often, in fact, that I now find it a quaint notion. Like something your poor grand-mama might say on one of her dark days.

On several occasions, I, as the only American at a table of Brits, have been accused of destroying- no, sorry, bastardizing their language. "You Americans.. are destroying our language." The charge is always accompanied with a good deal of finger-wagging and blustering and indignant posturing.

Of course, that's not to say there isn't a wee bit of truth in the statement. American English is, generally speaking, much more informal. And too often this informality has become the only manner of speaking for Americans. Advertising has provided more than its fair share of corruption. Technology has been blamed as well. Most of all, I think, there is a real lack of appreciation for the language which leads to carelessness and sloppiness.

In my own lame attempt at rationalization, I used to tell my students that American English was a language shaped by the floods of immigrants, taking on a form that could be appropriated and made use of as quickly as possible. British English, on the other hand, chief secondary function- outside of communication, of course- was as a tool for class distinctions.

I recall one unholy dispute among the British English teachers about the correct thing to say when something was not initially understood. The Big Fat What/Pardon Controversy in which, on a weekend trip to Bergama, two normally responsible English teachers suddenly transformed into a pair of entangled seething cobras.

It began innocuously enough with a simple question. In your opinion, which is more polite, "what" or "pardon"? My response was "pardon" and a Scottish woman agreed. The British woman smiled her secret smile and said, "In my home, the word "pardon" was considered a sign of low-class. Or rather, a sign of a person of lower class attempting to pretend to be in a higher one."

Although I found this overwrought analysis just plain silly, (but not at all unexpected) the Scottish woman was immediately livid beyond words. The rest of the weekend was spent in a bitter sulk. It didn't help much when two weeks later, the Brit brought with her to the next social occasion a book, "Understanding the English" which supported this view. Lots of lovely hissing and spitting. It only goes to show how idiotic and dogmatic purists- and how contentious the debates- can often be.

As H.L. Mencken observed,

"Speech itself would become almost impossible if the grammarians could follow their own rules unfailingly and were always correct. But here we are among the learned and their sins, when detected and exposed, are at least punished by conscience. What are of more importance, to those interested in language as a living thing, are the offerings of millions who are not conscious of any wrong. It is among these millions, ignorant of regulation and eager only to express its great ideas clearly and forcefully, that language undergoes its great changes and constantly renews its vitality.

The American Language By H L Mencken

Still, force and vitality aside, nobody would argue that any language can or should exist without rules. It is one of the great dilemmas of English language teachers to be forced, like Solomon, between two equally valid options, the language we speak, however incorrectly, or the language that is rarely spoken, but is grammatically correct. Can there be a middle road? In terms of dialectic English, the language instructor is also faced with a similar problem, that of providing the students with a model that can rarely be found in real life or one that is more natural but heavily accented.

The basic idea is that American English is a corrupted form of the native language of the English. Recently I read a note on the Face-book account of a British teacher I knew who was quite offended when an American told her that she had a wonderful British accent. (There is, in her opinion, no such thing as a British accent because it is, after all, the only proper way to speak.)

Every country needs to have its source of pride and for the British, it is their language. And Shakespeare. The British have, in fact, made an industry of teaching the world its language. As citizens of proud nation, it is not surprising that their feelings on this subject should run high- even bordering on arrogance. And yet, even in United Kingdom, there is a great deal of non-standard but accepted usage. One episode of "Eastenders" should put to rest the notion that there is still a haven for "proper" English.

And, this isn't the only example by any means. For some reason, as if woken from a dream, I started noticing on BBC television programs that present progressive tense was now interchangeable with passive voice. "I am stood here with..." can now used instead of "I am standing here.." When I asked a British English teacher about this, she shrugged and murmured something less than convincing, that it was some regional variation, probably from the North of England. (It seems to be cropping up pretty regularly) I only wish somebody had told me earlier and I'd have been overjoyed to have skipped an entire tense!

But back to Arizona for a second. I have to add this bit of accidental irony as well. Tom Home, Arizona state superintendent of public instruction told Fox News, "It's my jobs to make sure they're taught English in the most rigorous, possible way so they can learn English quickly, can compete with their peers, and succeed academically." Did you catch that? http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/05/22/arizona-seeks-reassign-heavily-accented-teachers/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+foxnews/politics+(Text+-+Politics)

It could be argued that, since British English is the purest form of that language- (or at least the source), it is illogical to replace one tainted accent with another, one poor grammar structure with another only slightly less faulty. Perhaps the Arizona Department of Education has taken a step in the right direction but only a baby step. Why not carry this line of thought to its logical end? If the goal is "proper" English, then wouldn't it be more profitable to remove all English teachers speaking with heavy American accents and replace them with British English teachers?


  1. I've been mulling over this post quite a lot, please excuse (pardon?) the slow response.

    I'll never get linguistic imperialism. I'm not sure if it's because I'm American, or a linguist, or just me.

    It seems to me that non-native influences are what lead to the organic evolution of language. The British who think they have a "pure" language are kidding themselves. If you apply the same linguistic processes to English that you would to any other language (and extract the obvious historical events), you could derive a sort of proto-Franco-Germanic language. Latinate words overlaid on a Germanic grammar. That's why we have these sort of classist synonyms-- jail and prison, house and mansion. So the theory goes. The poor (conquered) people spoke one language while the rich (conquerors) spoke another. Throw Gaelic into the mix, and English is the history of conquering. Not that it detracts from what makes it cool. I think that's what makes it cool, and why it's so pigeon to creole to dialect to lingua franca-friendly. It welcomes conquering and is open to change. I find most changes pretty exciting (minus the annoying crap grammar from both sides of the pond, but even that will take an interesting turn eventually).

    Did you ever (yeah, I used simple past on purpose there) have to teach Headway, with those sections on RP pronunciation? That used to make me so mad-- a bit on the silent letter in "world" and "farm." And of course students always want to do that part because it's usually the "fun" part of the unit. Why not focus on features of English pronunciation that give everyone trouble like good old "ship" and "sheep?" Add that to the RPA phonetic alphabet I had to learn, as opposed to IPA, and I was one beleaguered and embittered American teacher.

    Add that to the snobbery about my crappy American MA (or that of an Australian teacher) our British taskmasters used as an excuse to pay us on the same scale as the 6-week CELTA folks at dershane. But clearly there were other factors at work there.

    I still run into Turks who believe British English is "better" than American English, and I always had students who felt slighted by having an American teacher. As though their English will ever be anything more than Turkish English. I forever fail at settling arguments between my German friend and her Turkish husband-- whenever I say she's right (or that they're both right), her husband goes, "Well, she's American so what does she know?"


    I've entirely ignored the Arizona issue in my comments. That's just a plain old travesty perpetrated by idiots, much like that law in California years back that banned bilingual anything. Lot of "good" that one did. Language issues are so beautifully fraught.

  2. Becoming an English teacher has given me a deep love for the language and its beauty. I love how English, in the hands of a skilled artist, can paint such detailed and exact images.
    One page from Conrad, for example, and you can see that ship, Patna, trudging across the ocean- with one black streamer of smoke and one white ribbon of foam in its wake. And best of all, Joesph Conrad was a rather late blooming English language learner.

    Headway was a pain in the butt as I recall. It never made any sense to me to teach low level grammar while using moderately high level vocabulary. Of course, every language book I've ever used had some kind of problem. One book- and it could have been Headway- that created a memorable headache.
    One of my brighter students asked me with wide eyed innocence why we didn't say THE America but we do say THE United States. Well, put the coin in the slot and the monkey hits the drum. So, I gave the standard reply about titles and names.. that "The United States" is a title, filan falan. And- turn the page- and the unit's title was "Discover the America you've always dreamed of." I think my eyes rolled so far back into my head they needed a crowbar to get them unstuck.
    The amazing/wretched part of that news about Arizona was how similar the motives are between language imperialists- to keep the invaders out. Or, to discriminate the "us" from the "them."

    Meanwhile, China becomes the largest English speaking nation on the planet and will - in a generation or two- be teaching us how to speak English correctly.

    By the way, that link to H.L. Mencken's book is great reading. Thanks for your insightful comments, Stranger.


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