When I first read the headline of this New York Times article, In Arizona, Complaints That an Accent Can Hinder a Teacher’s Career, I asked myself  “Does an accent really hinder a teacher’s ability to teach?”.  This article describes how Guadalupe V. Aguayo, a second grade teacher in the Creighton Elementary School District in central Phoenix, felt she was being discriminated against because of her noticeable Spanish accent. After Ms. Aguayo’s principal questioned her accent, she took a college acting class, saw a speech pathologist and consulted with an accent reduction specialist, none of which made a difference in her speech. Later, she filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after being told that her accent would not allow her to teach students learning English.

‘I have the same credentials as everyone else, and I don’t think it’s fair that I’m being singled out,’ Ms. Aguayo said, adding that her school has teachers with a variety of regional American accents. ‘I know I have an accent. It’s been hard to get rid of it. I think I’ll always have it.’

Ms. Aguayo clearly has put time and effort into reducing her accent in order to better meet the standards of teaching  English to her students. After listening to her voice recording, its apparent that she has a heavy accent, but her English is not incomprehensible. Her students, who are mostly Latino, are understanding her instructions and are learning English properly in terms of grammar and syntax. If the students are learning proper standardized American English, then the accent of the instructor should not matter. State education officials should not disallow instructors to teach students English on the basis of one’s accent. Is accented English not considered proper English? Is accented pronunciation not correct?


2 responses

  1. raining247 says:

    Your post reminds me of an article I read a few years ago concerning a non-Asian American professor and whether he was fit to teach an Asian American history class. There were stringent debates and roundtable discussions on whether he was “well-rounded” enough to teach the curriculum. A few of his peers and students thought that his non-Asian descent hampered his ability to deliver a “genuine” perspective on Asian American culture. They were accusing him of not being Asian enough (he is NOT Asian and this is the root of their argument) to teach a subject that they perceive requires an background in Asian life and culture. And this somehow all this cultural knowledge will not be delivered “accurately” by a non-Asian person. As far as I can remember, arguments were as follows: the best candidate for an Asian American history professor would be an Asian American person who has complete body of knowledge about his own culture, in fact, someone who embodies his culture in its entirety. They are arguing that perhaps there is no one more appropriate to teach the course than an Asian American who lived through “Asian experiences” first-hand.

    This brings up issues as well: what if the Asian American professor has amazing credentials, accolades, awards, superfluous recommendations, but his accent is most noticeable? If I am asked to consider the best person fit to teach this Asian American history/culture class, immediately I think of an elderly Asian man who has gone through social strife, oppression, and the Cultural Revolution first-hand. Fortunately we have cramped apartments filled with these types of men who have a host of knowledge arising from their experiences. They can talk about their experiences and teach Asian culture. However, these men are mostly incapable of speaking proper English. This cancels out their chances of being a professor, in this meritocratic society. So, if the professor speaks perfect English but his accent is a distraction, how does the school handle him? The above article illustrates an amazing fact: despite accent reduction lessons and strenuous training, some persons retain their accent. I have a sociology professor whose thick German accent marks him as a person. He seems to be teaching without any protests against him. Or maybe this is because he is on tenure therefore he is immune to complaints and reprimands.

    Your article brings up a great quote: “This was one culture telling another culture that you’re not speaking correctly,” spoken by Mr. Garcia, a spartan Civil Rights Center organizer in Phoenix. This reminds me of ethnocentrism in that American education system is complaining that another culture is teaching or speaking improperly. This is bound to be the case because school officials believe that they are offering the professor a job and they must represent the school’s reputation and uphold their criteria of “proper English” speaking professors.

    I am searching through Google at the moment and it is stunning how many articles I find about the increased discrimination in Arizona which serves an as ugly awakening since the nasty immigration laws like the random ID and passport check. Many of the comments fluctuate from “It is a given that you must speak English with no accent” to “It does not matter if they have accent or not, it’s unfair to look past credentials.” http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/teachers/heavily-accented-teachers-remo.html. This article highlights the “arbitrary” nature of the school officials’ actions [removing Arizona teachers who have accents]. The special context and environment of Arizona is the reason why the teachers are such a big deal. The state is inundated in immigration issues. By nipping teachers with heavy accents, this can be a dirty filter to syphon out immigrants in other sectors. It is oppressive and selective in its vile methods to replicate a sense of xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

  2. sarahatt says:

    I have had the same problems throughout elementary school and high school but that has not affected my education. I think personally, internationally speaking students are capable of understanding a non- American accent because they are more aware of the different accent so they tend to pay attention more to what the person is saying. Yet again, a person who tends to have a heavy accent or cannot speak proper English should not be heavily criticized for how they are talking or what they are saying because I think they are putting an effort on what they are doing. I agree with your opinion ” If the students are learning proper standardized American English, then the accent of the instructor should not matter.”