Many of you have heard of Arizona's SB1070. It is a new law set to come into effect at the end of the month and can empower authorities to check the identity of people living in Arizona, suspected of being in the USA illegally. But, did you also know that some experienced bilingual English language instructors in Arizona public schools may not be allowed to continue teaching English to their Spanish-speaking students because they have an 'accent'?
I have talked about accents before at this blog, focusing on prejudice against Indian English. Now I am contemplating accents again in another context. As Mr. Codrescu so effectively states in his NPR commentary, 'America was made great by people with accents.'
As an ESL instructor at a private school, I have often been confronted by questioning looks when students realize that this Asian-looking woman is their Cambridge or TOEFL or business or advanced level instructor. Is she a native speaker? Ironically, sometimes the worst prejudice or suspicion comes from Asian students. They came to the United States to learn from a White or Black or even Hispanic person - not from someone who looks 'Asian.' If they're low-level students, they don't understand my explanation that I was born and raised in Los Angeles and that my grandparents came from Japan. My parents were also born in California. They feel incapable of judging whether or not my 'accent' is native, so they just go by my race and facial features. Sometimes they even request a change of class - not because of my race, of course - but because they think I speak 'too slowly' or 'too fast.'
Once I was even queried about my 'nativeness' because I spoke so 'clearly.' Believe it or not, an upper-intermediate level business student asked me at the end of her course if I was originally from Japan (even though I had explained three weeks earlier that I was born and raised in Los Angeles). She was asking because, according to her, my speech was clearer and the rhythm of it easier to understand than the other teachers', so she wondered if I had learned English as a second language.
Now in Arizona, we have another issue which goes beyond 'race' per se. It has to do with how close your accent is to some perceived 'average'. Who speaks with a typical 'American' accent? Is it the TV anchorperson from some Midwest TV station, from the West Coast, from the East Coast, or from the South? Should our Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have had to pass a pronunciation exam before he ran for the important office he now occupies? He still says 'California' differently from how I would say it, and I'm '100% Californian.' Would 'Ahnold' have been as successful as the 'Terminator' if he had spoken with George Clooney's accent?
Clearly, to me, what is important in English language teaching is helping students to build a broad and solid grammatical platform on which to construct flexible and expandable vocabulary houses. From these constructs, fluency in the language can emerge and flourish so that immigrant or foreign students can express themselves well in speech and writing and be able to comprehend all accents and variations of the language in context - while listening to a radio program or watching TV or when reading the newspaper or visiting an internet site. That's what I think my job is about. Any person who is capable of bringing students to this point, regardless of their accent, is an invaluable resource to this country of immigrants.