Is my accent a crime?

Tom Zurinskas truespel at HOTMAIL.COM
Sun Aug 1 08:06:41 UTC 2010

The writeup below is clipped from another email list.

Opinion: In Arizona, Is My Accent a Crime?

Auther name deleted

(July 30) -- I know a thing or two about the English language. I have published two books in it and written a third. For eight years I was a regular commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered." As a journalist, my articles have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines and hundreds of websites. My short stories and essays are anthologized and taught widely. I went to Berkeley and Stanford. I've been a subject of a PBS documentary and lectured at Ivy League schools.
But I still have an accent.

That's because I came to the U.S. at the age of 11 at the end of the Vietnam War, and though I speak English fluently, I cannot fully shave my Vietnamese accent from my American tongue. Sometimes my "clue" can sound a bit like your "glue," and other times, when stressed, my "bitch" sounds like your "peach." Otherwise, I am as American as salsa and sweet-and-sour sauce.

I'm telling you this because despite my credentials, I may not qualify to teach English to immigrant kids -- kids like my younger self -- under current Arizona rules. Arizona has decided that it's unacceptable to have teachers whose spoken English is deemed to be heavily accented or ungrammatical, even though the latter has little to do with the former.

That prohibition led the great Andrei Codrescu, an author who taught English for 40 years but who came from Romania, to wonder out loud on NPR, "Did I land back behind the Iron Curtain half a century ago? My last 40 years of teaching would have never happened if the Arizona law had been the law of the land in 1966." Odd that 14 million listeners are fine with his accent, and for that matter mine, but that they would be thought problematic for a few students in Arizona.

The real problem, of course, is that Arizonian educational bureaucracy equated having an accent with lacking proficiency and fluency, which is sheer idiocy. Some of my South Asians colleagues are the most eloquent English speakers I know, and a few have spent their higher education at illustrious institutions like Oxford and Harvard. But they, too, most likely may not pass muster to teach English, lacking what one might call a "domestic" accent.

Worse, beyond the corridors of learning, under existing Arizona practice everyone who has a foreign accent is an automatic suspect. Eloquence does not matter, so it would seem, in Arizona. Experience and qualifications mean nothing. Have a foreign accent and you may be unemployable, and worse, automatically suspect.

The police state of Arizona could very well be the norm for many other states, with 55 percent of Americans recently polled supporting Arizona's drastic stance on immigration.
And despite the fact that U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked the most controversial parts of Arizona's new immigration law SB1070, the McCarthy era of informants and suspicion has already existed long before it went into effect on Thursday. "Under Arizona law, even victims of domestic violence can't have access to state-funded English or GED classes if they are undocumented immigrants," reports New America Media's Valeria Fernandez. "Parents are questioned when applying for state health care benefits for their U.S. citizen children; if they volunteer information to a caseworker that indicates they are in the U.S. illegally, they are reported to ICE."

I shudder to think that not only might I not be qualified to teach in Arizona, I could be stopped and searched for having an accent. For under duress my tongue often becomes unruly and my accent thickens, giving my foreignness away and pronouncing me interminably alien.

Yet what is an accent, and who really doesn't have one? "You're American, aren't you?" I am often asked when I travel overseas, including to my homeland, Vietnam. My Vietnamese, wouldn't you know, has a distinctive Californian accent.

The American motto e pluribus unum -- out of many, one -- is currently put up for scrutiny. For when a society fails to celebrate and respect differences and goes to the opposite extreme, when it hides behind the apparatus of a draconian policy, one that has no check and balance, the only logical outcome is injustice and cruelty.

Tom Zurinskas, USA - CT20, TN3, NJ33, FL7+
see phonetic spelling

The American Dialect Society -

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