Is my accent a crime? (UNCLASSIFIED)

Herb Stahlke hfwstahlke at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 4 03:37:01 UTC 2010

I've dealt with accent and intelligibility at the college level, not
in K-12, and in higher education I think the situation is a good bit
different.  When students or parents would raise concerns over accent,
usually foreign, I'd take the opportunity to explain that there are a
lot of Englishes around the world just as legitimate as the various
American Standards.  I'd also explain that part of earning a degree is
learning to understand the English of other educated speakers who come
from elsewhere, and that such diversity among Standards is not
inherently bad but is part of the richness of English.  Of course,
this explanation can't excuse the teaching assistant or faculty member
whose English is not just accented from the student's perspective but
is simply not at a level of mastery that teaching in an American
university requires.  Most universities do have training programs for
TAs and provide help for such faculty.


On Tue, Aug 3, 2010 at 10:19 AM, Mullins, Bill AMRDEC
<Bill.Mullins at> wrote:
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> Poster:       "Mullins, Bill AMRDEC" <Bill.Mullins at US.ARMY.MIL>
> Subject:      Re: Is my accent a crime? (UNCLASSIFIED)
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> I agree completely that the question is one the answer to which can be
> quite interesting and informative.  I just don't think the original
> asker was asking it in that context.
> Clearly, for kindergarten-level students, it would be preferable for
> your first exposure to formal English instruction to be from someone who
> speaks a more-or-less "standard" version of English.  I can't comprehend
> any loving parent who is trying to establish a life for his/her family
> in America who would believe otherwise.
> And this doesn't mean that the teacher must not have any accent.  I have
> a 3 year old son, and am seeing pre-school TV programming that I never
> saw before.  Most shows have a diverse mix of characters, and some have
> definite Hispanic/African-American/foreign accents.  He loves "Thomas
> the Tank Engine" videos, which include narration by Ringo Starr
> (Liverpool), Pierce Brosnan (Ireland), George Carlin (Manhattan), Alec
> Baldwin (Long Island), and numerous anonymous British actors which have
> numerous British accents.  No problem, because they all (at least as
> they are televised) have clear pronunciation and standard grammar.  My
> accent is different from my wife's, and my mother's is different still,
> as is her mother's.  And my son has an accent that is different from all
> of ours (so much so that I wonder how he got it).
> My strong negative reaction yesterday to the article Tom Z. posted was
> because it denied the idea that there are standards which are good and
> which should be met.  The enforcement of those standards should not be
> abused, but the idea that a teacher of English should be able to speak
> it clearly is so fundamentally self-obvious to me that I am dumbfounded
> that there is anyone, much less people who are administrators in public
> schools, who finds it necessary to argue anything but that.
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On
> Behalf Of
>> Damien Hall
>> Sent: Tuesday, August 03, 2010 4:51 AM
>> Subject: Is my accent a crime?
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> ----------------------
>> -
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       Damien Hall <djh514 at YORK.AC.UK>
>> Subject:      Is my accent a crime?
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> ------
>> -
>> Bill Mullins said:
>> > > Yet what is an accent?
>> > If the original author doesn't know the answer to this question,
> then
>> > there are probably multiple reasons he/she shouldn't be teaching
>> > English.
>> On one level, fair enough; but, on another, this is actually a very
> good
>> question and one which might have real consequences.
>> The level on which Bill's comment is fair comment is probably that of
> the
>> language teacher him/herself: someone who hasn't investigated folk
>> linguistics in any detail, and takes 'accent' as meaning roughly 'mode
> of
>> speech which is identifiably non-native / not from around here'. For
> most
>> people who've never looked into folk linguistics, this may therefore
>> include any or all of phonology, phonetics, (morpho-)syntax, the
> lexicon,
>> pragmatics, and possibly other modules of linguistics too. If a
> teacher of
>> English as a foreign language can't tell when someone is 'getting it
> wrong'
>> in any of these modes, then they probably _shouldn't_ be a language
>> teacher.
>> The level on which this is a good question, though, is the one which
> maybe
>> _has_ looked at some folk linguistics and does decompose these cues to
>> 'foreignness': the point of view of the academic linguist (the
> phonologist
>> and phonetician in particular), who probably uses 'accent' to refer
> only to
>> phonology and phonetics and would use another term for cues to
>> 'foreignness' in the other modules. (When I say 'foreignness' here I'm
> just
>> using it as a shorthand for any of the ways in which a speaker can
>> recognise that someone else speaks differently, whether they're
> actually
>> foreign, or simply from another part of the country, or whatever.)
> From the
>> point of view of this linguist, 'What is an accent' is a question
> worthy of
>> serious investigation. This serious investigation could have real
>> consequences for people who (rightfully) use the term 'accent' in its
> wider
>> 'speaking differently' sense. if we are able to pin down exactly what
> a
>> person means in a given case when they say that so-and-so 'has an
> accent',
>> we may be able to be more precise in areas where it matters (the law
> being
>> one of them), and we may be able to give more targeted help where it
> is
>> required. For example (and this example is constructed), someone whose
>> 'accent' in the ear of a native speaker relates mainly to phonology
> may
>> indeed be almost unintelligible to that native speaker, because the
> words
>> being said cannot be recognised. On the other hand, someone whose
> phonology
>> is closer to the native speaker's phonology, but whose syntax is
> noticeably
>> foreign-influenced, may be more intelligible to the native speaker.
> The
>> incompatibility of phonologies is possibly more likely to occur
> between
>> English-speakers and native speakers of a Romance language (Spanish,
> of
>> course, in the Arizona case); the syntactic incompatibility is
> possibly
>> more likely to occur between English-speakers and native speakers of
>> another Germanic language, for example. In theory, these could be two
> very
>> different kinds of 'accent', and yet both of them might simply be
> referred
>> to as 'having an accent'. (I grant that it is unlikely that the
> Germanic
>> speaker would have Germanic syntax and absolutely no trace of Germanic
>> phonology, but, for the sake of an example, this will stand here.)
>> In any case, hence the question: in general terms, what is an accent?
> The
>> question may be easy to answer in specific cases, but it is not easy
> (is it
>> possible?) to arrive at an all-encompassing generalisation about it.
>> Damien
>> --
>> Damien Hall
>> University of York
>> Department of Language and Linguistic Science
>> Heslington
>> YO10 5DD
>> UK
>> Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
>>      (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
>> Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673
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