foreign instructors

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Apr 7 12:49:27 UTC 2005

Anthea and all:

I just wanted to share a little experience I have had with this 'foreign'
accent stuff.  I am American-born, "Caucasian", a native speaker of
English, raised mostly in the east and midwest. I taught for 28 years in
Seattle (on the west coast), and there I occasionally was asked (e.g. in
linguistics courses or language-and-culture courses), by people from the
west coast (some from rural areas, to be sure) if I was "from this
country."  They meant from the US, not from Washington State. So the low
tolerance for any difference, and the reports that students perceive a
voice as "less comprehensible" if matched with an Asian face, resonate
with me.  Many state universities have gone through this business about
the lack of comprehensibility of "foreign" accents, and attempts to train
TA's to "enunciate more clearly" or whatever have been mostly a waste of
time, IMHO.

I once participated (since I was chair of a dept. of Asian languages) in
discussions in the UW graduate school about how to help these "foreign"
students to be more comprehensible; my suggestions were ignored.  But note
also the lack of training reported by some of these instructors--thrown
into a classroom with no preparation.  Some might benefit from training in
some kind of pedagogy (as we are forced to do in our language
departments). Math and science courses are notoriously bad, from the
pedagogical standpoint.  One math prof told me they don't care how bad
Calculus is taught--the good ones will get it, and the rest will drop out.

On the question about ordinary Americans talking about their accents--yes,
stigmatized accents (New York, southern) are discussed, mocked, ridiculed.
Others not so much...  But the idea that Brits are more tolerant is new to
me--we get the impression that there's a lot more fussing out class
accents--like the fact that Mrs. Thatcher was hated (?) for her "fake"
Oxbridge accent, which she hadn't acquired rightfully.

Hal Schiffman

On Thu, 7 Apr 2005, Anthea Fraser Gupta wrote:

> This seems a very fair and balanced article, that puts forward factors
> concerning the speaker's skills, the hearer's skills, the cultural
> setting, and prejudice.
>  It strikes me that I have the impression that 'accented English' and
> 'English with an accent' is more used in the US than the UK. People in
> the UK talk about 'foreign accents' where foreign is shorthand for
> 'assumed non-native', and make assumptions that if you are not from an
> inner circle country you won't be a native speaker of English. There is
> certainly this shared prejudicial system on both sides of the Atlantic.
> But we also talk about British accents -- A LOT. Do ordinary American
> talk about their own accents????

>  This posting isn't very well thought through, but I do have the feeling
> that there is something very different across the Atlantic in terms of
> attitudes to accents. I notice on Ask-a-linguist that a lot of Americans
> have a strong idea that there is a correct way of speaking, and that
> there is a great deal of hostility to Southern accents. I just have a
> vague feeling that there is a more normative attitude to accents in the
> US than in the UK. In the UK people certainly have prejudices of a
> rather complex sort, but diversity seems to be better accepted.
> Anyone got any thoughts??? Evidence???
> Anthea
> School of English, University of Leeds
> 	-----Original Message-----
> 	From: owner-lgpolicy-list at on behalf of Harold F. Schiffman
> 	Sent: Wed 06/04/2005 21:14
> 	To: Language Policy-List
> 	Cc:
> 	Subject:
> 	>From the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2005
> 	Teach Impediment
> 	When the student can't understand the instructor, who is to blame?

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