Unclear on American Campus: What the Foreign Teacher Said

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at leeds.ac.uk
Fri Jun 24 17:17:47 UTC 2005

The implication coming from most of this article is that the students
can't understand the foreigners because there English is bad. I just
published a paper on intelligibility of accents (see my website) which
involved students in England and students in Singapore listening to two
standard English speaking students, one from England, and one from

In brief, everyone could understand the familiar accent, with all the
British students getting similar high scores in the intellibibility test
on the British speaker, and all the Singaporean students getting similar
high scores in the intellibibility test on the Singaporean speaker. When
it came to listening to an unfamiliar accent, however, some people were
really good at understanding, and got marks as high as people from the
other place. But there was huge personal variation in listener skill.

What I didn't answer was WHY some people are better understanders than
others. Wide experience of a range of accents? Positive attitudes to the

It seems to me that if a student is coping well enough on a US PhD
programme to be given teaching, their English can't be really bad. There
needs to be more recognition that a US accent isn't the only right one
('more than 50% are foreigners'????), and that listeners need to expand
their skills. Intelligibility requires effort from both speakers and

"Mrs. Grande introduced legislation that would allow students in state
to drop courses without penalty and be reimbursed if they  could not
understand the English of a teaching assistant or a  professor." Failure
to understand could be due to the inadequacies of the hearer.

"Many universities are trying to minimize the problem by creating
programs to assess the English skills of  international graduate
students who are prospective teaching assistants and offering courses as
needed." Fine to assess skills, of course. But hopefully this will take
place in a context that recognises that there is a great deal of accent
variation within English and that all of us have to learn to cope with

"Ms. Serrin said that she went to Berkeley thinking she might go to
medical school
but that she was now majoring in economics, in part because  of freshman
chemistry." Could be useful for a doctor (or an economist) to learn how
to understand a range of people!

"Atreyee Phukan, a graduate student in comparative literature  at
Rutgers University who was born in India and raised in Bahrain and has a
slight accent." This was in a sympathetic bit... But 'has a slight
accent'???? I wish we could get the message through that everyone has an
accent. And why would people expect someone who isn't American to sound

In the report Mr Stewart makes some of these points, but it is all
rather worrying.... (I'm from England, and grew up speaking only
English. When on holiday in the US I have had people tell me that my
English is good for a foreigner. Some comfort, but parochial in the


*     *     *     *     *
Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at leeds.ac.uk
*     *     *     *     *

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