Unclear on American Campus: What the Foreign Teacher Said

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Jun 24 20:36:47 UTC 2005

This business has been raging on American college campuses for maybe two
decades, now, and pops up every now and then with attempted legislation or
other kinds of intervention, usually without much effect.

As a linguist who was trained very carefully in phonetics, and even taught
phonetic transcription for a while, but is now suffering from high
frequency hearing loss, I can sympathize with some of this, though I
recognize that much of the difficulty understanding other varieties of
English is cultural and subjective, and maybe comes from a kind of
"linguistic cultural deprivation".  As a native speaker of American
English (east coast) teaching on the west coast for several decades, I was
shocked to be asked by a student once whether I was "from this country"
i.e. the US.  This was because some of my pronunciations had apparently
never been heard (or observed) before by students from rural Washington

But as I have endured various kinds of hearing tests in preparation for
being fitted with hearing aids, I can see that some of the things they
test one for is the ability to hear and distinguish *final* consonants, so
I am aware that whether it is Americans who don't release their final
consonants, or speakers of Chinese who rarely pronounce final consonants
when speaking English, this feature is one of those that can make a

I think we need to develop tests that focus on both objective issues (e.g.
released final consonants) and subjective ones (racism, xenophobia,
whatever) and see what might come from this.

I remember having a conversation with you, Anthea, in Singapore, and cited
the work of Bansal on the intelligibility of Indian English, which I
believe you discounted. Bansal's study seemed to indicate that US and
British speakers were confused more by *stress* shift than by other
features of "foreign" English, so I have stored up examples of this
phenomenon over the years (e.g. shifting the stress of a word like
'facility', which is stressed on the 2nd syllable (facILity) to the first
syllable, and then deleting or reducing the second vowel [FAESlity]. There
are lots and lots of these in Indian English, although I'm not sure why.
And I cited to you (Anthea)  the example of being confused by an
announcement in an airport in India of a flight leaving for [KAElkta].  I
knew it had to be a major city, otherwise there wouldn't be a plane going
there, but only when I saw the boarding pass of a passenger, marked
"Calcutta" [kaelK at Ta] did I understand.

It would be interesting to do tests "blind" i.e. with just sound
recordings, and then with different visuals; Fasold has reported on tests
where American teachers upgrade children's pronunciation if they think
they are white, and downgrade them if they think they are black.  If we
could mix and match here, we might find some interesting stuff.

It would also be useful to do tests in which there is lots of context,
from which listeners get other cues, vs. situations with little
redundancy, to see if this makes a difference.  Might also be interesting
to see what students who are science whizzes understand vs. people
struggling in a Calculus class who blame the TA rather than their
inability to master the material.  (Colleagues of mine in math depts. have
told me they don't much care whether people have trouble in calculus
class--the point is to weed out the bad ones, while the good ones will
learn no matter what you do.)

In other words there may be many MANY variables here, not just "American
intolerance" or naivete, or whatever.  I might add that after years of
working in India, I adjust certain pronunciations to fit those of Indian
English, or else I'm just not understood when I say [vaitamin] instead of
[vItamin], or telephone dIrektori instead of [dairektri] etc.  I was even
told after a talk I gave at a conference that I "didn't have that awful
American accent" and that I talked "just like we do".  Turns out I had
shifted to Indian English without even knowing I had done so.

So let's devise some very sophisticated tests for this, so that we can
respond with good information when legislators in the American heartland
start working themselves into a lather about this.

Hal S.

On Fri, 24 Jun 2005, Anthea Fraser Gupta wrote:

> 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
> Singapore.
> 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
> foreign?
> 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
> listeners.
> "Mrs. Grande introduced legislation that would allow students in state
> universities
> 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
> that.
> "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
> American?
> 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
> extreme.)
> Anthea
> *     *     *     *     *
> Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
> School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
> <www.leeds.ac.uk/english/staff/afg>
> NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at leeds.ac.uk
> *     *     *     *     *

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