What the Foreign Teacher Said

Miriam E Ebsworth mee1 at nyu.edu
Tue Jun 28 12:50:22 UTC 2005

Dear all,

You raise many important issues. They are complex, and what we know 
as researchers does need to separated from the usual public xenophobia
regarding language varieties and speakers. 

The variables seem to involve:
-degree of perceived difference between  accent and local standard
-aspects of accent or variety (phonology/prosodic features only and/or
lexical and grammatical differences 
-origin of accent: native from some speech community or non-native
-actual intelligibility of speech for particular individuals or groups,
possibly mediated by sociocultural attitudes

I think we can agree that in the ideal world nobody should be judged
based on language variety. We can also agree that since language
varieties have been scientifically proven (by us!) to activate negative
and positive associations for listeners- conscious and subconscious-
that there are individuals who might benefit from ADDING a dialect,
register or variety to their linguistic repertoires. Of course, none of
the conditions we are talking about represent pathology.( My indigenous
English dialect is "Brooklynese" and along with many other students from
working class backgrounds, I failed the speech test at Brooklyn College.
I was put in a remedial speech class. Fortunately, the teacher was
enlightened and I acquired some useful information that has helped me to
do some strategic code switching.) 

However, it is also the case that universities regularly hire very
intelligent non-native teachers and TA's whose lack of command or
clarity in the language of instruction can present a real barrier to
learners. While there are certainly lots of native speakers who can't
teach very well, and there are many non-natives who are superb teachers,
lack of intelligibility can be a crucial factor in an instructional

About ten years ago, my very multilingual and open son gave up on
advanced calculus as an undergraduate because the only person teaching
the class at the time he could take it was a non-native speaker with
lots of knowledge but very limited language skills teaching a highly
technical class. The teacher and students really tried to accommodate to
each other. But the gap was simply too great. After many valiant
attempts to understand what was going on, he ultimately dropped the course. 

SO it seems reasonable for us to research what features of language are
involved in the intelligibility issue (I understand it has been found
that the mismatch of L1/L2 prosodic features is often more important
that phonemes) and make recommendations for teachers of non-native
speakers who want to be understood better.(Anthea, your comments are
exactly on target here.) And of course, we should fight hard for
acceptance of alternative language varieties and accents that are
problematic only because of the prejudices of more powerful speech

I also wonder whether some speech therapists with strong backgrounds in
sociolinguistics couldn't theoretically be helpful to non-native
speakers, so long as they understood they were working with clients on
adding a variety, or greater clarity rather than any kind of pathology...

Your thoughts?

Miriam Eisenstein Ebsworth, Ph.D.
Director of Doctoral Programs 
in Multilingual Multicultural Studies
New York University

----- Original Message -----
From: Anthea Fraser Gupta <A.F.Gupta at leeds.ac.uk>
Date: Sunday, June 26, 2005 9:33 am
Subject: RE: Unclear on American Campus: What the Foreign Teacher Said

> Hal (and others) have made some interesting points. I do agree 
> that intelligibility is multifactorial. I don't agree with all the 
> recommendations made in Jenkins's book (for example she recommends 
> that all learners should make a distinction between long and short 
> vowels, yet many accents of English do not make such a 
> distinction), but I do agree with her on stress. She feels that a 
> lot of reduction (such as found to an extreme in RP) creates 
> difficulties for comprehension in speakers of other accents, while 
> a more syllable timed rhythm and full vowels doesn't create so 
> many problems.  In those dialects that have a big difference 
> between stressed and unstressed syllables, a stress shift will 
> presumably cause more angst than it will in speakers who speak 
> dialects with a small difference between stressed and unstressed 
> syllables. 
> And non-rhotic accents typically create more problems of 
> comprehension for speakers of rhotic accents than vice versa 
> (perhaps consonants are more salient than vowels).
> I'm horrified at the idea that speech therapy is used to change 
> accent -- this is a job for an elocutionist, not a speech 
> therapist, surely, as Ron said. And, given the diversity of 
> accents of English, should we be talking about 'non-standard 
> accents'? I know that people do this but it makes no sense to 
> think that (for example) Hal becomes non-standard when he goes to 
> Washington State, or India, or wherever. I most certainly don't 
> regard myself as having a 'non-standard accent', because I don't 
> think there is/are (a) standard accents of English (tho I do think 
> there are accents with more and less prestige, and I do thing 
> there are standard ways of pronouncing individual words). I treat 
> 'Standard English' perfomatively -- to me it's something we are 
> required to do in certain contexts of usage and on which we accept 
> correction. This doesn't (at least in the UK and I think not in 
> the US either, judging from the accent range of public figures) 
> happen with accent. We don't accept correction on how we pronounce 
> the vowel of 'cat' or 'kate', for example, and we change to 
> improve intelligibility in a situation where we get negative 
> feedback., rather than because we are 'wrong'.
> Anthea

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