Those Who Can't Talk, Teach

What's wrong with teachers who can't speak English clearly?

Somehow, the State of Arizona keeps getting in trouble with the federal government.  The New York Times told about a Mexican immigrant who is an Arizona public school teacher of English.  Parents, students, and school administrator complained of her noticeable Spanish accent.

To her credit, she at least tried to fix the problem.  She took an acting class,  saw a speech pathologist, and consulted an accent reduction specialist.  Nothing helped.  She would have been reassigned except for federal intervention in the school system.

Those who can, do

When the federal No Child Left Behind act passed ten years ago, Arizona started sending inspectors into English classes to make sure teachers used proper grammar and pronunciation.  Understandably enough, Federal law requires that people who teach students English be fluent in English; in compliance with the law, Arizona started checking up.  Teachers who persisted in using incorrect grammar or pronunciation were reassigned.

“It was a repeated pattern of misuse of the language or mispronunciation of the language that we were looking for,” said Andrew LeFevre, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. “It’s critically important that teachers act as models when it comes to language.”  [emphasis added]

The State of Arizona is correct in asserting that “It’s critically important that teachers act as models when it comes to language.”  I have a friend who grew up overseas.  One of his childhood friends came home from English class saying "wean-dow" instead of "window."  My friend worked with him to correct his pronunciation.

A couple of days later, his friend told him he'd have to stop getting English lessons.  Why?  Because his pronunciation didn't match the teacher's; he'd flunked his recent test.  The teacher was teaching him wrong, but the teacher gave the grades.

Those who can't, teach

Some parents get it.  Back when California was debating a voters' initiative to forbid public schools to teach formal courses in Spanish instead of English, one father said, "You want to teach my kids in Spanish so they grow up to the waitresses and busboys.  I want them taught in English so they grow up to be doctors and lawyers."  Even this poor immigrant understood reality: Good grammar and pronunciation of your nation's common tongue are essential for getting a good job.

The feds require that English teachers be competent.  The state sends in inspectors and reassigns teachers of English who can't do the job.  Sounds pretty reasonable, right?  Not in the wacky world of civil rights.

In May 2010, he [Silverio Garcia Jr., a civil rights activist] filed a class-action complaint with the federal Department of Education alleging that teachers had been unfairly transferred and students denied educations with those teachers. The Justice Department joined the inquiry, but federal investigators closed Mr. Garcia’s complaint in late August after the state agreed to alter its policies.

“This was one culture telling another culture that you’re not speaking correctly,” Mr. Garcia said.

Well, duh!  We don't tell Spanish speakers how Spanish is to be spoken; how dare they try to tell us the proper pronunciation and use of English?

What's the purpose of education anyway?  The purpose is to teach children how to become high-earning, taxpaying adults.  Speaking like an ignoramus is no way to get a good job.  The purpose of speech is to communicate; that's why teaching all children the standard pronunciation is vital.

It gets worse:

It’s a form of discrimination,” said Araceli Martínez-Olguín, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco, who is representing Ms. Aguayo in a discrimination complaint. “People hear an accent and think it means something.”  [emphasis added]

Of course it's a form of discrimination - employers try to discriminate against the ignorant and in favor of the educated.  Of course accent means something - it means you haven't taken the trouble to learn how to speak correctly for the culture in which you desire to operate, or you simply aren't able to which is just as bad.  If an employer knows you can't even speak correctly which 10-year-old children mostly can, what else have you not bothered or been unable to learn?

When American companies first located call centers overseas, customers complain that they can't understand the accents.  Call centers had to work really hard to force proper pronunciation in order to keep the business; some have even been brought back to the United States in response to customer disgust and repudiation.

Shouldn't we teach our kids how to speak properly?  Isn't teaching them improperly a form of fraud?

The feds must really have nothing worthwhile to do.  Some years back, Arizona passed a ballot initiative similar to California's which requires that all subjects be taught in English except for classes designed to teach English itself.  This got the feds involved:

With Arizona’s population of Spanish-speaking students surging, state education officials have pushed a variety of policies that have attracted the attention of federal civil rights officials.

Our official pinheads are concerned that some kids might be spending too much time in English classes and that others might not be spending enough time.  Many argue that putting Spanish kids in separate classes denies them the right to learn English from their classmates.  Others are concerned that expecting them to learn English from their classmates isn't good enough, even though previous generations of immigrants learned English in precisely that way.

This should be no concern of the federal government, of course.  The Constitution assigns the feds no rights with respect to education; those matters are reserved to the states.

The Constitution notwithstanding, President Carter promoted the Department of Education as a reward to teachers' unions for helping him win the Presidency.  Has the Department improved American education?  Not one whit - American schools have lost international standing steadily ever since the Department was formed.

One thing's sure.  Regardless of results, the department has burned through billions of taxpayer dollars.  Along the way, it forced Arizona to stop evaluating English teachers for proficiency in English; teachers with accents are free to exercise their federally-enforced civil right to mis-educate all the children they encounter.

Only in America would school authorities be prevented from evaluating a language teacher's proficiency in the language being taught.  Our Chinese competitors need have no fear that well-educated Americans will compete with them any time soon.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

What's even (maybe) worse is that many physics students, particularly at junior colleges, complain that they can't understand what the teacher is saying because of his or her heavy accent. I'm a physics teacher and have first hand experience how difficult it is for a student to assimilate the new definitions of concepts in physics without having to understand what the teacher is saying in the first place.

September 27, 2011 11:35 AM

Can there be a better argument for the abolishment of the Department of Education than this one? It is articles like this one that might finally awaken the "Silent Majority" and do away with all of the political correct garbage that Washington spews out every day.

September 27, 2011 12:40 PM

The Economist says this problem isn't unique to America:

A couple of years ago I was on a mini bus on Vietnam's Cat Ba Island, a popular tourist spot near Ha Long Bay. I got talking to the woman next to me. "What you do?"

"I'm a journalist... ah, nha bao," I said. "What about you?"

"I am English teach," she replied.

She taught in a primary school and said this was one of her first times speaking with a foreigner. English is mandatory in primary schools in Vietnam, though people begin learning at different ages in different parts of the country. All students have to learn it, but unless they receive extra tuition—or are exceptionally talented—few can speak it fluently.

State news recently reported that in Hanoi only 18% of primary school teachers can pass the exams the government sets. In other parts of Vietnam it is not much higher. They must receive a mark of 6 or higher on the International English Language Testing System, an international standard for test, or the equivalent. A score of 6 to 6.5 is what most universities require their foreign students to achieve. Though not at the standard of a native speaker (who should rate a 9 to 9.9) it is still high enough that many university students spend many hours and much money at private English-teaching centres—usually staffed by foreigners—to achieve this score. Expecting countryside primary school teachers to do the same seems optimistic, at least.

The Ministry of Education does not plan to sack teachers first time they fail, but will give them till the next academic year to improve. A second fail would earn the sack. One Ho Chi Minh City-based official estimated that to get all primary school teachers up to standard will take until 2020. A main reason, one teacher told the Vietnam News, is that most teachers, especially in rural areas, almost never have a chance to speak and listen in live practice.

The few successful ones must be unusually motivated. A friend of mine, who teaches at a private secondary school, told me that though she’d been taught English from Grade 6, most of what she knew came from her own study. She’d pick up English language newspapers each week and try to listen to the radio or television. She thinks the main problems facing primary school teachers who’ve already failed the test once might be the time and resources to study and pass. “They’ll need the money to pay for intense courses. I don’t think the government give much support.”

It’s not just the education sector but also sometimes the educated. I once worked as a sub-editor at a local newspaper. My job was to fix the grammar and English of the translators as well as more standard copy-editing. This meant detangling various clauses that had tripped over themselves twice in the same sentence (our grammar differs rather a lot). There was also the odd over-literal translation to figure out. What was a "multiple somersault train"?, I once wondered. A roller-coaster.

October 13, 2011 8:05 PM
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