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Those Who Can't Talk, Teach

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

By Will Offensicht  |  September 27, 2011

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.