1. News & Issues
Nadra Kareem Nittle

Arizona Targets Teachers with Accents, Ethnic Studies Programs

By May 3, 2010

Follow me on:

On the heels of its controversial new legislation to curb illegal immigration into the state, Arizona now seems to be targeting immigrant teachers and ethnic studies classes.

The Arizona Department of Education recently began ordering school districts to bar teachers who speak accented or ungrammatical English from classes containing English Language Learners. The move comes after the state specifically recruited teachers from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries in the 1990s, when Arizona schools allowed Spanish-speaking children to be taught in their native language. In 2000, Arizonans voted that all students be taught exclusively in English. Never mind the vast amount of research suggesting that the more literate people are in their native language the more literate they will be in English or any other new language.

"This is just one more indication of the incredible anti-immigrant sentiment in the state," Bruce Merrill, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University, told the Wall Street Journal of the state's move to target teachers with accents.

Apparently, the state arrived at the idea by an interpretation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which states that schools will only receive federal funds if English Language Learners are taught by teachers fluent in the language. How fluency is defined, though, is left up to each state, the Journal reported.  

In Arizona, evidently, teachers who speak heavily accented English may be considered non-fluent. In addition to being evaluated for correct grammar and good writing skills, Arizona teachers will be audited for "comprehensible pronunciation."

Don't get me wrong. All teachers should be able to speak grammatically correct English and have good writing skills in the language. But I take issue with teachers being graded on their accents. Many people speak fluent English but never manage to lose their accents. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a case in point. And, while you may disagree with Schwarzenegger's politics, should his accent alone bar him from being governor of a U.S. state? I certainly think not.

Arizona's new policy doesn't seem so harsh when you factor in its willingness to give teachers with accents chances to develop greater fluency in English. Teachers found not to be fluent may take classes to improve, for example. But, once again, I stress that some people never lose their accents--never. So, what happens to teachers in Arizona who can't speak accent-less English? Their fate is in the hands of school districts that can decide to fire or reassign them. What a disgraceful way to treat teachers the state once recruited solely to teach English Language Learners.

But English immersion advocates say they have good cause to reassign such instructors.

"Teachers should speak good grammar because kids pick up what they hear," Johanna Haver, an English immersion supporter, told the Wall Street Journal.

On a certain level this may be true, but how do you account for the fact that many children of immigrants speak accent-less English?  Despite growing up in close quarters with people with accents, these children are also influenced by the way they hear English spoken in movies, music, television, etc. Plus, they are surrounded by native English speakers in their schools, grocery stores, shopping malls and what have you. The way a child speaks English is influenced by a variety of factors.

Still, auditors of Arizona's teachers argue that it's unfair for children to be taught by instructors who "pronounce words such as violet as 'biolet,' think as 'tink' and swallow the ending sounds of words, as they sometimes do in Spanish," the Journal reports.

But would Arizona schools take issue with a Boston transplant who dropped her R's while teaching children English or a Memphis transplant who dropped his G's while teaching children English? Would the English fluency of these teachers be called into question? I highly doubt it, which makes me as wary of this new policy as I am of the state's new anti-illegal immigration policy. All of us, native and non-native speakers, alike, speak English with some sort of accent. The way any given American pronounces words such as "aunt," "route" or "lawyer" varies. So, why should the accents of only some of us be called into question? In my opinion, this new policy really isn't about whether students are being served adequately by instructors. It's about xenophobia and racism.  

On a related note, looks like students seeking to take ethnic studies courses at Arizona schools won't be able to for much longer. Last week, the Arizona Legislature passed a bill prohibiting school districts from teaching courses that "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or 'advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals,'" Fox News reports.  

State Superintendent for Public Instruction Tom Horne is behind the bill. He says ethnic studies classes divide students from diverse backgrounds rather than unite them and promote "ethnic chauvinism." He fears that ethnic studies classes call for "Latinos to rise up and create a new territory out of the southwestern region of the United States," according to Fox News.

I think Horne is misinformed. Teaching students that Arizona used to be Mexican territory and that in the 1960s Chicano radicals advocated taking the land back isn't the same as telling them to actually overthrow the government. It's called history. Based on Horne's logic, students also shouldn't learn about the Boston Tea Party or John Brown or the anti-Vietnam War movement. But is Horne turned off by ethnic studies courses because they promote the overthrow of the government or because these classes seem to promote a Latino agenda?

Thanks to Angry Asian Man for the tip.


May 5, 2010 at 12:37 am
(1) Marizza Rogers says:

well written article. It is obvious that Arizona is a backwards state full of racist, ignorant people. The governor herself never even went to college. The most obvious evidence of how horrible life must be in Mexico is the fact that these people wud even migrate to Arizona. Personally, I would rather live in Bangladesh than that sorry excuse for a state of the union. Push them out of the union and what do you have? a desert full of fat ignorant rednecks

May 5, 2010 at 4:13 pm
(2) Yelena says:

I agree with your description that speaking with an accent has absolutely nothing to do with being fluent in a language. Most people will never loose their accent after a certain age and often people who learned English as a second language speak more grammatically correct than native speakers.

May 22, 2010 at 1:20 am
(3) Veronica says:

I’ve never really been crazy about Arizona, mainly because I wouldn’t be interested in going there, but now I have a very good reason for never going there–and this, along with the new racist law targeting Mexican immigrants AND Hispanic Americans, is it.

May 24, 2010 at 9:57 am
(4) hinojosa says:

What about southern accents from Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and others, are they okay if they speak like back wood hicks?

April 3, 2011 at 4:49 pm
(5) Maria L'Herault says:

Wow! I am appalled at the ignorance of those who live in AZ and continue to take away rights of people who want a better life. Are you kidding me? Certified teachers who are educated but have an accent are now going to be either reassigned or fired?? Lets put pressure on parents and expect more from parents instead of putting blame on teachers with accents. I believe the speech fundamentals begin at home, now we expect teachers to be parents to our children on top of everything else? For what kind of pay? It is beyond racism to apply this legislation. If we are going to be picky about accents, lets just re-do a Hitler action and purify accents! Sounds like the same concept.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>
  1. About.com
  2. News & Issues
  3. Race Relations

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.