The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Arizona Department of Education was asking school districts to remove teachers who speak “heavily accented or ungrammatical” English from classrooms where students are learning English.

In response, the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona has drafted a statement summarizing research on language variation and its effects on language acquisition. The statement was sent to Governor Jan Brewer and to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne. A PDF version of the statement is also publicly available here.

The statement points out eight facts about language and language acquisition drawn from linguistic research ranging from William Labov (1963) and Eric Lenneberg (1967) to recent (2009) publications in psycholinguistics, applied linguistics, etc.

I will  quote the statement’s eight bullet points here. Check out the PDF for the detailed descriptions.

  1. ‘Heavily accented’ speech is not the same as ‘unintelligible’ or ‘ungrammatical’ speech.
  2. Speakers with strong foreign accents may nevertheless have mastered grammar and idioms of English as well as native speakers.
  3. Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don’t speak Spanish.
  4. Exposure to many different speech styles, dialects and accents helps (and does not harm) the acquisition of a language.
  5. It is helpful for all students (English language learners as well as native speakers) to be exposed to foreign‐accented speech as a part of their education.
  6. There are many different ‘accents’ within English that can affect intelligibility, but the policy targets foreign accents and not dialects of English.
  7. Communicating to students that foreign accented speech is ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ is counterproductive to learning, and affirms pre‐existing patterns of linguistic bias and harmful ‘linguistic profiling’.
  8. There is no such thing as ‘unaccented’ speech, and so policies aimed at eliminating accented speech from the classroom are paradoxical.
    (University of Arizona Department of Linguistics, May 26 2010)
‘Heavily accented’ speech is not the same as ‘unintelligible’ or ‘ungrammatical’ speech.
Speakers with strong foreign accents may nevertheless have mastered grammar and idioms of English as well as native speakers.
Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don’t speak Spanish.
Exposure to many different speech styles, dialects and accents helps (and does not harm) the acquisition of a language.
It is helpful for all students (English language learners as well as native speakers) to be exposed to foreign‐accented speech as a part of their education.
There are many different ‘accents’ within English that can affect intelligibility, but the policy targets foreign accents and not dialects of English.
Communicating to students that foreign accented speech is ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ is counterproductive to learning, and affirms pre‐existing patterns of linguistic bias and harmful ‘linguistic profiling’.
There is no such thing as ‘unaccented’ speech, and so policies aimed at eliminating accented speech from the classroom are paradoxical.