LINGUIST List 3.562

Mon 13 Jul 1992

Disc: Accents and LINGUIST in the news

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  1. BARBARA PARTEE, accents: linguistnet in the news

Message 1: accents: linguistnet in the news

Date: Mon, 13 Jul 92 04:33 EST
Subject: accents: linguistnet in the news

Since Victor Raskin kindly kept me supplied with the responses he received
to his July 6 query about the Westfield accents petition, I was unusually
well prepared to respond when a reporter Meredith O'Brien phoned me July 8
to ask if I had an opinion as a linguist on the matter; when I told her
about the linguistnet discussion of it, she was quite surprised and
interested to learn of the existence of such a thing, and it turned out her
ediotr was too, and the result was an article which is as much about
linguistnet as about accents. The first such that I know of.
 I contacted Victor to get his permission to use what I'd gotten from him,
but of course neither of us could contact quickly enough the many linguists
whose responses I was faxing to the newspaper. I figured, and Victor agreed,
that messages sent to linguistnet are more or less public, and that in any
case this was a very good and positive opportunity for us to do some
educating of the public, which we are always looking for opportunities for.
I certainly hope everyone who was quoted in the article agrees that I did
the right thing in making the linguistnet discussion available to the
reporter. I think the reporter did a good job of it. Here's the text of
her article:

Springfield (Mass.) Union-News, Westfield Edition, Friday, July 10, 1992, p.1


by Meredith O'Brien

WESTFIELD - Victor Raskin, a linguistics professor at Purdue University in
Indiana, was quite perplexed when he saw an article in his local newspaper
about Westfield's petition to prohibit instructors with accents from teaching
elementary school students.

"Has anybody else seen a weird piece in the newspaper about a measure taken by
the Greek mayor of a small Massachusetts town with a very ethnically mixed
population to prevent people with foreign accents to be employed as grade
school teachers," Raskin asked subscribers to a linguistics computer network
this week.

"Besides killing my own chances of ever teaching grade school over there, is
this measure nonsensical linguistically?" he queried.

Responses to Raskin's question have been coming into the world-wide computer
network called "linguistnet" all week, some from as far away as the
Netherlands and Australia. And those who did respond had nothing good to say
about the petition.

Raskin is one of several linguists who have assailed the petition, which has
also been chastized by education officials -- including the state secretary of
education -- as unfounded and racist.

The School Committee's curriculum subcommittee Wednesday night unanimously
rejected the petition because the committee's attorney told them it was
legally unenforceable. The full committee will vote on the issue at its next
meeting which has not yet been scheduled.

The petition's organizer, Laura Lee Whitten, had no comment on the
subcommittee's decision.

Meanwhile, the eight linguists who called into "linguistnet" on their
computers concluded that parents should not be worried about their elementary
school children acquiring an accent from their teachers because the chances of
that happening are next to impossible.

Network subscriber, Barbara Partee, chairwoman of the Linguistics Department
at the University of Massachusetts, concurs with the conclusions of her

"What research exists on this matter makes it very clear that it would be
nearly impossible to be influenced by the accent of a grade school teacher",
she said Wednesday. "Young children, almost universally, pick up their
accents from their peers."

She said if people looked at immigrant families where the children were born
in this country, they would find that the children have not adopted their
parents' accent.

Many others agreed.

"I used to live in Boston, where you can cut the local accent with a knife,
and played the organ for a church in Arlington, Mass., where the pastor and
his wife were from the Midwest," Craig Thiersch, a linguistics professor from
Tilburg University in the Netherlands said. "But all their children had
strong 'towny' accents."

"My own rather limited experience is that children aren't influenced by the
foreign accents of their parents, much less their teachers," echoed University
of Georgia professor Michael A. Covington.

"Kids get their accents from their peers," agreed Susan Ervin-Tripp from the
University of California at Berkeley.

While the linguists roundly criticized the petition, some said they could
understand why some parents signed it.

Noting the problems some college students have in understanding some of their
foreign professors, they acknowledged that a teacher's English should be
understandable. But the existence of an accent is not a reason to rule out
the hiring of an instructor, they said.

"My own opinion is that it is legitimate to require that teachers be
understandable to their students, but that is presumably a normal job
qualification that does not require a petition," Partee said.

She said at UMass, foreign instructors and professors are screened to assure
their English can be understood. "But no one has ever been disqualified
because of an accent."

[End of newpaper article.]

In the same paper, there was a nice column by William Raspberry. Much of it
repeats things we've been over on the net; I extract here a bit from
the ending: "As one who was taught French by a German-accented professor who
used to amuse us with her talk of "consonants and wowels," I understand why
some parents might be wary of having their youngsters taught reading by
teachers whose pronunciations are too far from standard. But what in this
nation of a thousand accents IS too far from standard? And who determines
it? How much of the whole business is simple prejudice against Hispanic
	How does one draw the line between a legitimate interest in
occupational qualification and an illegitimate interest in ethnicity or
national origin? Where is the universal principle?
	Kant might not want to hear this, but the principle is the problem.
	A good principal would handle the thing without working up a sweat.
She'd listen, make some experience-based judgment as to whether a teacher's
accent might prove an impediment to beginning readers and make the
appropriate assignment.
 She might not even be able to tell you, in close cases, what tipped
the judgment one way or another, but would that really be so awful?
	Only if you try to make it a Kantian universal. Make it a
principle, and you're stuck willy-nilly with language panels, ethnic
spokespersons, teachers' union reps and, of course, lawyers.
	Before it's over, people will stop speaking to each other across
racial or ethnic lines, and everybody will be working to get everybody else
fired or defeated for re-election.
	The problem, of course, will remain unresolved. As they say in
Massachusetts (or would if they thought of it), some things can be addressed
in terms of the philosopher's "universal law." Some Kant.
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