LINGUIST List 3.563

Tue 14 Jul 1992

Sum: Accents in Classroom

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Victor Raskin, Accents in Classroom

Message 1: Accents in Classroom

Date: Sun, 12 Jul 92 18:14:24 ESAccents in Classroom
From: Victor Raskin <>
Subject: Accents in Classroom

I received a number of helpful and informative responses from a few
colleagues and I am grateful to all of them. Below please find a
digest of the responses.

First of all, Barbara Partee provided the background information on
the case itself, which was playing out practically in her own

On July 7, 1992, Barbara Partee ( wrote to me:
 "I'm keeping an eye on the Westfield accent uproar because it's not far
from here and there's something about it in the paper almost every day,
including editorials. I'll be glad to help keep you updated on news, and I
would appreciate receiving any references you find out about to research
that shows that the parents have nothing to worry about. (An article in a
local paper today, about reactions, said in the last paragraph "Linguists
said that, as long as the teacher is comprehensible, parents concerned about
having a good "model" in the classroom to help their children become
Americanized quickly in their speech have little to worry about." But no
names or references.)
 What happened was that early last week a petition signed by 403
residents of Westfield, Mass. was given to the school board in response to a
decision to reassign two bilingual education teachers to positions as normal
classroom teachers. The petition urges that no teacher be assigned to first
or second grades "who is not thoroughly proficient in the English language
in terms of grammar, syntax, and - most important - the accepted and
standardized use of pronunciation." The mayor of the city, a Greek immigrant
with an accent, and a proponent of English-only laws, and chair of the
city's school committee, has been vocally in favor of the petition. It has
been denounced by the state's secretary of education, Piedad Robertson, a
native of Cuba and a former kindergarten teacher herself, who immediately
came out with the statement that the proposal "would appear to be
discrimination, plain and simple. ... This petition, instead of fostering
the acceptance of cultural diversity, would appear to encourage bigotry,
racism, and discrimination." The mayor in a phone interview June 30
dismissed her attack as "bovine scatology." The state's attorney general has
offered th opinion that the plan would almost certainly violate the state's
anti-discrimination laws.
 An article today (both articles I'm quoting from are in the Daily
Hampshire Gazette, of Northampton, though there was also a mention in
Sunday's NYTimes) says the mayor, George Varelas, says he has been getting
calls from all over the country, mostly agreeing with his point of view. The
two parents who started the drive are expressing great surprise; the wife,
"who is of Spanish and Portuguese descent, has become so distraught over
accusations of bigotry ... that she has taken to avoiding people."
 The city has about 36000 population and a broad ethnic mix.
	But like most of what one reads about the English only movement,
there's a great deal of debate about whether it's racist or xenophobic,
etc., and very little about the fundamental question that you raised, namely
does it in fact have any effect on the acquisition of English by the
children in the classes?"

Throughout last week, I was forwarding the responses to Barbara and
she was updating the story as things evolved. On July the 8th, she was
contacted by a reporter of the Westfield paper, and she asked me for
(and, of course, received) permission to use the materials I had in
her interview with the paper. On July the 9th, Barbara wrote:
"By the way, I heard second hand that the school committee or a
subcommittee thereof just voted this morning 3-0 not to adopt the
petitioners' request. I'll know more by this evening's news. I expect
the newspaper article that our stuff went to will appear tomorrow
morning. I'll let you know.
 This is happening quicker, and coming out more emphatically on the right
side, than I had expected."

The article appeared on Friday, July the 10th, and Barbara is likely
to post it here on Monday. As you will see, the reporter was
absolutely fascinated by the fact of the ongoing worldwide discussion
of the issue on a computer net. The same issue of the same paper ran a
syndicated column by William Raspberry on the subject. I have not yet
found a paper available here that runs Bill Raspberry.

That was the chronicle, and now for the substance of the responses.

A couple of people suggested that the petitioners' concern was about
the teachers being comprehensible to the grade school students. This
is, of course, a most legitimate concern, and many states, school
corporations, and universities have taken measures to protect their
students from incompetent English speakers. Apparently, however, this
was not the petitioners' concern, and the core of the issue was their
belief that the students would acquire the foreign accent of a

All the responses on this subject shared the conviction that it could not

Michael Covington (
"My own rather limited experience is that children aren't even influenced
by the foreign accents of their _parents_, much less teachers."

Cliff Miller (
"Of course it is possible [for a grade school student to be influenced
by the teacher's foreign accent], but it is highly unlikely that it will be
complete or long-lasting. And perhaps the more important question is:
does it matter? I grew up in several different places and my English
has undergone a number of shifts -- I even had a Japanese accent for a
while. My English is quite native now and I don't think that the
different stages it went through did it any harm...."

Craig Thiersch (
"I'm afraid I don't have any citations from linguistics literature, and our
phonologist isn't here today, but you're right: it's more or less common
knowledge that children virtually always acquire the accent of their peers,
not that of parents, teachers, or other adults. I can think of countless
examples from my own experience: for instance, I used to live in Boston,
where you can cut the local accent with a knife, and played organ for a
church in Arlington, Mass., where the pastor and his wife were from the
Mid-West. But all their children had strong "towny" Arlington accents."

Amy Sheldon (
"I was interested in learning that your daughter never acquired the
pronunciations of the 3 adults at home, when they differed from, I
assume, the local dialect. I can add that our 9 & 12 year olds do not
have any of their father's Quebec French pronunciations or
translations in their speech and on occasions when they have had his
speech forms/usage, they seem to get rid of it when they learn the
local dialect. That is, his speech does not persist in theirs. They
also recently asked me if I thought that Daddy had a foreign accent.
They said they didn't think so. I must admit, that I have to stop and
think a second before I realize that he does indeed have an accent,
and that on reflection, our kids will admit to it too. But there is a
sense in which we don't think on a minute to minute basis of him as
speaking differently from us, though certain pronunciations or
translations on occasion may strike us noticeably. I'd imagine that
students in a class with a nonnative teacher muight have the same
perceptions, esp. if the teacher is fluent in English, although having
an accent.
	This is a good "applied linguistics" example."

The only references that the discussion has yielded so far were
contributed by Catherine Doughty and Susan Ervin-Tripp.

Catherine Doughty (
"The ability "to be affected by phonology" seems to be the earliest of
thing to go in terms of maturational constraints on language
acquisition -- see the work of Johnson & Newport 1989 in Cognitive
Psychology 21. J & N set the age of the beginning of the decline at 5
or 6.

Another interesting case that is analogous in some ways but not others is
the case of Simon a profoundly deaf child of profoundly deaf parents.
Simon's parents were late acquirers of ASL (learned at ages 16 & 15) and so
provided non-native and very different versions of ASL to their child. They
are his only source of input, as Simon goes to a "normal" school where no
one knows any ASL. Simon's ASL is comparable to the ASL of children who
learn ASL from native signers -- e.g., nativelike. (Singleton 1989

Susan Ervin-Tripp (
"It would be nearly impossible for a child to be influenced by the accent
of a grade school teacher unless it was the prestige accent of the
community, and the child knew it. As Labov showed convincingly, kids
get their accents from their peers.

On the other hand, I ran into some reported cases of children who
preserved the accents of their immigrant parents, but these were
unusual cases of socially isolated children. For example, in the
clinical literature I found a case of an 8 year old who immigrated at
3, and still had "his father's accent". As he was psychoanalyzed (!)
he lost his accent, spoke like his peers, and became able to mimic the
accent at will. Buxbaum, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 18, 279-289


Victor Raskin
Professor of English and Linguistics (317) 494-3782
Chair, Interdepartmental Program in Linguistics 494-3780 fax
Coordinator, Natural Language Processing Laboratory
Purdue University
W. Lafayette, IN 47907 U.S.A.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue