LINGUIST List 3.566

Tue 14 Jul 1992

Disc: Accents in the Classroom

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Peter D. Junger, Accents
  2. Geoffrey Nunberg, accents
  3. Vicki Fromkin, Re: 3.562 Accents: LINGUIST in the news
  4. , 3.562 Accents: LINGUIST in the news

Message 1: Accents

Date: Sat, 11 Jul 92 15:06:08 EDT
From: Peter D. Junger <>
Subject: Accents
 On Friday, July 10, 1992 the United Press distributed the
following proprietary story, which relates to the ongoing discussion of
teachers and accents. (There are a large number of related stories that
appeared in major newspapers over the last few months. One can find
them if one has access to the NEXIS library within the LEXIS electronic
full-text data base. If you don't have access to Lexis and want to find
an article on the subject in a particular newspaper around a certain
date, I may be able to find it for you.
 -------------------------------CUT HERE-------------------------------
 Foreign accents won't keep teachers out of elementary school
classrooms in Westfield, school officials have ruled, rejecting a ban
proposed by a group of parents.
 The petition was presented by parents concerned that heavily accented
 teachers should not instruct youngsters in the formative first and second
 The School Committee's curriculum subcommittee Thursday rejected
the petition after being advised it would be discriminatory and
constitutionally unenforceable.
 Mayor George Varelas, a leading supporter of the petition and
one who speaks with a heavy Greek accent, said he will go along with the
committee's decision but still believed such a ban was a good idea.
 ''When they presented me the petition, they asked me very vital
question. They said, 'George, you got couple degrees, you have a
master's degree in education, criminal justice, do you presume yourself
able to teach first and second?' And I said 'Hell no, not me, or anybody
like me,' and the reason I think is obvious in your ears, to your
ears,'' the mayor said.
 The petition stated that its supporters ''strenuously object to
the employment of any person for the purpose of educating children on
the primary level who is not thoroughly proficient in the English
language in terms of grammar, syntax, and most important, the accepted
and standard use of pronunciation.''
 The petition began circulating several weeks ago after a
bilingual teacher whose first language is Spanish was assigned to teach
a class conducted in English.
 State Education Secretary Piedad Ferrer Robertson earlier had
condemned the petition drive, saying it appeared to be ''discrimination,
plain and simple.''
 ''Teachers should be judged on their effectiveness and their
ability to engender excitement about learning, not on whether they have
an accent,'' she said.
Peter D. Junger
Case Western Reserve University Law School, Cleveland, OH
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Message 2: accents

Date: Sun, 12 Jul 1992 10:34:55 PDT
From: Geoffrey Nunberg <>
Subject: accents
	Linguists interested in accent discrimination may want to look at a
1991 article in the Yale Law Journal (100: 1329-1407) by Mari Matsuda
called "Voices of America: Accent, Antidiscrimination Law, and a
Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction." Matsuda is a professor of law
at UCLA and Hawaii who is associated with the critical legal theory
movement. She reviews several cases involving discrimination against people
with either foreign or nonstandard accents, and discusses the legal basis
for remedying such discrimination under existing civil rights provisions.
	One case that Matsuda discusses, for example, is Kahakua v.
Hallgren, which was heard in the Ninth Circuit Court in 1987. James Kahakua
is a native-born Hawaiian with an acrolectal creole accent. He has a B. S.
degree and worked for several years as chief meterological officer at a an
army installation in Hawaii. In 1985 he applied for a job advertised by the
Honolulu office of the National Weather Service, which involved among other
things recording weather announcements for broadcast to local boaters. The
Weather Service didn't dispute his general qualifications, but said that
his accent was unacceptable; they gave the job instead to an Ohio-born
applicant who had no degree and a minimal meteorological background.
Kahakua sued the Weather Service under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act,
which forbids discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. The
case was heard by M. D. Crocker, a visiting judge from Fresno, California.
Crocker ruled that the Weather Service was justified in insisting on a
standard English accent as a job qualification. He said that "standard
English pronunciation should be used by radio broadcasters," and added that
"there is no race or physiological reason why Kahakua could not have used
standard English pronunciations." Matsuda also reports that "the judge
discounted the testimony of the linguist who stated that Hawaiian Creole
pronunciation is not incorrect, rather it is one of the many varieties of
pronunciation of standard English. The linguist, the judge stated, was not
an expert in speech." (I haven't looked at the decision and can't say how
the judge justified this conclusion.)
	Matsuda observes that the courts have been willing to entertain the
proposition that refusal to hire a person on the grounds of accent may
constitute a violation of Title VII. The problem is that defendants in such
cases invariably argue that the plaintiff's accent makes him or her
difficult to understand, and so impedes the performance of job duties in
positions requiring communication. In every case brought to date, the
courts have accepted this argument, on the basis of the judge's subjective
evaluation of the plaintiff's speech. The difficulty is in finding
objective tests for "comprehensibility," all the more because it is well
known that unconscious racial or class bias may affect someone's perception
of the degree to which an accent is comprehensible. Then too, criteria of
comprehensibility should vary according to the nature of the communication
required in the job -- whether it involves public contact, for example.
Which raises the question: could linguistic procedures provide a more
objective measure of comprehensibility that could be invoked by plaintiffs
in cases like these?
-Geoff Nunberg
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Message 3: Re: 3.562 Accents: LINGUIST in the news

Date: Mon, 13 Jul 92 07:40 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 3.562 Accents: LINGUIST in the news
A most welcome article. Thanks Barbara. And thanks once again
to Anthony Aristar and Helen Dry for keeping the LINGUIST net
going. I still don't see how they manage it and they really deserve a place
in the linguistic Hall of Fame for their great contribution of welding
the field together and keeping us all in touch and learning from each
Vicki Fromkin
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Message 4: 3.562 Accents: LINGUIST in the news

Date: Mon, 13 Jul 92 17:04:34 EDT
From: <>
Subject: 3.562 Accents: LINGUIST in the news
Am I the only one who believes that kids can quite easily
pick up the pronunciations of individual lexical items,
especially learned words, from adults rather than from
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