Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Linguistic policy gone bad

The Arizona Department of Education, motivated by No Child Left Behind policy, has recently instituted a policy to remove teachers with "heavily accented or ungrammatical" English from teaching English in Arizona schools.

Here is a Wall Street Journal article that reports on the policy.

A significant number of professors from the U. of Arizona prepared the following statement, which explains problems with this policy:

In addition, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), an international professional organization for English teachers, released this reaction:

A couple of reactions of my own:
1. "Accent" and "fluency" are not the same thing.
In this case, I assume that the words "fluent" and "fluency" are being used as a general measurement of overall proficiency in the language. It is quite a common, but incorrect, belief that the "heaviness" of someone's accent reflects how proficient they are with a language. Many people who learned English after another language speak English with an accent, but that does not mean that their English is ungrammatical or bad. In my work, for example, I interact with a number of professors and graduate students who speak with accents because they are non-native speakers of English, but whose English proficiency is good enough to write papers for research journals, teach university classes, and otherwise contribute to the academic community. The fact that "heavily accented" is being used as a criterion to decide that teachers aren't fit to teach English suggests that the creators of the policy based the policy on their own opinions about language rather than linguistic fact and research. Current research shows that foreign-accented English is no less intelligible to non-native speakers than native-accented English. (In fact, two colleagues and I are currently engaged in a research project about this very phenomenon.) Just because a native speaker thinks they can't understand a teacher doesn't mean the students will not.

2. It is not bad to learn a language from a non-native speaker.
Non-native speakers who teach language often have some distinct advantages over their native-speaker peers. Since native speakers of a language can use the language without having explicit conscious knowledge of grammar, often non-native speakers have a superior knowledge of the patterns of how the language works. Because they have had the experience of learning the language after their native language, they are familiar with the pitfalls their students might have and are therefore able to help students avoid them. In addition, if the teacher shares another language with the student, that language can be used to explain things that the student might not be getting when they are explained in English. Research shows that language learners do not learn mistakes from each other. In other words, just because students are exposed to grammatical mistakes that the teacher makes does not mean that the students will acquire those same grammatical mistakes.

3. Good teaching is more than just knowledge of the subject to be taught.
I think many people have had experiences where they had a teacher who was very knowledgeable on the subject, but just couldn't do a good job of teaching it to others. In the case of English teaching, just because a person is able to speak English does not make that person qualified to teach it to others. This is why at my university, for example, we have a TESOL certificate program that takes a minimum of a year of coursework for people to become educated in how to teach English to non-native speakers. A teacher with lower English proficiency, but good teaching skills, may be more effective at helping students than a poor teacher with high proficiency.

4. Reassignment of teachers is problematic.
First of all, teachers cannot be simply reassigned to other classes because sometimes they don't have the necessarily skills and certifications in the new subject they are supposed to teach. You can't take a history teacher, for example, and assign them to teach math. Second, if jobs already exist that these teachers don't have, won't the jobs already be filled by other teachers? Third, and most importantly, it is hard to imagine that anywhere in Arizona, a teacher could be assigned to a class that didn't include some English language learners. Just because a student has been "mainstreamed" does not mean that they can't benefit from additional language-learning help. In fact, because of this, where I live, all new teachers entering the field are required to have an ESL endorsement. So reassigning teachers to other classes would not remove them from interacting with ESL students, and therefore the policy would not have the intended effect of protecting (as it were) ESL learners from non-native English.

To be fair to the Arizona Department of Education, apparently they are not solely to blame for this poorly-conceived idea. According to the Wall Street Journal article referenced above, in order to receive No Child Left Behind funds the state should ensure that English students are being taught by "fluent" speakers. However, Arizona has chosen to define fluency by including accentedness as one of the criteria. The Arizona Department of Education should inform itself of current linguistic research before making policies of this type.