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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Not All Accents Are Created Equal

It's a time-tested college horror story, frequently told amongst the ranks of the science majors and, in particular, the engineering student. How often have you kicked up your feet in the dorm lounge, your calculus textbook in hand, a mug of cheap coffee brewing in your single Mr. Coffee, and contemplated your recent "C" on your problem set? As your friend approaches, you launch into a bleary-eyed tirade about your undeserved grade, blaming everything but yourself: the professor, the class size, the course meeting time, the classroom, the textbook, and -- of course -- the person ultimately responsible for your grade, the TA. Not only can your TA not add, subtract, or do any other form of basic arithmetic, you complain, but you can not understand a word that comes out of his mouth. He is, after all, from India. And you just can't understand his accent. This is a scene that plays out time and time again in American universities as these academic institutions adjust to a rapid influx of international graduate students who hope to spend some time in America apprenticing with some of the world's greatest minds at the nation's top schools. For many graduate students, the only means of supporting their schooling is by becoming a graduate teaching assistant, meaning that they will lead a discussion section or two, grade homework, and make themselves available for out-of-class tutoring. Foreign graduate students have come under increased scrutiny lately from (predominantly White) college students and their parents furious that a foreigner "with an accent" is compromising the academic standards of their chosen university. As a student at Cornell involved in student government, one of the issues that we faced was the implementation of English-language testing for all graduate student TA's as a result of repeated complaints from students citing "incomprehensible lectures" as the reason for their failing grades. And don't get me wrong, if you can't understand what's happening in class, there's no way you can garner anything useful from attending it, and institutions should be responsible for ensuring that anyone awarded a paid TA position is able to perform adequately as a teacher. That being said, this whole outcry against foreign TA's is patently racist. Backlash against foreign TA's has unerringly targeted graduate students from Asian countries, specifically Asian Indian or Chinese TA's. The entire issue is racialized precisely because it is predominantly White students who are speaking out against teaching assistants almost universally of a specific race. Though the students have a valid point in wanting TA's they can understand, the issue turns racist when the perpetuate the stereotype of the incomprehensible TA as one who speaks in a Chinese or Hindi accent. It becomes racist when the vast majority of complaints filed against TA's are filed against Asian TA's (is a Russian or Ethiopian accent somehow more comprehensible?), when administrators demand that only certain foreign graduate students undergo English language testing (specifically those from Asian, African, or South American countries, excluding foreign graduate students from Europe), and when White students immediately transfer out of a discussion section upon seeing the race of his TA (without giving the TA a chance to demonstrate his language skills). It becomes racist because TA's of Chinese or Asian Indian descent are forced to undergo greater scrutiny and are more frequently dismissed from one of the only positions that a graduate student can sucessfully maintain while pursuing their graduate degree. Why is it that we don't see a huge outcry against the TA with the French accent, the German accent or the Russian accent? In fact, why is it that British accents, which my mother has an impossible time understanding when watching a Hollywood film set in England, is not only inoffensive to a student, but is frequently considered charming? How often have I heard the complaint from a student about his or her TA and watched them do a poor imitation of a Chinese man, deliberately slurring their "r's" and "l's" and mimicking some contemporary pidgin. It becomes even more galling when one realizes that the Asian graduate student has not only been awarded their position in America after having taken a standardized English test (mandatory for most graduate program applicants from foreign countries) but actually speaks English with better grammar than most native Americans. The "incomprehensible TA" stereotype seems harmless on its surface, but it plays into a deeper stereotype that plagues all Asian Americans: that of the Perpetual Foreigner who, on the basis of his race, is perceived as less qualified than his White, unaccented peers. It becomes apparent when this stereotype is translated to other venues that the problem lies not necessarily in the TA, but in how the TA is viewed by his students: the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype affects the student so that they are more likely to view the Asian TA as foreign and therefore incomprehensible than their German TA with an equally thick accent. The stereotype in turn perpetuates the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype in a sort of vicious self-fulfilling prophecy; the "bad TA with the impossible English" characterization is used as the basis for further stereotyping of other Asians/Asian Americans. Not only that, but the stereotype and characterization is then used to dismiss the TA's intellectual abilities, rather than his communication skills; the TA not only becomes bad at teaching, but is just plain bad. Take for example the recent newstory of a three-time Teacher of the Year nominee, Soon-Ja Kim, who has taught at a Rockville, Maryland elementary school for 2o years, who is fighting her own dismissal after complaints regarding her language skills. Though Ms. Kim has lived in America for over 30 years, she speaks with accented English, although the video interview in the link above shows that, though stilted, it is far from unintelligible. Ms. Kim was nominated by the Washington Post and other groups as Teacher of the Year, but was found to be an "underperformer" after administrators forced her into a peer evaluation program due to her accent. Her language skills aside, hundreds of students and parents have rallied to defend Ms. Kim as a talented teacher, who was able to propel her students to achieving the highest grades in reading and writing at the school. Last week, a group of my graduate student friends and I were exiting class when a foreign classmate (she is from India) felt the need to remind me and the other Asian graduate student that we needed to take our English-language tests in order to be a TA and fulfill our teaching requirements next Spring. Now from the other end, I see how humiliating it is as a graduate student to have our abilities rendered suspect because of the way we look. My college doesn't require that all graduate students take English language tests, only those who come from a "non-Westernized" country (i.e. my Asian Indian and Thai colleagues); the requirement was waived for someone like me who claims Canadian citizenship. And yet, I cringe that my Asian Indian friend is indignent because she was taught English as a child and speaks it fluently, albeit with a slight accent. I feel ill as my Thai friend apologizes incessently for his English, having internalized the stereotype that a foreign accent renders offends the listener rather than inconveniencing the speaker. Most importantly, I dread the day when I enter my classroom and see a student walk out, pre-supposing a thick accent because of the colour of my skin.

25 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's interesting. I always found my Russian TA far more incomprehensible than my Japanese one. Neither was bad enough for me to want to complain about it, though.

8/08/2006 11:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Adam said...

"Most importantly, I dread the day when I enter my classroom and see a student walk out, pre-supposing a thick accent because of the colour of my skin."

Then you call them back into the classroom with a nice "Get the f*ck back in this classroom!" In perfect English of course :-)

8/09/2006 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger kfluff said...

Adam's comment above is interesting. My first response to this same problem is to "impress" people with my language (vocabulary, etc.) but that's still anticipating their assumption.

I wonder what grad school requirements for some TA's would do with my friend, who's ethnically Chinese but nationally Scottish?

8/09/2006 10:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Carmen Van Kerckhove said...

Interesting post, Jenn. I agree with you that there's definitely some kind of inherent bias towards finding European accents "charming" but other types of accents as indicating a lack of sophistication.

But I'm not sure I agree that there is more of an outcry against TAs with Asian accents than other kinds of accents. Or at least, I haven't noticed it.

I have to admit that I when I was in college from 95-99 I had a Russian professor for my calculus class and I ended up dropping the class because it was just too tough to figure out what he was saying, especially since I was so math-dumb. I probably complained just as bitterly about it as the people you describe in your post.

8/09/2006 11:08:00 AM  
Anonymous gatamala said...

This whole TA/prof language thing is more than meets the eye.

1)Yes. I had a professor (E. African) that I had a hard time understanding. He stressed his syllables in different, sometimes incorrect, ways. Yes, I had to pay extra attention. No, I didn't call for his resignation. I realized that some people had more difficulty than others understanding him. Not every American is used to hearing English spoken by different people. Your ear does have to get attuned to the speaker.

2)For the record, I speak fluent Spanish. When I first started learning years ago, native speakers couldn't understand me. It hurt my feelings and made me really self-conscious. Even though I can speak it today, I would be scared to teach a graduate level course in Spanish to native speakers. What made a difference is learning to speak Spanish from native speakers. In the beginning, I learned from gringos. My Spanish was inferior to those from CA & who had native speakers as teachers. To learn a language you must learn to read, understand grammar, use colloquialisms appropriate to your audience, use the proper inflections to convey your mood (very difficult to learn). My Spanish will never be flawless. In fact, I speak w/ a Mexican accent w/ Mexican grammar & can barely understand some Spaniards or Cubans! It took a phonetics & pronunciation class (where we were recorded & played back in front of the class :( ), 1 year in 2 countries and a 7 year relationship w/ a fluent speaker to get where I am today! All of this for a basic command of a language. Now how much blood, sweat and tears does it take to add technical jargon, oratorical and teaching skills on top of that????

3) I'm willing to bet the most bigoted students are those who had 2 years of high-school French & never bothered to learn anything above and beyond that. After taking Spanish phonetics & pronunciation, my ear became attuned to the manner in which people articulate certain sounds in all languages! Expanding your mind makes life easier folks. It won't kill you.

4) All (that means Europe too) TAs who learned English as a second language should go through a proficiency interview. I find that the accent per se is not the problem, but the tenses and tonal inflections are.

5) Taking practical considerations into account, this 'movement' is racism. To single out a few ethnic groups when there are non-English speakers all over the world is bullshit. Blaming the professor for your failing grade is beyond bullshit - you didn't have a textbook, study group, online materials, labwork, office hours???? I guess times HAVE changed! (It's that kind of attitude that causes us to slip further and further behind the planet when it comes to math and science.) Looking at someone and walking out of the classroom is so vile that I am embarrassed. If that is how a TA is treated in an area where he/she merits respect, how is he/she treated outside class? Off campus? How will someone improve their English by being isolated and mistreated? Why would they want to even try?

6) There's more to this than 'L' & 'R'. Advanced degrees in the sciences are top jobs and have traditionally been a white man's domain. There are an increasing number of foreign students and professionals going into certain fields to make up for the lack of Americans going into these fields. It's classic 'taking our jobs' syndrome. Asian & Asian-American scientists, in particular, have discussed representation lower level & mid-level positions, yet being grossly underrepresented in the upper eschelons of academia and research. Job discrimination doesn't necessarily work from the top down. By giving these TAs a hard time in evaluations and by requiring unfair impediments to degree requirements and full-time status, these white students are ensuring that the glass ceiling stays nice and thick.

8/09/2006 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger L L said...

As an undergrad I had two horrible math TA's. One was Asian, and his English was not very good. His accent aside, he didn't speak in full sentances or use correct verb tenses. The other was a native born American who could speak perfectly fine, but his response to any question was to repeat the last sentence he said, period. I did about equally poorly in both classes.

Then I graduated and spent three years teaching English in Japan (freelance, no program). Wow, what an eye-opener. I went to a foreign country and I didn't speak a work of Japanese that wasn't food related. I really learned how to listen to the sounds that other people made when they spoke. I came back and went to grad school, and had a professor from Taiwan who had a strong accent and a stutter, and I had no problems understanding a word she said, while some of my classmates did.

Part of the foreign TA issue is racism and expectations, and part is the fact that English speaking Americans grow up speaking one language, learning a foreign language poorly from other native English speakers, and don't know how to LISTEN with the intent to comprehend someone. A slight shift in the vowel sounds, and everyday English words can become incomprehensible, if you have no practice in shifting your expectations for what you will hear. There is an entitlement complex among Americans that the world is supposed to bend over backwards to make itself comprehensible to us, and that we don't need to extend ourselves to understand others, which is just toxic.

8/09/2006 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Nio said...

What do you offer up as a solution?

8/09/2006 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a viewpoint from 20 years education, 20 more years teaching. I get aggravated when I hear students complain before giving an honest effort to understand. Yes, there are a few students and profs who just shouldn't TA or lecture /run seminars, or who need coaching. Some have basic problems with teaching technique (my initial problem was to mumble in perfectly good native-accent English), and some have incredibly thick accents and poor spoken vocabulary. I haven't run across many of the latter. I tend to be biased, however, since I work around a large range of nationalities, and my evaluation of "too difficult to understand readily" is going to be different from some 18 year old's evaluation, simply because I have much more experience. I do see some racism at work in those students who don't give an honest shot at understanding a non-white TA or prof. Often the TA/prof has more precise and grammatical English than the student!

NancyP

8/09/2006 02:28:00 PM  
Anonymous sa@bonasi.com said...

Oh God. As a [white] engineering student, I can attest that no matter what the accent, it generally takes me only a couple of classes to be able to fully understand my professor. It's. Not. That. Difficult.

But hey, when have white folk ever taken responsibility for their own failings? Have a C? Quick! Blame a minority!

8/10/2006 02:38:00 AM  
Blogger twf said...

I think a TA who has trouble with the language is presenting a legitimate issue. More than that, though, is that TAs generally have no formal training in teaching and are often terrible at their jobs. I've been a TA for three years, and I'm still pretty bad at it, and I did have a small amount of formal training, which improved my skills significantly.

But requiring Asians to be tested while excluding Europeans? That's just plain racist. I can't believe a school could get away with that.

8/10/2006 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

"What do you offer up as a solution?"

Rather than requiring English language tests, why not have TA's undergo better formal training at the start of the year, to encourage help with communication skills that English and non-English speakers alike will need help with. Graduate TA's need to go to mandatory sessions to help them learn to teach.

Peer reviewing sessions would also be more beneficial than English language tests -- all TA's should be enrolled in programs that give them ongoing evaluations of their teaching skill by peers who are not going to grade down based on an accent but rather on their ability to answer questions.

English language tests should be done away with entirely, and TA's should be assumed to have the necessary skills based on their TOEFL scores. Or, if you want to test communication skills, test communication skills for all graduate TA's (American or otherwise) and exclude or downweight accent as a factor.

Finally, TA's who feel that their language skills aren't up to snuff (most foreigners for whom English is a second language are more conscious of a problem, not less) need support from the graduate college. ESL classes should be offered at reasonable hours and for free to interested graduate TAs and graduate TAs who make an effort to improve their English should be protected from firing.

8/10/2006 12:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Nio said...

I think those are fantastic suggestions. What is the reality that any of them, even just one, will be implemented?

8/10/2006 04:37:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I think it's very feasible. First of all, graduate students should unionize, as they do in many institutions. This allows for them to have an advocate in affairs like these, and also provides for a means of leverage to get what the basic rights we deserve.

Also, these English language tests were implemented because of undergraduate students who advocated against their foreign graduate TA's. It was a grassroots movement that worked up to the administration. A counter-movement can move the same way.

All we need is someone willing to take up the cause at their institution.

8/10/2006 04:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

I actually TA'd a course when I was a graduate student.

Note that the complaining isn't limited to graduate students - I knew profs who were criticized for having an unintelligable accent. If you go to ratemyprofessor.com you'll find plenty. It's just that grad students are a lot more vulnerable because they don't have perceived authority.

I do like a formal program to help foreign grad students, which isn't limited to the Asian countries - I knew plenty of people from Iran, Europe, South America, etc., and most of them have at least some problems with English, except perhaps people from English-speaking countries, but the only complaints I remember were directed to East Asians. My friend pissed me off when she suggested that one of my graduate friends wasn't speaking clearly, though I thought it was a psychological thing (it's not clear because you perceive them as foreign). It wasn't the only thing I was pissed about, I corrected her when she thought he was Chinese (he was actually South Korean), then she fell back on "you all look the same." Sigh. The worst thing was, she's an immigrant herself but she's perceived to be white in North America, and on top of this we're Canadian which means it's nearly impossible to make white people understand "privilege" because everything seems harmonious, when in fact it isn't.

Anyways, That's a huge tangent and my point is that 1) yes, there's not much of a formal teaching process - we had around 3-4 days of training to be a TA and that was it for us. Luckily, I had taken the course before and knew it inside and out so lack of teaching experience wasn't so bad. and 2) most Universities care more about their research than teaching, which is unfortunate but research brings in the money. 3) Where are you getting these students that are so attentive? Half of the students in my class cared very little about TAs until midterms or finals, or the course was known to be brutal. 4) It's easier for students because they were brought in more or less together (orientation etc) while grad students are not. We make an effort in our specialization to welcome new people, particularly as we have several disciplines in our specialization, but it takes effort.

8/10/2006 05:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

white kids are getting lazier and lazier, they will make any excuse for their laziness. If they can't cheat to win, or win without any effort they blame others. THis is pure RACISM and DISCRIMINATION.
I have personally witnessed their racism and discrimination in a well known Northern California College.

8/10/2006 10:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can Russia be considered Westernized? It's not in the West. Why don't the TA's protest that it's discrimination to test only non-Europeans?

8/10/2006 10:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Nio said...

All we need is someone willing to take up the cause at their institution.

And are you that persyn at your institution? If not, why?

8/11/2006 01:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Aaron said...

Jenn, are there any studies that demonstrate that "the vast majority of complaints filed against TA's are filed against Asian TA's," or is that just a hunch? The issue of Asian Americans as "perpetual foreigners" is vital, of course, but from my experience European TAs get a lot of criticism too. In my freshman year of college I had a Norwegian TA for multivariable calc who was practically incomprehensible and absolutely could not answer students' questions. I'm not sure if there were any official complaints registered, but the (mostly white and Asian American) members of our section frequently commiserated about it. On the other hand, the next semester I had a Romanian TA who had an accent, but was really accessible outside of class and gave us a lot of individual attention.

The image you construct is one of spoiled rich white kids who can't make the grade and then decide to raise hell about the accent of their Asian TA to deflect attention from their poor academic performance. I think you'd have to acknowledge that it's a little more complicated than that. It's hardly true that only white kids complain about incomprehensible TAs. Remember also that international students can have an even tougher time understanding a TA from another country (say, a Korean student with a Russian TA). Anyway, instead of mandatory English testing, I think recording a sample class session and receiving feedback on it is a much better method (this is what my school did, for both American and foreign TAs, although TAs volunteered for the process and any criticism that resulted would not threaten their positions).

8/11/2006 02:01:00 PM  
Anonymous sk said...

Very interesting post. I like your write-up about yourself; it made me laugh, especially the bit about "Where are you from originally?".
I've been complimented on my English thus: "Even though you have an accent, you speak perfect English". Oh well, there's a compliment in there somewhere.

And I'm Indian, so I don't think I can be mistaken for a person from Korea; yet the other day a supervisor said to me, "Maybe S (Korean student) will talk to you because you're a paisano". Looked up "paisano" to find it means "countryman"!!

8/11/2006 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Thanks everyone for your comments!!

Jay: Yeah, we are required to do a full-semester teaching workshop before we TA, and I think that will be helpful in addressing communication issues. We also do a public speaking thing the semester prior so we get comfortable speaking in front of audiences. I do agree that graduate TA's are thrown into the teaching process without any preparation. Furthermore, I couldn't agree more with the fact that it extends to faculty as well, but thankfully students don't wield as much power over faculty and cannot really jeopardize their careers as much.

Anonymous (1) & (2): thanks for reading! I have no idea why Russia would or would not be considered Westernized, I just rarely see Russian TA's being formally targeted.

Nio: Unfortunately not. My chosen issue for this year is as student representative on my program's recruiting committee with the express goal of increasing overall applicant numbers and, specifically, to increase the number of applicants of colour. My program is woefully monochromatic and now is an extremely good time for me to try and advocate for structural changes in the recruitment process to improve those numbers since we are overhauling the entire program on an administrative level. I wouldn't be able to devote my time to that goal and the goal of advocating to end the racism of graduate TA treatment. Also, at the moment, the graduate school is in flux since we're trying to determine what student governing body we belong to, and I would hope that as soon as we get that straightened out, our student representative will address this issue.

Aaron: Damn, you asked the question! :p No, I haven't found studies (mostly because I haven't looked) -- that assessment was based upon anecdotal evidence collected when the issue of English language tests came up at my undergraduate institution. For about a year, that was the hot-button issue, and almost universally, Asian TA's were being targeted by complaints lodged to the student governing body and recorded in the local student-run paper. I think the problem of the Korean student with a Russian TA is important, but I think the fact that the student is ESL personally prohibits them from complaining -- they feel self-conscious about their own language skills so don't complain about their TA so much as blame themselves.

SK: glad you enjoyed the about section! About being called Korean; how very strange! Was the person incredibly, incredibly confused or did they maybe just not know what paisano means?

8/11/2006 06:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Heather said...

I work with a veterinarian who is Indian. I've fielded phone calls from several people who refuse to speak to her because "they can't understand a word she says." She has an accent but it is not that strong. Anyone willing to just listen would have no problem understanding her. But I think that people hear the first few words with an accent and just decide that the person can't speak. The sad thing is that she has said that she does not speak English with her son because she doesn't want him picking up her "wrong" accent.

8/13/2006 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Heather -- that's awful! I would say I couldn't understand that except my mother had the same mentality. She also was very embarassed about her English and eventually, when we became good at it, even though she understands the language, she usually got us to speak with English clerks for her.

8/13/2006 04:07:00 PM  
Anonymous SK said...

Jenn: I think in this case the person in question really thought I might be East Asian and not South Asian. Now this is going to sound a bit odd, but I have straight shoulder length dark hair, and I've always wondered whether she saw the hair and thought "Aha, must be from Korea just like S (the Korean student)". Don't get me started about the supervisor who called me "Shirley" and asked me every two days if I spoke Spanish and could I talk to a Spanish-speaking parent at school.

Heather: I feel sad about your story. One should never feel bad about the way one sounds/looks/dresses etc. I have US-born cousins who used to make fun of me until I pointed out that they also had an accent- an American one, and some of the things they said sounded as odd to me. Of course I was not as polite about my phrasing and they left me alone after that. I am an Indian-accented English speaker and I will of course make efforts to speak slower if needed, but I am not going to say "skedule". I've bloody had it with being made fun of, and since I've just been offered three jobs, I humbly conclude that my accented English has not hindered me in any way.

8/13/2006 05:01:00 PM  
Anonymous sk said...

Or maybe the complaints will pour in once I start working at my new job....!

8/13/2006 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger sailorman said...

I've had a few professors who were unintelligible to me. And yes--I complained about them. That they were nonwhite doesn't make it racist, as many of my OTHER professors were also nonwhite, and--happily--were possible to understand.

This isn't a globalization/racism issue like you're making it out to be. I don't think everyone (or anyone) is required to speak English at all. But if I'm paying well over $20,000 per year for the privilege of being lectured by someone, then I expect the school to hire someone who I can understand. Otherwise I'm paying for a service I do not receive.

It is also true that I am better capable of understanding some accents than others. This, too, is not inherently racist. The understanding is gained from exposure: In a world where, unfortunately, modern film and media vastly prioritize white actors, the result is that most people are better able to understand accents from white cultures. See "layer cake" and "lock stock and 2 smoking barrels" and the like, and you'll pick up a British accent. European accents are everywhere, from James Bond films to television. Is it any surprise that more people are likely to understand them?

The only true racism you describe here is the improper (and incorrect) assumption that whites will be intelligible and nonwhites will not be intelligible. This is worthy of condemnation. But the experience of finding a nonwhite unintelligible is not racist in any way.

An unintelligible professor is in many ways similar to an uneducated professor. Both of them are not getting knowledge into the students' heads, albeit for different reasons. And both are inappropriate in a fee-for-service world. I enjoy learning, hearing, and speaking foreign languages. I just don't want to do so during a $120 per hour organic chemistry class.

8/22/2006 09:06:00 AM  

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