Arizona outlaws accents

Well, for teachers, at least.

The faculty of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona have released a statement condemning the policy, based on eight separate points supported by linguistics research. Points 6 and 7 cut to the heart of the political issue:

6) There are many different ‘accents’ within English that can affect intelligibility, but the policy targets foreign accents and not dialects of English.

7) Communicating to students that foreign accented speech is ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ is counterproductive to learning, and affirms pre‐existing patterns of linguistic bias and harmful ‘linguistic profiling’.

But I suppose it’s a sign of my own priorities that my first and strongest reaction to Arizona’s accent ban is the one the linguists address last:

8) There is no such thing as ‘unaccented’ speech, and so policies aimed at eliminating accented speech from the classroom are paradoxical.

When we say that someone has an ‘accent’, what we are really saying is that they speak in a way that sounds ‘different’ from a particular standard, or from our own pronunciation. Speakers are fully capable of drawing inferences about any person’s place of origin, age, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status based on the way we talk – and this is certainly true for speakers of American English). Since all human linguistic production is characterized by particular patterns of sound that allow others to draw these conclusions, it is axiomatic that all of us speak ‘with an accent’. The standard for instruction ought to be speaker intelligibility, not speaker identity – and intelligibility is distinct from ‘accentedness’.