Chopping the “Wild Tongue”

“I remember being caught speaking Spanish at recess—that was good for three licks on the knuckles with a sharp ruler. I remember being sent to the corner of the classroom for ‘talking back’ to the Anglo teacher when all I was trying to do was tell her how to pronounce my name. ‘If you want to be American, speak ‘American.’ If you don’t like it, go back to Mexico where you belong.’” Gloria Anzaldua

Earlier this year, public schools in Arizona began “auditing” English teachers who speak English with an accent. If they are deemed to be “poor speakers,” as measured by the so called Standard English dialect, they can be fired regardless of their years of teaching experience, training, or instructional excellence. Such enforcement has caused much outrage as you will see in the videos below.

But this unfortunate “crack down” in Arizona isn’t new. The privileging of standard dialect in the English teaching business has been going on long before Arizona began its ridiculous policy in May of this year. To teach English abroad, for instance, one must (in most cases) be a native. (Some EFL jobs don’t even require a degree. As long as you are a native, that’s all that matters.)  Look at EFL job postings online, and you’ll see that I’m not kidding. I actually know about this from experience. While finishing up my bachelor in English, I became interested in teaching English abroad, but I noticed that all of the jobs I wanted required that I am a native speaker—and I am not. There are times when I still speak with an accent, and even though I have a B.A. and an M.A. in English, as well as a graduate certificate in TESOL, I am still deemed unqualified. Recently, our graduate director forwarded a job announcement for teaching in Korea or Hong Kong, and again, being a native speaker is a must to apply.

So how and when did “nativeness” and “proper” accent become such important issues in the teaching of English? When did it all being? We can trace the obsession with “correctness,” “proper” pronunciation, and “standard dialect” back to Edinburgh, Scotland in the 18th century, when a professor of rhetoric and belles letters in the name of Hugh Blair published his famous work: Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters.

In his work, Blair lays down the importance of using proper English, which he believes is a reflection of a man’s taste, gentlemanliness, refined character, and class. Blair goes as way as to claim that “good taste” is rooted within reason, good sense and nature. It’s a deep down part of our humanity. Thus, those who use “bad English”—i.e. speak with a provincial accent, mispronounce words, or use improper grammar—would be considered “ungentlemanly” and have bad taste. In fact, according to Linda Ferreira-Buckley and Winifred Horner, an important educational agenda in 18th century Great Britain was to rid British citizens of their “rusticisms” and train them to speak correct and proper English so that they could become English gentlemen and exhibit exquisite refined taste that is appropriate for an English man. Interest in English as the national language came to fruition in this period. Grammar, pronunciation, and standard accent were all important skills that English citizens must master.

Three centuries later, we continue to be obsessed with these 18th century standards and expectations. What’s happening to English teachers in Arizona today can be traced back to Blair’s influence. His beliefs and calls are now being enforced in modern day America. And this makes me wonder: How forward thinking is our educational system after all? Aren’t we witnessing another kind of linguistic terrorism that Chicana feminist writer Gloria Anzaldua has protested and warned against? What, then, might we, as rhetoricians and compositionists, do to create change—to tame all of the bigot’s tongues that are creating dissonance in Arizona and America at large? Thoughts?


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2 Responses to Chopping the “Wild Tongue”

  1. Jim Porter says:

    Great job of connecting rhetoric history to contemporary developments! I wonder to what extent our curricula in the Department of English, particularly the composition program, are complicit, maybe unconsciously, in the effort to standardize English. Isn’t the Hacker Handbook just another version of Blair, slightly toned down? What are the assumptions about language underlying the pedagogy of the style handbook? And are these assumptions possibly bigoted? If, as a teacher of first-year composition, you correct students’ grammar, spelling, punctuation, citation format, are you participating in the same class bias as Blair … teaching your students to be little English gentlemen, or maybe corporate gentlemen? Or am I overstating the connection?

  2. mwatts1280 says:

    Such an interesting post… I remember when I first heard about Arizona’s crackdown on accents, and I wondered which accents exactly were considered tainted. Are southern accents ok? What if I have an English accent? Is this acceptable? Somehow I doubt this crackdown would apply to accents associated with whiteness. I worry about Arizona.

    Then again, i worry about us as composition teachers because I believe, yes, comp instruction is still haunted by the ghost of Blair’s English gentleman. “Correct” English is not correct. “Correct” English is code for Standard English, and the standards are white, middle-class word choices and sentence constructions, spoken in a midwestern accent, which apparently, is the same as having no accent at all.

    I think that our awareness of Blair’s English gentleman is an important first step to begin speaking to these biases, though. Also, teaching “code switching” seems both ethical and rhetorical. Is it possible to be a good rhetoric teacher if you do not teach code switching? I say no. This is good stuff.

    At the same time, even this seems inadequate to me because not all codes are created equal. If I am teaching the same English 111 curriculum to a student brought up in an environment where Standard English was the norm and a student who speaks AAVE, I would argue that generally the former has an overall speaking/writing advantage over the latter even if I teach them both how to code switch as they write for different audiences–at least as they take these skills to market. Regardless of what I privilege as a comp instructor, American Standard English will still be considered correct in other classes and outside the university as well. This phenomenon has been on my mind big time as of late, since I’m teaching a section of BUS 102. In business contexts, correct is just that–“correct.” Period. It’s not raced or classed, and if you want to succeed, you learn to be correct. I totally disagree with this kind of thinking, yet it exists.

    What if we teach code switching by stressing the rhetorical aspects of a writing situation, but then also acknowledge that there is a “standard” that we’ve inherited from years of biased thinking? Wouldn’t we just be affirming what students already know (or have internalized) and then offering them a possible way to respond to a biased standard?

    As for the Arizona crackdown and other Arizona antics… a little sanity could perhaps go a long way…

    Thanks for such an awesome post!

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