Widgets Magazine


Incoherent and incompetent: The consequences of accent discrimination

Like most undergraduates, Stanford students readily criticize their professors’, TAs’ and lecturers’ teaching abilities. And given the investment that students make to attend college, their desire to obtain high-quality teaching is entirely legitimate. However, among the most salient of complaints, one has far too frequently been misused and unsubstantiated.

“They can’t even speak English.”

This blanket statement is often thrown around by college students to describe professors with even the slightest of accents. At Stanford, where students profess to being anti-bigoted, we would expect them to think twice before making inflammatory statements on others’ quality of English. Instead, however, it still remains acceptable to castigate foreign-born professors and TAs for their supposed inability to communicate in English — an issue that has both racial and cultural implications.

On several occasions, I have had classmates proudly proclaim to me that from a list of options they selected their TA or professor based on “how foreign their name sounded,” in order to maximize their learning experience. The casual and unapologetic tendency of students to advertise their discriminatory beliefs about the nationality of their teachers completely undermines the level of political correctness that many Stanford students work to achieve. Although it is typically frowned upon to express blatantly racist, sexist or homophobic viewpoints, revealing a desire to avoid foreign teachers seems to have no similar consequences.

An SF Gate article attests to the minimal effort that students tend to put forth in understanding their professors. The article tells the story of several students at UC Berkeley who spent three weeks attempting to decipher the meaning of “auto-Italian,” which eventually turned out to be “authoritarian.” Although I’m sure this was a frustrating time for them, it is unfair for students to denounce their professors for having thick accents when they cannot even make the effort to understand the meaning of a single word, even when used in context. While the true meaning of “auto-Italian” may not have been immediately obvious, with a minimal amount of effort, or a mere request for clarification, the students could have resolved the issue.

Furthermore, in many cases, the quality and comprehensibility of professors’ English is exaggerated. The fact is that English fluency is a prerequisite for even applying to Stanford, not to mention getting in or being hired. To apply, graduate school applicants are required to obtain at least a 100 out of 120 on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). On top of this requirement, graduate students who wish to become teaching assistants face an additional English language screening to ensure they are prepared for the job. This screening is quite comprehensive and evaluates both the quality and pronunciation of their English. Equally rigorous screenings are also certainly required for professors, who undergo lengthy interviews before being hired.

Unfortunately, students’ discriminatory attitudes have non-trivial consequences for professors and TAs, as many students fail to understand the key distinction between the ability to speak English and the presence of a non-American accent. Given the high percentage of graduate students hailing from abroad, students at Stanford are bound to encounter a number of TAs and professors with foreign accents. Thus, instead of shutting down and labeling what could be an easily navigable accent as insurmountable, students must learn to adapt to pronunciations that do not precisely match their native tongue.

Additionally, it’s important to recognize that accents do not necessarily impede teaching ability. Neglecting to do so can disadvantage excellent professors, who may receive terrible evaluations for a portion of their teaching that is almost completely out of their control.  As it stands, the correlation between poor learning experiences and professors with accents is more driven by prejudice than teaching quality.

In fact, a recent study published by Nicholas Subtirelu found this to be true. Subtirelu examined discriminatory trends on ‘Rate my Professor’ and revealed that professors with common Korean or Chinese last names received significantly worse evaluations than their American-named counterparts. More specifically, their ‘clarity’ and ‘helpfulness’ scores were severely hampered by their nationality. Subtirelu links these attitudes with accent biases, as many students’ comments specifically complain about their “Asian” professor’s accent.

Because a significant portion of international academics are from Asian countries, China, India, Taiwan, etc., the issue of accent discrimination is also highly racial. Subtirelu’s study points out a particular bias against east-Asian accents that is highly problematic. While academics of European descent certainly face similar issues, their discrimination does not take on quite the same saliency as their colleagues of color.

Although condemning students for their xenophobia may not completely eliminate their prejudices, just as anti-racist movements have not abolished racism, we cannot allow them to go uncriticized. In addition to creating a safer environment for international students and professors, erasing these prejudices may very well help alleviate students’ dissatisfaction with their learning experiences. In order to adequately support an anti-oppressive campus culture, it is therefore crucial that we brand the xenophobic statements about professors’ accents with the same mark of bigotry that other discriminatory statements receive.

Contact Elena Marchetti-Bowick at elenamb ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Elena Marchetti-Bowick

Elena Marchetti-Bowick '17 is a contributor for The Stanford Daily from Syracuse, New York. She is a sophomore majoring in economics with an interest in policy analysis. Her passions include cooking, playing tennis, and sunshine. To contact her, please email her at elenamb 'at' stanford.edu.
  • Mya

    If you’re educating at a university that effectively functions in English, your English-communication skills should be up to par. Students should not have to expend significant amounts of energy just to understand their professors–they should have to significantly work to understand the material that is being presented. How can a student be expected to learn and grasp material they’ve never seen before if they can’t even understand the professor or TA who is presenting that material?