Did you know that British kids’ TV, if broadcast in the US, is generally dubbed with American accents? Or that British sitcoms tend to be remade for the US market rather than broadcast? Oh, cable for the elite might pick them up, but the free-to-air channels are unlikely to.

In North Dakota, the Chronicle writes, a bill has just been proposed to allow students to vote out teachers who speak with un-American accents. Students are consumers, Ms. Grande, who proposed the bill, stresses, and should get their money back if they say they can’t understand their teacher. If 10% of the students in a class (so, 2 students in a class of 20) say they can’t understand the teacher, the teacher should be permanently banned from teaching.

One issue is that many suburban Americans are kept blissfully (and surprisingly) monocultural and shielded from unfamiliar accents. Another is the question of whether students should have such arbitrary power over instructors (I don’t like her, let’s say she speaks funny) and yet another is that it’s not just about intelligibility. In the article, an experiment is described where two groups of students were played the same audio tape of a lecture given by a man with a standard Ohio accent. Half the group saw images of a white American while half were shown an Asian. The students who’d seen the Asian did 20% worse on subsequent tests than the students who’d seen a white American.

It should be a graduation requirement that students are able to understand well-formed but accented English, Rubin, the man behind the experiments, says to the journalist.

The woman who proposed the bill disagrees:

At this notion, Ms. Grande balks. She thinks of all the countries she has visited — Israel, Egypt, Honduras. “In every place, what was the main thing they wanted to do?” Ms. Grande asks. “To communicate with the American. They knew that, throughout their lives, if they wanted advancement they would have to do everything they could to communicate with us.”

Can you believe the bigotry, the jingoism?

I wonder if they ever conducted the test with the audio and the images with a man and a woman. You could play an audio tape of one of those androgynous voices, and show a man and woman’s images to different groups of students. Given that The History Channel has a policy to only use male narrators, since female narrators aren’t seen as equally authoritative, I’d not be surprised if students score worse if they think their teacher is female. Or African American or in a wheelchair or old or young.

How about letting students vote on that. Get a refund if their teacher is too female or British or Indian? After all, you’ve been around. It’s obvious: “In every place, what was the main thing they wanted to do? To communicate with the Man. They knew that, throughout their lives, if they wanted advancement they would have to do everything they could to communicate with us.”

Yeah, keep using only male narrators, dub the Teletubbies and only allow Ohio-accented teachers in universities. (via Profgrrrl)

13 thoughts on “accents

  1. profgrrrrl

    I’m so glad you addressed that last bit of the article. It horrified me too, but I was preoccupied wtih other aspects of the article.

  2. William Wend

    Wow what a disturbing article.

  3. Sindre

    I’m almost at a loss for words, can anyone be that idiotic and ignorant ?
    If that bill passes I feel sorry for the students. Aside from that british is _not_ that hard to understand, atleast not when you come from an english speaking country youself. Maybe she’s met a drunk scotsman, but considering her statments I find i rather hard to belive that she’s even been outside her “own” country. I’d have much more to say if I could only keep the thoughts in my head straight..

    Suddenly I see a whole new range of courses at american universities british 101: Basic british, students will be required to understand the following material at the end of the course Monty Python, Red Dwarf and Only fools and horses.

  4. David

    What a crap country I live in.
    I wish I had more to say.
    Clearly sometimes people feeling free to speak their mind backfires on us a little.

  5. chris

    I’m not that suprised that a redneck politician from Fargo, North Dakota
    would come up with this sort of thing (though, have you heard a north dakota accent?).

    It reminds me of the story that the Australian actor Guy Pearce tells of the
    problems he had in Hollywood auditions (because of his Melbourne accent) till
    he started doing a US west coast imitation and started receiving compliments
    about how he had “no accent”.

    I shocked though by the History Channel thing, I had no idea, its appalling.
    No idea either that the audience for that stuff was entirely male, though the
    only person I can remember seeing watch it has been Tony Soprano.

  6. Jill

    When I started university I had real trouble understanding all the different Norwegian accents. Kind of embarrassing in retrospect, and I sure didn’t complain, I just kept my ears peeled and after a week I was fine. But growing up in Bergen I’d almost only heard the Bergen dialect and the dialect they speak in Oslo, the capital. We actually had to learn about dialects at school, and I did a terrible job of telling them apart and arguing that well, the person on that tape speaks with a thick l and such and such diphtongs so must be from such and such a place. But it was so exhilerating to be suddenly surrounded by people from all over the country!

    At university we had to accept lectures and textbooks in “book Norwegian” (based on Danish, which occupied Norway for 400 years), “new Norwegian” (based on dialects), English, Swedish or Danish. Swedish and Danish are to Norwegian what a thick Scottish accent is to the Queen’s English, or since we’re talking writing, perhaps it’s more like reading Shakespearean English for a modern day English-speaker. You just have to get used to it, it’s not a whole different langauge, but it’s unfamiliar. At first it was really hard to read Swedish, especially, but once you’ve forced yourself through a book in Swedish, you find yourself reading it as fast as Norwegian. Understanding lectures given in Swedish or Danish is the same – you have to spend a little while adjusting your ear and then you’re fine.

    When studying poetry in Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German or Italian we’d always be given both the original and the translation into English, Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, though most of us would only understand a sprinkling of the original language.

    Sindre, I’ve taken a man with a broad Scottish accent for Russian and told him sorry, do you speak English? so I’m not convinced that “British” is necessarily that easy to understand. If I’d spent a little time in Scotland I expect I’d have been fine. I’d probably have been fine if I’d assumed I could understand this man, instead of meeting him in an airport full of people from different countries where Russian was as likely as Scottish. That’s the important point about teachers, too, I think, if the starting assumption is that I’ll work to understand this person, you’re much more likely to do the work needed to adjust yourself and understand.

    And in fairness to Americans: the woman who proposed this bill sounds like the worst clichÈ of introspective monocultural colonialist, just the kind of person who makes the world resent the US, but there are a LOT of other Americans. No American in a big city or with a postgraduate degree has ever failed to understand my Australian (well, sure, in little ways, but they try to understand, they understand almost everything, and there’s none of the “I won’t understand that” thing) and there are Danes who are as unable to understand my Norwegian as some Americans are unable to understand my Australian.

    And I have students who complain bitterly at having to read a Danish textbook.

    If I ever move to the US I want to live in a big city or one of those towns that’s completely dominated by the college or university and is full of bookshops and academics.

  7. Frances

    I’m Flemish, living in Brussels. My native language is Dutch, which is the same language as they speak in the Netherlands, yes. There even is a common “language commission” of Dutch and Flemish people who decide about rules etc. When I grew up I watched a lot of Dutch television, because there wasn’t anything interesting on for us kids on our own local networks. For us the Dutch had a bit of a funny accent and we liked to imitate it: a hard g, instead of a soft one, different word order, some words are pronounced differently, but we understood it, because the standard language is the same. Recently Flemish and Dutch networks have taken up subtitling each others programs, “because people don’t understand it anymore”. I say it’s laziness on part of the viewers. I’ve watched so much Dutch television (and still watch it when something interesting is on) and I never had trouble understanding them.

    Something about Danish/Swedish/Norwegian: It must be like listening to someone that speaks Afrikaans. Afrikaans is based on Dutch, so when we take the time and do the effort we can understand each other.

  8. Wendi

    I’m an American, living and studying in Denver, CO. Recently I traveled to the Netherlands (for the second time in my life), and because I do not speak any other language than English, I relied very heavily on the Netherlands population’s well-known English speaking abilities. While this was obviously something that was a big help to me, I was embarrassed…I mean, how arrogant is it to arrive in a country that is not your own and “expect” the population to speak your language? (Assuming your countries don’t share the same language, of course). Many Dutch people told me not to worry about this; that ALL non-Dutch tourists in the Netherlands are expected to speak English, not only Americans and British. But I still felt ashamed, and at an extreme disadvantage — especially compared to Europeans, all of whom seem to grow up learning to speak several different languages. Quite honestly, I felt culturally retarded (if I can be forgiven for the use of that term).

    The values of the American public education system at large seem to be extremely different than that of European nations, but I suppose that this is no surprise, given that the values of American culture and government (especially in recent times) are so pointedly at odds with that of the rest of the world, much less Europe. Recently a discussion of politics came up in one of my classes at school, and one woman stated her belief that the United States should drop out of the United Nations. I was appalled by this, but I also had to acknowledge that an increasing amount of Americans feel the same way that she does, and share the same sort of xenophobic, jingoistic, isolationist “America #1” attitude that profoundly frightens and disgusts me. The idea of American cultural supremacy is pretty laughable for anyone who has any real perspective (and as an American, you generally have to go out of your way to get this sort of perspective), but the notion of America dropping out of the UN and becoming isolationist…well, that’s just not funny – at all.

    In any case, I guess what I’m getting at here is that while the original topic of this thread dismayed me, I fear that such types of action within American schools and government are going to become much more common — especially under our current presidential administration (sorry, world – we tried!), who seems to be doing everything they can to steamroll their way over anyone who isn’t of the Religious Right. I, and people who think as I do, will do all we can to fight this, but I think that there are some very dark times ahead. And one doesn’t need to have a post-graduate degree or be a hardline academic to realize this.

  9. Annelogue

    In my opinion itís all about attitude and willingness to try and understand someone. I’m a Norwegian currently living and working in Denmark. When I moved to Copenhagen two years ago, I decided that I’d speak Danish from day one to show that I was completely adjusting towards living in a new country and culture. Even though written Danish and Norwegian are fairly similar, the pronunciation of words is completely different. Danish is a less phonetic language than Norwegian requiring a quite precise pronunciation of words in order to be understood. The first year I worked in a very traditional Danish company, where people made a big deal out of the fact that I came from another country. As a matter of fact, not a day went by without it being brought to my attention one way or another. Both I and another foreign colleague were told regularly that it was difficult to understand our Danish from time to time. It felt very frustrating! After about a year I started to work for another company which had more international employees, who were all new to the Danish language and in this environment my foreignness was not such a big issue and no one seemed to have any trouble understanding me. I think the only differences in these two environments are the attitude of wanting to understand someone and accepting things which are a bit different.

  10. Jill

    That’s interesting, Annelogue – oh, but didn’t you find it HARD to speak Danish? I suppose I’ve never really tried…

  11. David

    ok, I figured out what to say. Said it here.

  12. Annelogue

    Danish is fairly similar to Norwegian, so I don’t think it’s that difficult as such. The Danish accent is hard to imitate 100% correctly…for me at least. I try my best.

  13. Jill

    I’m impressed. I feel so silly when I try to fake accents. Not something I’d dare do in public – yet 🙂

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