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In 2011, the Arizona Board of Education considered if teachers who speak with an accent are fluent in English. (Read the full story here.) We have all heard how differently people in London, New York, or Baton Rouge speak English, but are those different speakers still fluent in English? Where does accent stop and fluency begin?

Fluency is defined as being able to speak and write quickly or easily in a given language. It comes from the Latin word fluentem meaning “to flow.” Accent comes from the Middle French meaning “particular mode of pronunciation.” In the original Latin accentus means ”a song added to speech.” Linguists define accents as only affecting pronunciation, not vocabulary or grammar. Rather, a dialect is a version of a language that affects pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar and may interfere with comprehension.

Here’s a little of the backstory in Arizona: In the 1990s, there was a big push for bilingual education in Arizona because of the large Spanish-speaking population. Bilingual classrooms have a dual purpose: to help non-native English speakers perfect their English and to teach native English speakers another language in an immersive environment. Arizona recruited teachers from Latin America to help expand their bi-lingual schools, but in 2000, the state reversed the decision and all schools became English-only again. For the last decade, those teachers recruited from Latin America have continued teaching across Arizona. Read more about bilingualism here!

Last year, Arizona Board of Education decided that any teacher deemed not “fluent” in English cannot teach young, English-language learners. In this case, the state is interpreting an accent as disqualifying a teacher. The Board defines the changes in accent very minutely. For example, if a teacher says, “lebels” instead of “levels” that is determined to be an accent so serious that a teacher cannot teach.

Accent, obviously, can affect comprehensibility, but does it affect communication so much to make the teacher not fluent in English? Across the country, accents vary dramatically. A Minnesotan sounds as different from a Bostonian or a Virginian as they do from some non-native English speakers who speak with an accent. Do accents affect how you perceive fluency?

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277 Comments

  1. Samy -  April 21, 2014 - 10:00 pm

    Too many people are considered fluent and honestly, I used to look up to them and think of them as my role models, but when I grew up I found out that accent is very important and that is just my opinion.
    There are a lot of horrible accents that can hardly be understood (not gonna mention them, they’re well known) because they’re basically pronouncing words in such a weird way.
    I was shocked when I heard my own accent and I’ve been working hard to phase that accent out and focus on any other accent that’s known around the world so it would be easier for foreigners to understand me such as an American, British, Canadian or any other known accent.
    so yeah, I think it’s important to work on your accent while learning English to become actually fluent.

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  2. Anna -  March 2, 2014 - 10:58 am

    last year I had a teacher who was from Romania, and had a VERY thick accent. For about the first two weeks of the year, she had to write everything on the board so we could understand, but we quickly understood her without a hitch. She was my math teacher, and that year I learned the most in math I ever have. The only thing I can think of that makes this different from college kids is I’m still in middle school, when brains have been proven to be more flexible or open to new languages and information than later in life. I also don’t see the point in not allowing bilingual schools. My elementary school had one class in every grade that was called Spanish immersion, where kids starting at kindergarten were taught in a mixture of English and Spanish and up until 5th grade. I know some of these kids, and they can still speak perfectly fluent, un-accented English. The state of Arizona is just crazy and needs to rethink this issue.

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