COLUMN: There are no good or bad accents


Senior Calvin Sanders discusses diversity at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity Summit Jan. 15, 2018. Sam House Buy Photos

Honestly, who doesn’t love a beautiful European accent? Americans tend to love to listen to people talk when they're from countries like England, France or Spain. But what about accents from countries like China, India and South Korea?

It seems we glorify accents from certain parts of the world while vilifying others, and there's a pattern. Many rationalize this bias by the inability to understand accents from certain countries, but they fail to see the racism and xenophobia behind these thoughts.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal wrote a piece for Forbes about accent bias and put the blame on ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism was defined in the article as, “The technical name for this view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.”

Here at IU, you see this bias and racism often aimed at international graduate and undergraduate students of color, but especially with foreign associate instructors, often known as AIs.

IU's most recent available data reports that 29 percent of Bloomington’s graduate student population is made up of international students.

The Office of International Services’ iStart database shows that the top three countries of origin for international master’s students are India, China and South Korea, in order from the largest population to smallest. These are the same countries for international doctoral students but in a different order: China, South Korea and India.

If you've ever had a large class at IU, there might have been an AI from one of these countries helping the professor.

I recall having a course which held a separate class period that was led by the AI, who was from an East Asian country that I cannot remember. He had a thick accent.

Many students in my class complained about him often. I often heard them say they thought he didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to the course content, and they would refer to him as a poor instructor. There were many complaints about being unable to understand him, yet no attempts were made to make communication easier or successful.

On the other hand, I once took a course that held a separate class lead by an AI from Spain. Her accent was thick, as well, but the students’ reactions that I heard were quite different. They thought her accent was beautiful or cute. No one complained about her ability to instruct.

Even I found myself sometimes thinking these things, unaware of my own bias.

For any international student to become an AI with the College of Arts and Sciences, he or she has to pass two English proficiency exams. They cannot get the job without a technical grasp of the English language.

Foreign accents can be difficult to understand, and language barriers can create unique challenges in the classroom. An AI might sometimes struggle to communicate their thoughts in English, or sometimes we may struggle to understand them when they do. But this does not mean that they are less intelligent or less capable than native English speakers.

IU students should try to be more aware of the biases present in their thoughts, especially undergraduate students learning from international AI’s.

If you can see through your own bias and work through the language barrier, you’ll find that many, if not all, of these graduate students have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with you.

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