Columns

Al-Salem ’17: Accent shouldn’t be a meter for intelligence

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Opinions Columnist
Friday, March 6, 2015

I have never been a fan of classes that require attendance in section. There are usually too many students, awkward attempts by a recently graduated teaching assistant to create dialogue and that one student who thinks she or he is the voice of common sense. But I go to them anyway because a) I don’t have a choice and more positively b) sometimes I am surprised by just how intelligent and creative some students can be.

But there’s this one class this semester that has brought out the absolute worst in Brown students. It is not because the reading material is too controversial or the teaching assistant is too brutal. No, apparently, for some Brown students, if you speak English with a strong accent, your right to teach shouldn’t be respected. Not only does this discrimination bring forth an array of problematic factors, including Eurocentrism and inherent biases, but it also questions what it means to be intelligent in a world where even your IQ is judged by Western standards and speculation.

In most sections I have been in, my peers have respected the TA regardless of communication skills. I have been in sections where the TA struggled to facilitate conversation, and I have been in sections where the TA was truly dedicated to enhancing students’ knowledge and experience of the lecture. Students may have congregated afterward to complain about how much they hated the section, but that was the most they did.

I had never seen students belittle the TAs by talking over them, scoffing at their explanations or snickering with other students until I was in this section. When students act like preteens in middle school, I can understand why the TA ends up doing worse than he or she would have if the students had behaved like the adults they are.

Speaking to some fellow students after class and venting my frustrations about the ridiculousness of those in our class disrespecting the TA, I surprisingly found that I was the only one who held this sentiment. Some of my classmates thought it was the TA’s fault for applying to be a TA at all and argued that someone should not be chosen for the position without the ability to communicate the material coherently.

I do agree that if a person cannot teach a group of students well, he or she should not be hired for a teaching position. But I know of many TAs this description applies to who have not been treated as badly as the TA with a strong accent who leads my section.

This attitude of several of my peers isn’t accidental. Many people, whether they will admit to it or not, inherently hold the belief that a person’s proficiency in English is closely tied to their intelligence. Though some students I spoke with claimed they were frustrated at being unable to understand the TA, I think it’s a lack of respect that causes them to be so dismissive.

I have had TAs whom I don’t understand because they aren’t communicating the work well, but the students kept their personal frustrations to themselves because they still respected the fact that the person was a TA. But with this specific TA, if the students do not view the person as intelligent, they don’t feel obliged to give them respect. I find that to be strongly associated with the fact that our TA’s first language is not English.

This issue with accents and English as a scale of intelligence comes from years of being thought of as smart in my high school because my English was more fluent than that of my classmates. Coming to Brown, I found out that my accent and pronunciation of a lot of words were a lot worse than I thought. A lot of times I would joke around and say “hashtag ESL.” But I have sometimes found myself defending my knowledge when I mispronounce certain “obvious” English words — for example, the instrument “bass” is not pronounced like the fish, “bass.”

Similarly, my mother, who has a difficult time communicating in English, understands the language enough to read plenty of books and watch many episodes of Criminal Minds. But if someone heard her try to speak the language, he or she would assume that she wasn’t intelligent. Little do they know, she has a BA and an MA from American universities and can outwit most people any day.

It’s almost funny to me that this misconception persists when the fact that someone speaks two languages well enough to attend a school that is only taught in her second language is impressive. I know many people with heavy accents who speak five different languages. A lot of the students from the class with that TA only speak one.

I am sensitive to people who mock accents or disrespect others who speak English as a second language, based on my own relationship with the language in my personal and academic life. Of course, while I know that not everyone at Brown thinks this way, I do think there is a stigma whereby your accent is proportional to your intelligence. It is more internalized than in the scenario of the specific TA where the students did not hold back, but it is there nonetheless. It is one of those hush-hush things that those with supposedly clearer accents say amongst each other, and it needs to go.

Let’s not forget that many of the most intelligent scientists and philosophers we know do not speak English as their first language. If intelligence only relied on language abilities, the scale of intelligence still weighs in for those with accents.


Sara Al-Salem ’17 thinks everything sounds better in an accent and can be reached at sara_al-salem@brown.edu

  • Laura Brewer

    Always respect someone who speaks with an accent, if only because it means they have been brave enough to study a language that is not their own. While mocking is inappropriate, pronouncing clearly is also important for anyone whose job involves communicating with others.

  • M D

    This is really ridiculous. No one thinks that you’re stupid because English isn’t your first language. It’s just sometimes funny the way it sounds. Obviously Gauss and Voltaire weren’t stupid because they spoke English — if they did at all — with German and French accents.

    People are immature and laugh insensitively. It really isn’t deep enough to merit an article.

    • guest

      You’re really ridiculous if you truly believe that a lot of people don’t think bad english makes someone stupid.

    • international

      It isn’t deep enough to merit an article? You clearly can put yourself in someone else’s shoes soooo well. YOU think no one thinks you’re stupid because you have an accent. Welcome to the life of non-native speakers.