Are teachers with accents too ‘hard to understand,’ or are students’ personal biases the one-inch barrier to learning?
Words by Abeer Khan and Dhriti GuptaH
ongbing Yu keeps two years’ worth of anonymous student feedback in a polythene bag in a drawer in his office.
The notes, scrawled on scraps of lined paper and post-it notes, are students’ first impressions of the assistant professor of languages, literatures and cultures at Ryerson. They were submitted as part of an exercise he conducts to demonstrate the concept of “othering” in his course on intercultural communication.
“If you hear or see someone who’s different from you, or speaks a different language, or speaks a language in a different way, you will probably think of this person…as an ‘other,’” he says.
While many of the notes are constructive, Yu has received feedback such as “weird accent,” “Chinese” and “timid”—specifically targeting his accent and ethnicity. One that particularly stood out to him was a note that read “typical Chinese professor from China.”
While it no longer bothers him, Yu was surprised when he first read the latter comment two years ago, especially considering the course he was teaching explored visible minorities and people from different cultures.
According to the 2016 census, Toronto is the most linguistically diverse city in Canada, with over 200 languages spoken. Further, 44 per cent of Torontonians have a first language that is neither English nor French.
“You know, for a second I thought there was something wrong with me”
In a study published in the journal Language in Society, it was found that teachers with “Asian-sounding” names got lower scores on RateMyProfessors.com than those teachers with common American last names. RateMyProfessors.com is a review site that allows students to assign ratings and comment on a professor’s teaching style, often informing other students and users on whether or not to take a course.
“This professor has a thick accent and it’s very hard to understand. If you appreciate your money and would rather use it towards a different class, please do so…,” reads one RateMyProfessors.com review from a user about a prof at Ryerson.
A study published in the Journal of Language and Psychology from 2010 found that accent discrimination “encourages the creation of mutually exclusive groups,” meaning that those discriminated against are socially excluded and stigmatized. When speakers experience this, they can experience “a negation of one’s identity,” reducing self-esteem and perceiving themselves to be lesser than.
While Yu has been a professor at Ryerson for almost three years now, he says these sorts of comments made him momentarily question himself.
“You know, for a second I thought there was something wrong with me,” he says. “I tried my very best to pass for a Canadian…But when I received that note I was like ‘Oh, okay, I got it. I guess I will need to work more on my English.’”A
bbey Humphreys-Morris remembers hearing students mocking her statistics professor’s strong Turkish accent, at least a few times each class. They would imitate the words he said and even laugh and snicker at him while he was teaching.
One early morning lecture on a Wednesday, another student raised their hand and condescendingly questioned everything the professor had just taught during the lecture.
“You got the sense that if he had a local accent he would not have been treated that way,” says Humphreys-Morris. The professor answered all the questions properly but shut it down quickly. Humphreys-Morris could tell the professor knew what was going on.
“Students [seem to] equate an accent with lower intelligence, even though that in no way speaks to a professor’s ability to teach,” says Humphreys-Morris. “They have their degrees, they got their job at Ryerson, they are obviously qualified to be here.”
Like Humphreys-Morris, Dana Osborne, a linguistic anthropologist and professor in the languages, literatures and cultures department at Ryerson, says a person can come from a different place, speak a different variety of English, and still have complete and utter expertise in their field.
She also says that normalcy and a sense of belonging are connected to power.
“I had this idea that students who came to Canada would be less racist”
The study from 2010 also had individuals from the U.S. with non-native and native accents complete a questionnaire that assessed their perceptions of discrimination and difficulties in communication. They found that “Asians and Latinos reported higher levels of perceived stigmatization than Europeans did.”
Nicholas Subtirelu, the author of the Rate My Professors study, told National Public Radio (NPR) in an interview that he thinks this reveals “a need for linguistic diversity at universities—to find ways to help people accept and work across their differences.” He says that universities should be thinking about what students might do to better understand their instructors instead of allowing an accent to alter their overall perception of their teacher’s skill.
For people of colour with accents, there is an added layer of racism that plays into this. Yu says the comments he receives borders on racism. “I had this naive idea that students who came to Canada would be more open-minded and they’ll be less racist than…some other cultures that are perceived to be more homogeneous,” he says.
Osborne says professors should be able to trust that students will recognize and respect their expertise. “There’s a vulnerability that professors have to have, especially if they’re coming from a different kind of linguistic or cultural context.”S
oonalika Srivastava remembers a course where her professor had specifically addressed his accent at the beginning of the course. He told students they can raise their hand at any time to let him know if they can’t understand, and he would be happy to go over it with them.
Still, Srivastava noticed that students who arrived to class early would talk to each other about not understanding the professor.
She feels that online reviews for professors who speak differently are harsh and unwarranted, often coming from a privileged point of view. She says students should be thinking about how it might be hard for those profs to go about their days thinking people don’t understand them, and should be sympathetic toward that rather than judgemental.
“Students should sit down and be like, ‘I should see that this professor cannot really change their accent, so I should be able to accommodate for that.”
Osborne explained that there is a “standard variety” when it comes to language. This standard variety is “unaccented.” Things that are outside of this norm are deemed to be accented forms of dialect.
Osborne adds that when people come from a perspective where they solely legitimize speakers of this “standard variety” in their minds, that excludes others who are different from having equal access to that legitimacy.
“If you start out with the assumption that understanding is not possible, that’s really problematic,” says Osborne. “But if you say, ‘Okay, well, you have something to say, and it’s actually my responsibility to an extent to…give you enough space, in my mind, to be able to say you have expertise.”
“If you start out with the assumption that understanding isn’t possible, that’s problematic”
Stutee Bhargav, a second-year business technology management student, found herself passing judgement on a professor with a strong French accent. At the beginning of the semester, she would mentally question her teacher’s ability to teach, frustrated by her own lack of understanding. Looking back on it though, she realizes that at the time, she wasn’t making the effort to understand.
She noticed when she started working harder in the class, it made sense to her and she actually ended up with a good grade.
Yu says it comes down to both students and professors trying to understand each other.
“Students should know better, and also, I myself should know better,” he says. “I try my very best…to get rid of any kind of presumptions that the the students are actually demonstrating a level of phobia or racism.”
He says he keeps the notes from his students not only to use as examples on courses in intercultural communication, but also to remind himself that racism and cultural insensitivity are issues that need to actively be addressed.
“We shouldn’t take it for granted that cultural stereotypes and racism can just go away naturally, even in Toronto and Canada.”
An earlier version of this article implied Nicholas Subtirelu was the author of a 2010 study from the Journal of Language and Psychology. Subtirelu is the author of the study published in Language in Society in 2015. The Eye regrets this error.
Thank you for writing this. Accents can also affect people in court, with jurors biased against defendants with accents! If you’re interested in that, check out an article I published last year: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333890772_Sounding_guilty_How_accent_bias_affects_juror_judgments_of_culpability
“Students [seem to] equate an accent with lower intelligence, even though that in no way speaks to a professor’s ability to teach,””
That’s not true at all. Students have issues with the accents only when they cannot understand the professor, as it makes it impossible to learn in lectures. Some students cannot study on their own from textbook or lecture notes, and require lectures to learn. It has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. I know absolutely no one who links accents with intelligence. And by the way, ability to teach is also in contrast to “ability to be understood”.
“They have their degrees, they got their job at Ryerson, they are obviously qualified to be here.”
They do not have a *professor* job because of this reason. That gives them a research position at the university. Being a professor is a side effect of being a researcher. The fact is, many professors are extremely intelligent but cannot teach.
Being able to understand your teacher is integral to learning from them. While some students question how competent their professor is, every student gets frustrated when they simply don’t understand. This is a “both sides need to adapt” change. Universities need to offer occupational training to help professors develop their tongue posture and enunciation in the language they teach in. Students need to learn to manage their frustration, ask clarifying questions, and go to office hours to interact with the professors directly. This does not boil down to “you don’t understand because you’re not trying. Stop racially profiling your professor”. This is a valid issue and blaming it on race relations is not going to fix it.
Qualifications: I went to the Defense Language Institute to learn Persian Farsi directly from native speakers. Some teachers were more difficult to understand than others, but we were committed to understanding each other. What helped was personal interaction. Having a maximum class size of 8 was a huge factor in that.