Thursday, February 16, 2012

City College and Accented Linguistic Pluralism

If you believe that your petite-self have never been questioned, qualify or classify, valued, then you are - to use a very NYC Upper West Side commonly heard expression, “in denial.” In addition to physical features the person’s accent (oh dear, nothing personal here, but what a pest is to face a listener who gets caught up with the accent and cannot listen to you) is a quite commonly used tool to classify and judge a person; and quite often, to dismiss his/her ideas.

As the accent is usually linked to a particular set of behaviors in a given context, there is a need to connect a set of particulars to what is believed to be the position of the speaker. The accent rushes the listener to judge and to have certain expectations. When asked why he kept speaking with a cockney accent, John Lennon replied something to the effect that he didn’t want to sound like from nowhere. Similar words were pronounced at a conference in Washington DC by the social activist and community development leader, Dra. Antonia Pantoja. She asked the audience to listen to her and not to her accent.

During my last semester at the College I had to teach a course in English to a group of mostly middle class students who had joined a program attracting non-education majors to the teaching profession, mostly white middle class “prepotente” youngsters from outside of the City. Although I had taught in English before, this was the first time I had this type of student population. My previous experiences were teaching in Spanish and mostly to Latino or Afro-Americans. What a disaster it was! Since they would ask me all the time to repeat a word or a phrase I spent more time saying again and again what I already had said than explaining ideas, theories, concepts, procedures. Half way thru the first class quite a few of the students left the room to come back when the class was almost over. For the first time in my life as an educator I had to bring the Dean into the room to discuss what I considered was a very obvious lack of respect on their part. And that was only the first day. The rest of the semester was worse and worse and worse. When I retired at the end of that term I was so glad to leave the place.

(I have always wondered if the students complained about the disastrous semester, and if this why that after spending over thirty years teaching and helping to develop the multi-language, multi-culture teaching education program, all I got from my colleagues was an email wishing me lots of luck in the future. I was taken out to lunch by two colleagues, each one on his/her own; but from the Program,Department, School of Education an email was my going away “recordatorio”)

But they were not the only ones behaving in such provincial and dismissive manner. There was the piagetian theoretician who behaved like a behaviorist when it came to language matters. The internationally known progressive educator was always repeating the accented words being said by the Latino students, speakers of English as a second language: you say tomatoe and she says tomato, sort of. But this strange and misplaced obsession with pronunciation (not with semantics; ideas, if you know what I mean) was not limited to ESL speakers. There were the professors who could not wait to tell me that they had taken Spanish courses but that they were Castilian Spanish courses (see my entry on this topic: Castilian Spanish at the City College.)The piagetian's concerns with sounds and the pseudo Castilian speakers were expressions of some form of valuing status: racial or class or economic or a combination of the three. The situation was so ridiculous and oppressive that there was a Puerto Rican professor who spoke Spanish with an Argentine accent and another, a Cuban, who spoke English with such tightening of the mouth that she always sounded like she was suffering from some form of constipation.

If Carlo Ginzburg or Fernando Pico are correct, history is also found in the details.)

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