A+ . . . Despite Heavy Accent

Question: A student gives a presentation. He has a heavy foreign accent and is at times incomprehensible. Overall, the speech seems well researched and on target. What do you do?

a. Give him an A.

b. Subtract points for incomprehensibility and give him a B.

c. Tell him that the presentation was unacceptable and that he should improve his oral communication proficiency.

Instructors cite a variety of reasons (often with a kernel of truth) why they let incomprehensibility slide:

1. “Asking a student to reduce his/her accent is embarrassing and discouraging.” — It is true that accents are windows to our identity, and that a student changing his/her accent may experience a tangible sense of loss or feel repercussions from home culture friends and family.

2. “It’s not possible to reduce accents in adults. Native accents can be achieved only when we learn the language before puberty.” — It is true that, after the brain hemispheres separate at puberty, a native-sounding accent tends to be more difficult to achieve.

3. “People who don’t understand foreign accents are prejudiced. They should try harder to understand.” — It is true that sometimes the problem lies with the listener. Don Rubin (University of Georgia) conducted a study some years back, in which a recording of a native English speaker was played to undergraduate students. They were told that the speaker was a college instructor and asked to rate his comprehensibility. Some groups were shown a photo of a Caucasian, others a photo of an Asian-looking individual while the recording was played. Although the recording was the same, the Asian-looking individual was ranked less comprehensible than the Caucasian.

Despite these valid objections, I believe it is paramount that we encourage students to improve their oral language skills to a level where a benevolent native speaker can understand without straining. We are doing our students a disservice if we don’t.

Our nonnative students are sometimes being ostracized by native-speaking teammates, who don’t want them to participate in presentations for fear that their grade will be jeopardized. And our nonnative Baruch graduates are sometimes dismissed at the early stages of the job interviewing process, due to heavy accents. The first practice often happens under the radar; the second when it’s too late, and students have left the college. In my view, both practices are unethical. We have a responsibility to provide students with an education that promises workplace success.

How to approach the issue? One way would be to adopt a threshhold model by which we evaluate presentations (as well as papers) only if a basic standard has been met? Any student falling below this standard is asked to revise. A threshold model would require a common standards on what constitutes acceptable form (e.g., more than five errors per page or five incomprehensibilities per minutes of speech, and additional work is indicated).

In my experience, most students welcome the opportunity to improve. When I told a Russian student in a public speaking class some years back that he was not going to pass the course unless he worked on his comprehensibility, he committed himself to weekly tutorials and almost daily language lab work. The change in this student in only one semester was extraordinary. He changed from a low-proficiency speaker to one that was 100% comprehensible.

We are lucky that Baruch offers free services to assist the students: SACC has a number of professional speech tutors (not students, but trained professionals) who work with students one-on-one. We also have a new and well-equipped ESL speech lab that is open 10 hours most days, and even on Saturdays. The lab features tons of excellent materials not only on pronunciation, but also grammar, vocabulary development, conversation management, and more. For more information, please see http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/esllab

Considering that communication skills are consistently ranked at the top of skills desired by employers of college graduates (and oral skills usually outranking written skills at that), we need to make our students aware of these services and make adequate communication skills an integral part of our evaluation procedures.

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10 Responses to A+ . . . Despite Heavy Accent

  1. Kyra Gaunt says:

    I love this Elizabeth. Thanks for the responses and your suggestion. I experience this often in a class where group oral presentations are key. I teach cultural anthropology so incomprehensibility is a starting point in most cases and not about the oral presentation.

    I have made it a point to speak about communicating itself and that if you cannot hear much less understand someone else in a class, it speaks to a lack of integrity (of completeness) in the process of communicating. The listener has to be willing to share that they do not get it. Other people often get that they are not being listened to but they could make up that its racial discrimination or hate of outsiders (things they have little control over) rather than they simply need to speak slower, learn to enuciate a certain phoneme or practice oral presentations ahead of time.

    I also love that my students get to hear lots of different accents so they realize that in and of itself and accent is not a reflection one’s quality of intellect. Some of the most brilliant things have been said by students with really thick accents that we learn to be patient with while they grow.

    Loved this!

  2. Dennis Slavin says:

    Nice post. In light of the fact that so many of our students do not speak English as their first language, comprehensibility becomes much more important — just so that they can understand each other. Same is true for members of our faculty: they need to be understood by students from a wide variety of linguistic backgrounds. Our accent reduction tutorials for international faculty, including adjuncts and GTFs, has been addressing this issue for six years now, thanks to your efforts (and the generosity of our donors).

  3. Arthur Lewin says:

    The question and the responses are illuminating. Dennis brings up the flip side of the coin, when the teacher’s accent affects the quality of instruction. The college’s intervention programs in this regard are to be applauded. It might also be wise to insure that gateway courses, like pre-calculus and calculus, are only taught by fluent English speakers.

    Back to the question of students not proficient in English, and their potential exclusion from group projects by classmates who fear they will lower the overall grade. If it is a group project then it often involves research, audiovisual components and other elements besides oral presentation. And so these students can more than makeup for any oral deficiencies by work on these aspects. Also, the instructor can attempt to “individualize” grades by noting, as much as possible, each students contribution to the whole. And of course there are the positive methods to encourage improvement that Elisabeth outlined.

  4. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    We should be careful about relegating nonnative speakers to non-delivery elements of oral presentations. If they conduct mostly background work (and there is anecdotal evidence that this is what they often do), they will likely not gain the proficiency needed to be competitive in job searches and the workplace. My feeling is that, if we admit students with significant gaps in English proficiency, we should make sure they don’t graduate with the same gaps. Instructors (at least those who give oral–or, for that matter, written assignments) should refer students to support services early in the semester and consider the student’s improvement in their evaluation process.

  5. Leah Schanke says:

    There’s an interesting post and several comments on this topic on cac.ophony from 2006 at:


  6. Joyce Mandell says:

    I applaud Elisabeth’s vigilant work in finally getting an ESL lab here at Baruch for non-native students who need to improve their clarity in spoken English. Please note that I did not say “reduce their accent.” In addition to teaching the Com 1010 class, I am a professional pronunciation coach for the non-native speaker. I do this for professionals in the corporate and professional world (I have lawyers for the SEC, accountants, graphic artists, filmmakers, make-up artists as clients) who really feel the need to have clear speech. To try to make adults speak English with a perfect American accent is a useless endeavor. It is much more useful to teach students that they need to be comprehensible and intelligible ALONG WITH their accent, which means they really need to learn what the important features of American English pronunciation are, and how incorporating these features into their spoken communication will improve their clarity. In my current Com 1010 classes I have several students with very strong accents. We talk openly about accents in class, and how they can affect communication. I believe that many students feel somewhat ashamed of their strong home-language accents – and I try to get rid of their anxiety by letting them know that everyone has an accent, and there are ways they can improve their pronunciation. Students who are very self-conscious about their accents feel so much better once it is discussed openly, and once they know that help is available here at Baruch. Pretending to understand students who are highly unintelligible is like sweeping the problem under the rug – it doesn’t service them at all.

  7. Dennis Slavin says:


    Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see the difference between “accent reduction” and teaching students “the important features of American English pronunciation… and how incorporating these features into their spoken communication will improve their clarity.” This distinction seems like a matter of political correctness.

  8. Joyce Mandell says:

    Hello All-

    Sorry it took so long to respond to Dennis’s comment on my comment. The difference between accent reduction and learning about(and practicing)the important features of American English pronunciation are a real distinction. Accent reduction sort of says that you must “lose” something in order to be understood by native speakers. It also seems to demand that you conform to the way native speakers of English speak. The reality is that it is a fairly unrealistic goal for someone who has been speaking English a certain way for many years. What IS necessary is accented speech that is intelligible and comprehensible to others. Think about how actors “put on” other accents for roles; they mimic the intonation and rhythm patterns of the accent of the role they are playing – Chinese or Japanese or Russian- but they are wholly understandable. That’s because they are basically obeying the rules of English in terms of thought groups, pausing, etc. with the “flavor” of the new accent. Because English is their native language, they instinctively do those things that non-native speakers don’t do. When non-native speakers learn, for example, that compound nouns and set phrases (such as greenhouse or drug store) always stress the first part of the compound and have a chance to practice this in a controlled setting, they can incorporate those rules into their speech fairly quickly. The same goes for understanding the concept of thought groups and focus words within the thought groups – these are all features of English that native speakers display without thinking because it is their first language.
    Sometimes just slowing down, knowing where and how to pause between thought groups, and putting more stress on the important words in a sentence make students much clearer and more understandable.

  9. Michael Pinto-Fernandes says:

    Hey, I am currently a student at CUNY Baruch. I thought this post was particularly interesting because I’ve sat through so many presentations given by my peers. Although I understand the difficulty in giving a verbal presentation in a language that is not native, I still have my reservations about a teacher cutting the student slack. The reason is because these students with english as a second language hardly speak in english outside the classroom. This is in regards to conversation with friends and family. With this in mind, their english skills will stay weak. By giving them a critical grade because of their poor accent a teacher is sending them a message to improve their english.

  10. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    Michael’s post reminds me of a study where microphones were attached to people to determine how much they actually spoke during the day (sorry I don’t recall the reference). The participants were all U.S. Americans, and the average time spent speaking per day was 12 minutes. Speaking time differed between regions and ethnic groups, but even the “talkative” groups didn’t averaged more than 30 minutes per day.

    It takes about a minute to say 200 words. An average sentence takes 2-3 seconds. It’s not surprising then that our speaking time per day doesn’t add up to more than 12 minutes–especially if we don’t have a job that requires talking. Students may not contribute in every class session (i.e., they may actually go through a whole day not saying much at all in their classes). And if they don’t speak English outside of the classroom (except for brief public interactions, such as ordering lunch) but speak their native language with family and friends (where most talking takes place), then English speaking time is likely very limited.

    Students should be made aware of the dynamic.

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