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What does it mean to be “fluent” in a language?

Currently, the Arizona Board of Education is deciding if teachers who speak with an accent are fluent in English. (Read the full story here.) We have all heard how differently people in London, New York, or Baton Rouge speak English, but are those different speakers still fluent in English? Where does accent stop and fluency begin?

Fluency is defined as being able to speak and write quickly or easily in a given language. It comes from the Latin word fluentem meaning “to flow.” Accent comes from the Middle French meaning “particular mode of pronunciation.” In the original Latin accent us means ”a song added to speech.” Linguists define accents as only affecting pronunciation, not vocabulary or grammar. Rather, a dialect is a version of a language that affects pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar and may interfere with comprehension.

Here’s a little of the back story in Arizona: In the 1990s, there was a big push for bilingual education in Arizona because of the large Spanish-speaking population. Bilingual classrooms have a dual purpose: to help non-native English speakers perfect their English and to teach native English speakers another language in an immersive environment. Arizona recruited teachers from Latin America to help expand their bi-lingual schools, but in 2000, the state reversed the decision and all schools became English-only again. For the last decade, those teachers recruited from Latin America have continued teaching across Arizona. Read more about bilingualism here!

Last year, Arizona Board of Education decided that any teacher deemed not “fluent” in English cannot teach young, English-language learners. In this case, the state is interpreting an accent as disqualifying a teacher. The Board defines the changes in accent very minutely. For example, if a teacher says, “lebels” instead of “levels” that is determined to be an accent so serious that a teacher cannot teach.

Accent, obviously, can affect comprehensibility, but does it affect communication so much to make the teacher not fluent in English? Across the country, accents vary dramatically. A Minnesotan sounds as different from a Bostonian or a Virginian as they do from some non-native English speakers who speak with an accent. Do accents affect how you perceive fluency?

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