The Burden of Understanding: The Challenge for English Language Learners

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In my second year as a doctoral student, I worked with a professor who was finishing his first book.  Among my many tasks was to help him write footnotes for his first chapter.  This is how I was introduced to Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States (1997).  Although a bit dated, many of the points she makes are still salient as we consider creating and implementing effective policies to assist English Language Learners (ELLs).

Based on a cognitive model for communication acts, Lippi-Green (1997) suggests that within a given communication act, both participants share mutual responsibility for collaborating with one another to ensure that they each understand.  This is often a subtle, yet complicated process among the speaker and listener that can go unnoticed in situations where the speaker and listener share the same language and/or accent.  However, when the participants do not share first language and/or accent, “the first decision they make is whether or not they are going to accept their responsibility in the act of communication” (p. 70).  It’s not so much the degree (or some might say, thickness) of accent which determines a person’s willingness to collaborate in building understanding with the other, but one’s state of mind in regards to the other’s accent that is a clearer indication of whether one will accept responsibility for understanding.  Specifically, Lippi-Green (1997) states:

Accent…can sometimes be an impediment to communication even when all parties involved in the communicative act are willing, even eager, to understand.  In many cases, however, breakdown of communication is due not so much to accent as it is to negative social evaluation of the accent in question, and a rejection of the communicative burden (p. 71)

Lippi-Green (1997) goes on to point out there is an internal mental process each of us goes through that leads us to respond to some accents in different ways than others.  She calls these “sociolinguistic cues” which:

…are directly linked to homeland, the race and ethnicity, the social self of the person in front of us.  Based on our personal histories, our own backgrounds and social selves (which together make up a set of filters through which we hear the people we talk to), we will take a communicative stance.  Most of the time, we will agree to carry our share of the burden.  Sometimes, if we are especially positive about the configuration of social characteristics we see in the person, or if the purposes of communication are especially important to us, we will accept a disproportionate amount of the burden (p. 72).

As we enter interactions with others we are always choosing how to respond, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.  To illustrate, I’ll share a story.  It is about a fellow graduate student.  She’s from Taiwan and speaks English fluently.  Although her parents pay her tuition and provide her funds to live on, she feels a sense of responsibility for doing what she can to defer costs so a few years ago she set about getting a teaching assistantship.

International students are required to go through a series of tests in order to demonstrate their command of the English language.  It starts with the English Proficiency Evaluation which is given to all incoming international students to determine whether they are eligible to take full academic courses, enroll in English as a Second Language classes for credit, or enroll in Intensive English Program.  After that, they must first take the English Speaking Proficiency Assessment (ESPA) which assesses their oral language and listening skills.  A score of 50 or 55 enables students to pass that portion and move on to the English Language Performance (ELPT) which is a presentation to an audience in the student’s content area for 20 minutes[1] the day after they receive their ESPA results.  This test assesses the international students’ ability to communicate in English in a classroom situation.  The student must introduce themselves, become familiar with the context and people assessing them, give a 10 minute demonstration, then answer questions.  Students taking the ESPA and ELPT are rated on an A-F classification that determines the kinds of work (including classroom teaching to grading papers) they may do as graduate teaching assistants.

My friend understands English very well.  I have taken several classes with her, had her over to dinner with my family and we often hang out.  When she first told me that she was taking the “speak” test (which is what she called it), I thought for sure she would easily pass.  Nonetheless, I agreed to help her prepare.  We played Scrabble and other board games, she ran through prospective topics for her demonstration, and we talked casually as well as about topics in our field.  Much to my surprise, she failed the ELPT test, not once, twice, but three times.  She was distressed. As an onlooker, the process greatly frustrated me.  The message she received was that her English wasn’t “good enough” which didn’t make any sense to me because there’s never been a time when I didn’t understand every word she said.  This is where I began to understand Lippi-Green’s (1997) point about the burden we place on English Language Learners in order to be understood.  When I think about it, I have to admit that I bring into our conversation a knowledge that her “accent” is supposed to be hard to understand.  According to Lippi-Green (1997):

…for the majority of Americans, French accents are positive ones, but not for all of us.  Many have strong pejorative reactions to Asian accents, or to African American Vernacular English, but certainly not everyone does.  The accents we hear must go through our language ideology filters.  In extreme cases, we feel completely justified in rejecting the communicative burden, and the person in front of us (p. 72).

As a result, I consciously make myself do the work on my end in order to understand her.  I’m very conscious that in many situations, she’s asked to repeat herself, to re-explain herself, and to do a lot of work overall in order to be understood, and I don’t wish her to have those same difficulties with me.  So I choose to do the work I need to do to meet her halfway.

To me, this story illustrates how our own approaches and frames of reference often determine our own willingness to share the burden of understanding.  Unless we’re made more aware of our own proclivities toward unconsciously and consciously deflecting responsibility in our everyday communicative interactions, we will continue to discriminate against those who don’t share our first language, accent, and/or ways of speaking.

[1] Students who receive a score of 60 or higher are not required to take the ELPT.



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