Language is the most important form of privilege that I have. I know this because during a Tolerance.org workshop we had a list of the top ten things that made us who we are. Item by item I crossed off every other part of me by importance until I was left with only language. I think and speak in Proper English. Lies. I use standard English. There is nothing proper about some of the language that comes out of my mouth! I say standard English because according to the Cambridge Dictionary, “A standard language is a variety of language that is used by governments, in the media, in schools, and for international communication”. I came across a fantastic blog and podcast by the Grammar Girl. It goes into the history of English and how we ended up with the idea that those who don’t speak the dominant version are less intelligent than those who do.
There are other dialects of English that are spoken. I say dialect because a dialect is, “A form of the language that is spoken in a particular part of the country or by a particular group of people.” (link) One dialect is African American Vernacular English (AAVE) also known as Black English Vernacular and sometimes ebonics. AAVE is a structured version of English. It is, “…the result of regular rules and restrictions; they are not random ‘error’. (link) This means that people who speak AAVE are speaking a language that has structure. This is not an unintelligent language.
Another dialect is Appalachian English also called Mountain Language. Here is a video if you have never heard this dialect spoken before. “Appalachian English has long been criticized both within and outside of the speaking area as an inferior dialect, which is often mistakenly attributed to supposed laziness, lack of education, or the region’s relative isolation.” (link) We see the idea again that those who don’t speak standard English are lazy or dumb.
I gave you that quick background on language to get to this. What kind of language do we expect to be spoken in our classes? I work in a school and the language I speak and the language school demands are identical. This allows me to think and speak in a relatively free and quick manner. I also attended schools where standard English was the dominant language. I was born and raised in the dominant language. It is a blanket of invisibility that follows me everywhere I go. It is very easy for me to settle into the role of oppressor and demand that my students speak in standard English.
School demands that the students speak standard English. The tests are written that way. Most teachers speak that way. I understand why students need to learn standard English. In the book Exceptional Learners the author states, “Failure to teach children the skills they need to communicate effectively according to the rules of the dominant culture will deny them many opportunities.” Our students will need to speak the dominant language in order to enter into the various areas of white supremacy in the future. That is what the gatekeepers demand.
I am not a gatekeeper. My class is not an arena where standard English is necessary. We do need to communicate and understand each other. This means that both myself and the student need to learn the meaning behind what the other is saying. If we are speaking different dialects we both need to learn how to communicate with the other. I do not teach English. I don’t feel the need to correct the dialect of my students. The dialect my students use does not impact my goal of them creating a positive association with the movement. I want them to think and question. Using standard English may actually get in the way of this. Some students may have to process my question, rephrase it in their dialect, think in their dialect, then rephrase it back to standard English. That is a lot of work to do on top of figuring out what I am asking them to think about.
The bottom line is that demanding my students speak like me and the system of school is a form of oppression. This has to be balanced with the idea that when they enter the workforce they will probably be forced to use standard English. When we center our students in this conversation it only makes sense that they have the freedom to be their authentic selves. Ask yourself what is your purpose of teaching. Is it necessary for the students to speak in the way school demands? Why do we demand our students speak a certain way?
A lot of teachers feel the need to prepare the students for the future. They will need this. They will need that. Truthfully they will need to love themselves presently before they do anything in the future. Forcing the assimilation of standard English is not helping students love themselves and their culture.
Some English teachers may have an issue with this blog. I don’t teach English and would not presume to tell you how to do your job. I would like to offer the idea that there are ideas that are written, sang, or spoken that are not in the dominant dialect. These still have value to our students. Do not throw out the baby with the bath water.
The final piece of this is the idea that if you speak AAVE or Appalachian English you may be perceived as being less intelligent. We do this with accents as well. Think about all the caricatures of people who speak with a Southern accent. This bias has to be addressed. Language and intelligence do not go hand in hand. The value of a human is not tied to their ability to speak standard English. Do not assume that because our students speak in a way that is not common in society that they are any less capable of learning than the student who speaks what we consider acceptable.