Do We Have to Teach Standard English in the Classroom?

 

aint nobodyhide-yo-kids-hide-yo-wife-and-hide-your-husband-29057844worse to worser

 

Kimberly Wilkins, April Williams, and Antoine Dodson (i)– You probably don’t know their names, but have likely laughed at their expense. The story behind the meme is important, but instead of hearing those stories, the value of what they said was negated because they spoke a dialect other than Standard American English (SAE).

Standard American English. Dominant American English. “Proper” English.

These terms have become synonymous with what we called “talking white” where I grew up; talking white meant that you were trying to be something that you weren’t. As a poor, Black girl from the north side of Minneapolis with two working-class parents and one who didn’t finish the 9th grade (all while having this far-fetched dream of college), I guess they had a point. I didn’t view myself as trying to be something that I wasn’t; I was just trying to be something more than I was. I saw my language as something that could either hold me back or be used to my advancement. 

This brings me to the point we debated in class last week thinking about the context of our future classrooms: Is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) a valid language? That all depends on how you define valid. It has rules, so linguistically speaking, yes it is.  Is it valid such that I can feel comfortable speaking AAVE and not worry about having my intelligence dissected? Absolutely not. The truth is that when you come from where I do, whether it be for an interview with a potential employer or in the courtroom, there are so many barriers to cross for our advancement– and language is a big one. 

About two years ago, the BBC wrote about a study that showed it takes just thirty milliseconds of hearing someone speak before forming thoughts about their background. It’s not a secret that the southern accent is perceived to be dumber than the northern one, just like it’s not a secret that AAVE (often called ebonics) is perceived to be inferior to SAE (ii). In the classroom, validating AAVE as a dialect of English is one very important concept for self-realization, but telling your Black students (or those who speak another dialect) that that conventions of standard English don’t matter is a misguided, dangerous, and patronizing attempt at cultural relevancy. There is a standard for “professional” English no matter how we try to spin it. If my students can read and write proficiently in academic language, then I have done a small part in making sure that they can have access to a future beyond what society tells them they can achieve. In this way, I subvert the dominant narrative of Standard American English being a marker of intelligence through a critical pedagogy. 

If you’re not a person of color, you have probably never had to really internally grapple with what it means to speak a non-standard dialect of English because the way you speak at home is more than likely the same as those in positions of power. Just like you can discount the importance of standardized tests because you’ve never had to worry about passing them, you can also purport, in essence, that “all language matters” because the reality is that speaking another dialect of English will never directly impact your future.

This why I focus on the quality of my instruction and ensure that what and how I teach my students will give them access to spaces where there aren’t many people that look like us; I can provide them with an education that allows them to change the narrative. I can’t achieve this if ignore the conventions of written English. I can’t push along a 9th grade student who reads at a 3rd grade level by giving them a graphic novel, thereby allowing them to interpret images instead of grappling with a written text.  When young Black girls are being strip-searched for laughing and Black boys are being forced to cut their hair because it violates a dress code, I have to give them a chance in a world that gives them no chances. And right now, what the majority of schools are giving them– that ain’t it.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that “proper English” not be seen as a social construct. I’m advocating that we really dissect what we think it takes (and what we know it actually takes) to break through barriers for Black students and other students of color. When someone tells me it’s unfortunate that I grew up in North Minneapolis, or they laugh at me when I let my guard down and say “finna”, every day I am faced with the reality of what is expected from people that look like me. I refuse to discount the impact that my command of standard English had on my success, and I won’t discount it for my students, either.

 

@MsJasmineMN

 

i) I haven’t been able to find any updated information on April, but after going viral, Antoine moved his family out of subsidized housing and currently works in a school, and Kimberly Wilkins has appeared in a number of small commercials and films.
ii) Standard American English is sometimes referred to as dominant American English.
iii) Read more about the link between code-switching and academic achievement.
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11 comments

  1. So true. And there is more: the range of verbal patterns in any classroom is wide, sometimes very wide. Even in a classroom that is all African-American and lower-income (or all Latino, or all Appalachian) there will be students whose grammar and vocabulary are within the range of standard English — it’s only their pronunciation and some specific words that identifies them as non-standard. Many, many adults who carry their original pronunciation into adulthood actually do succeed in the professional world. The children who are at greater risk of not fitting into the world of work (or succeeding in high school or college) are those whose vocabularies are greatly different from standard English, and most importantly, whose grammatical constructions are both different from standard English and also hard for standard English speakers to understand.

    I agree that code-switching is the answer. To tell young people that the language they use among themselves or at home is deficient is cruel (and not true). On top of that, many teens (of all races and economic levels) come to believe that their in-group language is a form of protection against the outside world and also a crucial sign of affiliation with the people they need in their lives. This goes double for young people who come from marginalized groups. In this sense, I think immigrant children are luckier than African-American children; immigrant children know that they are going to end up speaking two languages, so they do not feel as torn about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Can’t say I disagree with anything here! I would love to hear more about your last line though re: immigrant children feeling torn. Is it because you think Af-Am don’t see their home language as different enough from SAE (such as w/immigrant children who speak languages other than English)

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      • That’s right. Imagine immigrant children (and especially those whose home language is not spoken by substantial communities of speakers here in the US — think, for example, Brazilian children, whose home language, Portuguese, isn’t common to the point of being the dominant language in any US geographical community). Children from Brazil know that they will end up having to be fluent in English, even as they maintain their fluency in Portuguese. And they know that these are 2 different languages, each with rules and vocabularies that must be spoken correctly in order to be well-understood.

        On the other hand, African-American children who speak in the several variant of Standard English that cam be found in some (not all) African American families and communities, will find that they are actually somewhat mutually intelligible with Standard English. But not always and entirely mutually intelligible, and that’s the problem.

        And this issue is not exclusively an African-American one. Consider for example, the children of Latin American immigrants who speak what’s come to be known as Spanglish. It’s not entirely Spanish or English (and it’s not easy for either older Spanish speakers or English speakers to understand). Those children also need to code switch, in order to be understood. There are even dialects of Standard English spoken by white subcultures (mostly rural) where the children have to learn to speak differently than their parents do, in order to fully participate in the general culture. I have relatives who have been through this process. It can be frustrating, but I imagine it’s not nearly as frustrating as it is for young AFrican-American students who start to realize that they are being asked to, in a way, identify with the language of the group that marginalized them for so long.

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    • I grew up with a pretty strong Texas twang (which is distinct from a southern drawl) and had to work to speak professionally when professional is called for and colloquial when it is called for. Everyone who wants to do well in a professional environment will have to modulate their language to the situation. You typically wouldn’t drop an f-bomb on your boss, for example. Many jobs have technical jargon that may not mean the same thing in a technical setting as in a family setting. When I use the word “commission” at work, it’s a verb; whereas most uses you hear on TV are nouns. At work as an engineer, I have to use far more precision in my speech and writing than I bother with when talking to my wife.

      It’s best, I think, to do what you’re doing and teach *all* kids that they need to learn to speak and write professionally, no matter how they speak with their friends or family.

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    • The importance of standardized language is that it allows those who know it to communicate effectively. As someone fluent in standard American English, I’ve had difficulty understanding speakers of Appalachian dialects due to my lack of familiarity. I’ve been told by people who, although fluent, speak English as a second language, that they have a difficult time understanding African American’s speech. When I speak with non-native English speakers with less familiarity with American english, I speak differently, and also do this when speaking in public. The videos of African Americans using black dialects when speaking to news cameras might be criticized because they are aware they will be see by a large number of people, yet choose a dialect that will significantly limit the number of individuals to whom their messages will be effectively conveyed. While unfortunate and racist to judge someone using a black vernacular as less intelligent or less educated, it is useful and practical to be able to communicate in the standard dialect of your country and the inability to do so can be a hindrance beyond being judged by it.

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  2. I truly appreciate what you’re doing for our children. People like you are the glue that holds this country together. Please teach your students that it’s NOT ok to say “pop” instead of “soda” outside of Minnesota, however. That linguistic sin is unforgivable — much worse than the use of any African-American vernacular.

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