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Student Dialect

Diverse Dialects in the Classroom

The following post was written by Nabilah Khachab:

This is my first semester teaching a college course. Previously, I had substituted for grades K-12. Although I have been in classrooms with diverse students, I never really had the opportunity to think about how I would teach students with diverse dialects because as a substitute, you generally implement the lesson plans that the teacher has left behind. However, I was always interested in diverse dialects. As an undergraduate, I took some linguistic courses. One of these courses was on AAVE, African American Vernacular English. Prior to taking this course, I had no idea that Black Vernacular English was considered a language in its own right (I actually didn’t even know it was referred to as a “vernacular,” period). Coming from a diverse background myself, I always had respect for all languages/dialects outside of standard American English; however I didn’t realize that academics actually study AAVE or Appalachian English and that these vernaculars have their own structures, lexis, phonology, etc.

When I took the AAVE course, I was introduced to the history of AAVE, its social context, its grammatical characters (phonology, tense, etc.), and its lexical features.  My professor was a descriptivist who was very open to diverse dialects and varieties of linguistic features. Because this wasn’t a course targeted for educators, we didn’t really discuss how to teach students with diverse dialects, but we did discuss the social realities of using diverse dialects. I was exposed to the fact that some dialects are seen as inferior to SAE. AAVE, for instance, is stereotyped as lazy and incorrect; these labels truly influence our perception of a group of people. For example, because AAVE is largely stigmatized, if someone is heard speaking in that dialect, they might be considered unintelligent or uneducated. There was an African American student in our class who spoke SAE for the majority of the semester. However, during discussion one day, he said, “aks” instead of “ask.” He explained to the class that he actually speaks in AAVE but is conscious of his language use in particular social situations, and so often switches to SAE. He admitted that sometimes he “slips,” and saying “aks” was an example of that. Interestingly, he shared with the class that if he spoke SAE in front of his friends, family, or community members, he would be made fun of and characterized as someone who is neglecting their true identity. He realizes, however, that he must learn SAE in order to be economically successful.

These issues are important when considering how to teach a classroom with diverse students. Personally, I view myself as a descriptivist and I would want to encourage my students to speak in their own dialects. If we lived in an ideal world, I would be happy to have my students write in their own dialects as well. At the same time, I wonder if I would be doing them a disservice by not teaching them SAE, which is considered the language to economic success. I think back to the student in my AAVE course and I remember how I was inspired by his honesty.  In admitting that he speaks different dialects in different social situations, I began to do some research on African American literature (literature being my specialty). I came across Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American author of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although he wrote in various genres, I was mostly interested in his poetry. As I read his poetry, I noticed a theme. When Dunbar discussed issues of politics, history, identity, race, etc., he would write in SAE. When he wrote poems about personal issues, like love, family, memories, childhood, African-American culture, etc., he wrote in AAVE. I was so fascinated by this distinction. I speculated that in using different dialects, Dunbar intends to reach out to different audiences. Perhaps he discusses issues of race and politics in SAE in order to appeal to an audience (particularly a white audience) that would then listen to his notions of freedom, equality, etc. When he discusses his memories of his childhood, or describes a woman he once loved, or even references cultural customs, Dunbar is reaching out to an African-American audience. Moreover, when Dunbar writes “for himself,” he uses his natural vernacular.

After examining this aspect of Dunbar’s poetry, I was so moved that I told myself I would never want to discourage students from using their own dialects. There’s a tension between wanting students to use their own dialects and at the same time wanting them to learn SAE. The reality is that SAE isn’t going anywhere and that it is the route to economic success. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that we should discourage students from using their own dialects, but rather, encourage them to find a balance. How I can go about implementing this notion into my own classroom is not something I have entirely figured out. I really have just begun teaching so I am still trying to understand and work out these complexities. I do know that if I were grading an academic paper, I would note grammar errors unaccepted by SAE; however, if I were to assign a “creative” writing assignment, I would highly encourage students to use their own dialect and would be far more flexible with their own use of language. I almost feel like a hypocrite of some sort in categorizing SAE in the academic sense and labeling other dialects as appropriate in “creative” contexts. I am not sure how to really iron this out. I don’t think that speaking in AAVE (or other dialects) is non-academic. I just feel that in order to find a “balance,” you have to ultimately “separate” dialects into different contexts. I want students to learn how to write in SAE so that they can pass their courses (where they’re expected to use the dominant English) and find a job post-college. I also want students to maintain their dialectic varieties because it’s an important part of their identity and voice, and because they have every right to use it. I’ve yet to implement all of this into my own classroom.



One thought on “Diverse Dialects in the Classroom

  1. Nabilah, thanks for highlighting some of the complexities of working with dialects in a way that both respects the validity and significance of students’ vernaculars and at the same time supports them in mastering standard American English!

    Posted by gwengorzelskyg | January 5, 2014, 12:23 pm

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