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Teaching the Power of Dialect and Dialects of Power

Is there a ‘correct’ way to speak English?

Jenna Gardner

on 31 January 2011

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Transcript of Teaching the Power of Dialect and Dialects of Power

Teaching the
Power of Dialects
Dialects of Power Language “is the most vivid and crucial key to identity: it reveals the private identity, and connects with, or divorces one from the larger public, or communal identity…To open your mouth… is (if I may use Black English) to ‘put your business on the street’: You have confessed your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem and alas, your future.”
(Baldwin, 1979/1998, p. 68) Learning what we feel about language is important to society and teachers for a number of reasons. Often, children who speak non-standard dialects are seen as having a learning deficit. They may be inaccurately classified as “not knowing much English” or even “having a speech disorder,” with terrible consequences for them. Or students who regularly mix words or phrases from more than one language within sentences are thought to be unable to speak either language very well. West Midland Mid-Atlantic New Engand South North Correct English? Think about where in the country you feel people speak the most correct form of American English. Where do they speak the least correct form? For the purposes of this exercise CORRECT ENGLISH is defined as the variety (or varieties) of American that sound the most acceptable to you. You can use all the other numbers between 1 and 10, and you can repeat a score as many times as you like. (Areas can tie.) 1 = worst
10 = best The darker the area the more correct they believe people from this region speak. We chose to use the words challenges and benefits because we felt that the terms disadvantages and advantages are laden with connotations and often times perpetuate the deficit perspective.

That is, speakers of minority languages and dialects are not inherently disadvantaged or disabled (nor are their forms of language any less valuable or linguistically “correct”), rather our society’s imposed stereotypes and norms place them at a disadvantage. “It is the position of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)that no dialectal variety of American English is a disorder or a pathological form of speech or language. Each dialect is adequate as a functional and effective variety of American English. Each serves a communicative function as well as a social solidarity function. Each dialect maintains the communication network and the social construct of the community of speakers who use it. Furthermore, each is a symbolic representation of the geographic, historical, social, and cultural background of its speakers.”
Need to codeswitch
Difficulty with reading, writing, academics
Labeled and misdiagnosed
Caught between identities
Unequal opportunities (e.g., jobs, apartments)
Associated with other stereotypes for the culture that speaks that language/dialect
Nonverbal language barriers Challenges: Share the same language as the majority 
Don't need to codeswitch
Less likely to be labeled
Better opportunities (e.g., jobs, apartments)
Not judged solely by clothing and ethnicity
The language is positively reinforced
Unearned advantage that requires little effort
Positive connotations with certain dialects (e.g., British)
Benefit of knowing SAE social phrases (e.g., How are you,
See you later) Benefits: GOAL: An educator’s objective should be to facilitate and promote knowledge, appreciation, understanding, and acceptance of students’ dialects, and thus their voice. The issue educators face is how to allow students to explore their dialects and the dialects of other students while engaging in Mainstream English Language Development (MELD). The grammar and social issues of these variations in language must be explored, so that students can successfully code-switch without negatively impacting their sense of cultural identity. Possible Procedure:
Have students develop a Dialect Dictionary. Students would develop a dictionary using words that depict the use of dialect and include the following elements: part of speech, origin of the word, definition, the Standard English word equivalent, and the quotation from the story or essay using the word. By treating the words as the valid vocabulary that they are students gain an appreciation for the author’s intent in the use of the dialect.
Some possible texts:
“32 Votes before Breakfast” by Jesse Stuart
“A Pair of Shoes” by Billy C. Clark
“Big Joe’s Funeral” by Walter Dean Myers
“Day in the Barrio” by Judith Ortiz Cofer
“The Man Who Was Almost a Man” by Richard Wright
“A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty
“At the Powwow Hotel” by Toni Jensen
“Imagining Bisbee” by Alicita Rodriguez
Possible Procedure:
Question students Are there situations beyond fiction (poetry, drama, prose) when the use of dialect and informal speech is appropriate to the writer’s purpose and audience?
Have students explore essays and other forms of non-fiction in which authors utilize dialect. The goal for discussion would be to analyze why the author utilized the dialect and what effect it has on them as readers.

Some possible texts:
“English Teacher, Why You Be Doing the Thangs You Don’t Do?” by Geneva Smitherman
“Don’t know Revolutions Hardly Ever Come By Here” by Suzette Elgin
Black culture: Reading and writing black. G. M. Simmons & H. D. Hutchinson editors
Discussion Questions
What are some of the examples you came up with for the opening activity? Were the two drastically different? Similar?
What are some words or phrases that you use differently depending on whom you are talking to?
Have you been judged (or you think you were judged) based on how you spoke with a particular person? If so, did it make you want to change the way you speak or did it make you want to speak the way you did even more?
Do you consciously speak a certain way to gain an advantage in certain situations?
What are some of the challenges and benefits of speaking Standard American English?
Should a person or group of people conform to SAE or should they work toward acceptance of their dialect?
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