This morning, the Virginian-Pilot ran a story on the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the public schools: Teachers try new approach to address casual speech | HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com.
To their credit, the Pilot assigned the story to several reporters, who interviewed many of the local experts whose research interests address these issues, including Rebecca Wheeler and Bridget Anderson. The coverage is good, but, as typical of a lot of newspapers, it doesn’t always adequately frame the opinions of non-experts, and it fails to fully explain some important concepts that people are very confused about. I understand the limitations of newspaper editing, but given the hostile beliefs that our society engenders towards non-standard dialects, a few of the points in this story would have benefited from further explication.
1) The (correct) claims that “all people speak a dialect” and that “all dialects have a grammatical system” deserve extra special attention because they are such foreign concepts to so many people. These are basic concepts in linguistics, but I find that my college students often have trouble understanding them because of the mythologies they bring to the classroom about the superiority of standard language varieties. I usually spend a considerable amount of time explainingly that dialects are systematic. If dialects weren’t systematic, there would be no patterns to them to make their speakers recognizable. This leads to questions about those whose dialects aren’t socially stigmatized. People tend to believe that those speakers don’t speak a dialect because they equate the term with slang, broken English, and jargon, but that is wrong: If you speak a language, you speak a variety or dialect of that language. If you grew up white and middle class in this country, you may have worked to eliminate anything from your dialect that people told you sounded regional, for example, but human perception is unreliable and not always a good indicator of social patterns in language production. Nobody has ever pointed and laughed at me for not using two different pronunciations for cot and caught even though my pronunciation patterns reflect a radical shift in the vowel systems of Americans from west of the Mississippi River.
2) “Slang can be true language, some say” is the headline on the continuing page. This is statement is misleading on several accounts. First, slang is not the same as dialect, but I’m pretty sure that nobody who reads this article without any prior knowledge is going to understand that. Some dialects use more slang than others, but dialects have grammatical, phonological, and lexical systems. Slang generally refers to short-lived words that defy authority. AAVE, which is discussed at length in the article, is not the same as slang. Second, the framing of this (poorly labeled) fact as an opinion is problematic. Dialects are real language, even when they’re being mislabeled as slang. The fact that some non-experts have relegated them to a category that I can only assume is labeled fake language is not surprising, but their opinion is the one that needs to be questioned in this case, not the experts.
3) The reporters quote a local lay person who characterizes AAVE as “yabba-dabba-doing,” but they do not call thie characteriziation into question. I’m not trying to demonize any non-expert, and I assume reporters didn’t point out that this phrase represents an uninformed and inappropriate characterization of AAVE because they felt the same way, but careful readers should take note of this characterization. Describint a dialect as primiative (caveman-like) and cartoonish is not just demeaning to its speakers, it is also highly inaccurate. In many ways, AAVE is more logical, rule governed, and refined than Standard English. (It has a more complicated aspect structure and more regular inflectional patterns.) Its speakers don’t deserve this derogatory characterization.
4) The implication that language experts believe that correcting students is bad deserves further explanation, especially when the experts are being characterized as progressive, a term which is not unfair, but which is politically loaded. In general, correcting students is not bad. I do it all day long in college, and when I have kids, I expect their teachers to correct them when they are wrong. The problem with correcting dialects is that we do NOT have one that is standard and one that is substandard (wrong or non-functioning). Instead, we have some that are socially accepted (standard) and some that are NOT socially accepted (non-standard). The non-standard dialects are still functional; if they weren’t, speakers would abandon them. So, when a teacher, especially one from a demographic group than his or her students, tells students that “something is wrong because it [the dialect feature] just doesn’t make any sense,” which is often how “dialect correction” happens, it doesn’t work. Either (1) the student being corrected thinks that the teacher is an idiot because he or she [the teacher] can’t figure out the language patterns that function for the student in practically every other non-school environment OR (2) the student believes that the teacher is right and that everybody else has figured out something that they [the student] haven’t. In the latter case, the student typically internalizes the experience as humiliating evidence of their own intellectual inadequacy. Either way, the attempt to “correct” the dialect doesn’t have the desired effect because the teacher’s characterization of the problem is wrong. The language being used is different than the one that is expected (and, sometimes, needed), but it is NOT inferior, illogical or broken. Moreover, the so-called “correction” is not likely to stick because the student isn’t just making “an error,” they’re using a different system. Changing a system requires a systematic approach, not ad hoc, sporadic admonishments.
5) The question posed by a retired school teacher (“Are they saying our children can’t learn?”) who thought that the idea of providing explicit instruction in Standard English was “offensive” is not surprising, but disappointing. We’re saying they can, but learning any subject often requires explicit instruction. Very smart people have different ways of doing lots of things, including language. When you need them to switch from one approach to another, explicit instruction followed by extensive practice is usually the most effective way to help this transition. Our language prejudices shouldn’t get in the way of recognizing that explicit explanation of the school expectations is a normal part of the K-12 teachers job. It is what teachers do in every subject. At the very least, all teachers should be capable of providing explicit instruction when it becomes apparent (through test scores, performance, etc.) that students would benefit from that extra help.