Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Linguistics in Education

This is a reaction paper written for my Curriculum and Methods class, in response to an article called "No Kinda Sense". The article was featured in a book called "The Skin We Speak", by Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy.

“There is no more certain a way to insure that people do not listen to you as to not listen to them.”  (Delpit, 43)

Spoken and written dialects have stirred up a lot of controversy in professional and academic environments. Black activists have spoken up on both sides of the debate, some insisting that Black Americans will not be able to rise above their historical oppression until they can prove that they are able to do everything white people can do, including speak Standard American English (SAE). Others recognize the importance and richness of Ebonics, and want Black Americans to be proud of all parts of their culture, including their dialect. Both sides make a certain amount of sense.

The conversation begins to resemble the “English-as-our-national-language” debate; there is no officially mandated standard, merely a long-established habit, and there are a lot of pros and cons on both sides. In an increasingly multicultural nation, English may not be the language of the majority, and making it the official language may be alienating to many of our citizens. In an increasingly multiethnic nation, SAE may not be the dialect of the majority of English speakers, and making it official may be alienating to many of our citizens.

It is important to be able to communicate clearly with others, and some people honestly struggle to understand different dialects. This means that all children must learn to speak, write, and understand the accepted and mandated standard dialect for professional and academic communications, both verbal and written.

Effective communication is a two-way street, however, and we cannot place the entire burden of understanding on the Black kids. There is absolutely no reason that white children can’t learn to speak and understand non-white dialects, including (but not limited to) Ebonics. Indeed, many white children who grew up in predominantly non-white neighborhoods use a non-SAE dialect as their primary means of communication.

When teachers insist upon SAE to the exclusion of all other dialects, students learn that certain modes of communication are unacceptable; beyond that, they learn that their cultures are less valid, interesting, or important than other cultures. What we forget sometimes is that language is not merely a form of expression, but is an expression in and of itself. Spoken cadences, vocabulary and slang terms, and conventions of grammar are all important and valid expressions of culture and history.

When teachers do not allow their students to express themselves in their own dialects, they are not allowing the students to express every part of themselves. Students learn that certain parts of who they are, of their history and cultural identity, will prevent them from achieving academic success. They learn that who they are is holding them back.

The message contained in that lesson goes beyond academics. Children who are told that they express themselves incorrectly will internalize a life-long belief that they have nothing worth expressing, or that no one cares enough about them to take the trouble to understand them. They will learn that as individuals and as members of a particular culture, they have little or no worth to the world, and that they must either become someone else or accept oppression and indignity.

Proficiency in multiple dialects can only be a benefit in an increasingly multicultural world, as long as all dialects are given equal preference and respect. Learning respect for and gaining fluency in different cultural modes of communication leads to respect for and comfort with different cultures. And gaining confidence in their own cultural dialects will give students the strength and courage to face the world.

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