Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Stigmatized" Dialects

For my English senior seminar, I had to read a journal article about dialects and do a critique. I'm not going to paste the text here (of my critique), but I still want to discuss it.

Basically, this article made recommendations on how to reprogram society to view dialect as what it is (essentially a regionalized language variety) instead of it's current connotation (a language variety spoken by less cultured and intelligent people, what the article referred to as "stigmatized" dialect). In truth, these stigmatized dialects, such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), are very systematic in their grammatical structure, where most people do cringe when they hear it and think it sounds lazy. This is what the article began with, and I concur. Prior to taking a Language and Culture class and studying AAVE (Ebonics), I, too, thought it was "less" of a language. I still cringe when I hear it because my prejudices toward the dialect remain despite the knowledge I posess to the contrary. In any case, I agree that most people don't know that dialects such as AAVE are actually quite structured and ARE NOT slang.

Then the article started arguing that it is up to teachers to change this view in society, as teachers are on the front lines dealing with the different dialects in their classrooms and have the power to influence what their students do or do not learn about dialects. The authors argued that Language and Culture classes (such as the one I took) are not typically required in teacher education programs. Thus, teachers (especially English teachers) go into their classrooms and have a tendency to belittle students who speak in dialect, not only impacting that student, but the opinions of the student's classmates. That all seems reasonable to me. The course I took where I studied AAVE opened my eyes on the subject and gave me empathy where I may have had none otherwise.

When good articles go bad.

The authors began to state that Standard English was really just a dialect itself. The dialect of the influential in the countries that speak it. Because the influential speak it, it must be right. I didn't really like hearing SE referred to as a dialect because I see dialect as being a variation of the official language. SE is the official language. This is when I began getting critical.

Details of how to change the social perception of stigmatized dialects evolved from simply teaching the teacher the truth about dialects to make them more sensitive to their diverse students to allowing it to be spoken and written in the classroom. Bringing the discussion back to SE being the only truly acceptable language in education and the professional world, the authors felt that teachers should be an agent of change for this, envisioning a future where all dialects will be equally accepted and respected.

It's a bit like behavior management in the classroom. We'd all like to just prevent misbehavior by focusing on the roots of misbehavior and ensuring that those elements are addressed before problems occur. But it won't always work that way. We need to have a plan B so that when misbehavior occurs, as it inevitably will, we can redirect it effectively.

As I see it, the same principle applies here. If all teachers are on the same page with addressing this problem of stigmatized dialect, it will still be decades before the Standard English speaking world comes to accept these dialects as the norm, if ever.

In the meantime, while we're waiting for the new attitudes that will result from our teaching to kick in, we are doing our students a huge disservice.

If I were to begin teaching the 9th grade next year (equipped with my new knowledge on dialect equity and accompanying pedagogy), what will happen to my students in 8 years when they are interviewing for jobs? In a scenario where we have a typical alpha-male (or female) interviewer who interviews 2 African American candidates, equally qualified, one speaks SE, the other AAVE, who's going to get the job?

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