February 09, 2007

Prescriptivism in the Trenches

My post the other day on why we need to bow to prescriptivism in the classroom in order to do right by our students raised at least a few eyebrows around Language Log Plaza, but I am going to stick my neck out again by posting a response I received from a reader, Laura Petelle. Laura's audience is high-school students, and if there were more teachers like her out there, we linguists might not have so much trouble convincing our college students that "Standard English" does not come to us via divine revelation. (And although Laura says she's not a linguist, her analysis of the semantic distinction "it's broke" and "it's broken" is intriguing -- I've never heard of such a distinction before; does it ring a bell with anyone else out there?)

I was a student rep on admissions committees at both Notre Dame and Duke, and now I'm a small business owner and adjunct professor. I help out a lot of local kids who are applying to the "name" schools and want advice, and I teach some ACT prep on the side.

Particularly in the small towns out in the county, a lot of these kids are the first in their family to go to college -- often the first in their high school to take a shot at Yale or Berkeley. I emphasize every single ACT class I teach (and every single student who gets pointed to me for advice) that while "It's broke" or "It's froze" is a perfectly acceptable and comprehensible method of communication in Central Illinois (it means "it is broken/frozen in such a way that it is impacting my life at this instant." So, "What happened to your car? I noticed you didn't drive it today." "It's broken." But "I'd like a burrito this instant." "It's froze."), but that if they say that in a college interview or, God forbid, write it in a college essay, they will be written off as uneducated hicks. I then relate to them how when I took my Chicago prepositions ("If you go to the mall, can I go with?") to North Carolina, my Southern friends all laughed their asses off and kept saying, "Didn't you ever learn not to end sentences with prepositions? You sound like a backwoods hick!" (This makes them feel better that someone from suburban Chicago also gets accused of language hickism -- many of them have a lot of anxiety about being rural kids competing with suburban kids.)

I always emphasize that it's not so much right and wrong, that people speak differently everywhere, but that there's a certain amount of snobbery in knowing "standard usage" and adhering to it, like it's a password that says, "I know the code, I have learned the secrets of this society of academics/lawyers/receptionists and can be trusted to behave appropriately." I tell them they HAVE to learn it and know when to use it unless they want to shoot themselves in the foot on resumes and applications, but they don't have to believe it's God's Preferred Way of Speaking English.

I've had more than one student come up to me after an ACT class and say, "You're the first English teacher I've had who didn't tell me my mother spoke like an uneducated hick," or "This is the first time anyone's explained why standard usage is important."

It's sad that pointless prescriptivism may keep these kids from top schools. But that's why we absolutely HAVE to teach it to them, so they're not fighting an uphill battle on the language front. They're already at a disadvantage without the money, resources, and connections wealthy suburban Chicago students have in spades. It would be brutal not to teach them the "code" they need to pass the gatekeepers.

Update: David Marjanovic suggests that the midwestern construction in Can I go with? might have arisen as a calque -- a literal translation -- of German Kann ich mitgehen?" "Can I go with?". This may well be correct, especially as the mit element, meaning "with", is separated from the verb in some sentence types, as for instance in Kommen Sie mit? "Are you coming with?" The German construction, unlike the English one, belongs to the standard dialect. And, crucially, there were once quite a few German speakers in the Midwest.

Posted by Sally Thomason at February 9, 2007 09:27 AM