February 10, 2007

Speaking good

As a former (very long time ago) secondary English teacher (okay, it was only for four years) I support Sally Thomason's posts here and here about the need to teach students how to survive in this world by acquiring English skills that will help them succeed. Call it patronizing if you will. Or is it just practical? Her points ring true to me because I was once a lot like the kids in Laura Petelle's classes. I grew up in working class northeastern Ohio, habitually saying things like, "I seen  him when he  done it." After I absorbed more standard English features, I tried to live in both the academic and working class worlds. But I have to admit that I had  some difficulties going home again -- in Thomas Wolfe's sense. One of the sad things about switching from one social context to another is that it's hard to be the same person you used to be when you're with your family and other people you love. I don't think my mother ever quite understood what I was talking about, much less what a linguist does  for a living, or how I could be living in Washington DC without  working for the federal government. I had to learn to write letters to her that tried to enter her world as best I could but I don't think I ever did this very well. But Lord knows I tried. I couldn't revert to "I seen him when he  done it" but it wasn't hard for me to use the casual register most of the time and to avoid technical language.

At some point in their English classes most high school teachers get the marvelous opportunity to let their students meet Calpurnia in Harper's Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. This can be a great opening to teach the importance of acceptable language variability and the need to code-switch. Although teachers promote using Standard English, Calpurnia, the Black maid, shows us how important it is to hang onto our language roots.  After Scout asks why Calpurnia speaks one way in their home and quite a different way when she is around her family, she explains to her young charge that folks don't like to be talked down to. Doing otherwise would be considered uppity. In short, Calpurnia appears to have developed the kind of bidialectalism that I found so difficult to master.

Now jump to the mid to late 1960s when racial tensions ran high after the US Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education. Public school teachers suddenly discovered that many African American students didn't talk the same way that most wite kids did. It wasn't long before some educators came up with the silly idea that Black students had cognitive deficits that caused their vernacular speech. This notion encouraged commercial publishers to develop language and cognitive repair programs for Black students. The whole idea was, of course, pretty silly. To combat these materials, sociolinguists went to work, learning about Vernacular Black English (VBE) and eventually proving that the cognitive deficit theory was a crock and that the students were using a different but equally systematic and beautiful language system.

After the structure of this variety of English was discovered, the question became what to do about it in the schools. A number of linguists developed the idea of bidialectalism and, since VBE was systematic and just as cognitively rich as Standard English, contrastive analysis seemed appropriate. The obvious thing to do was to teach VBE speakers how to add Standard English to their repertoires and to use it in socially appropriate and expected contexts but NOT to wipe out their vernacular because, among other reasons, it can be as important to them as it was to Calpurnia, especially with people they love. Bidialectalism was modeled, of course, on bilingualism. Two language systems can be more useful than one.

All was still not well, however, because even some linguists argued that bidialectalism was just another form of racism. James Sledd led this attack in his article, "Bidialectalism," published in The English Journal 58.9 in December, 1969. He argued that if bidialectalism meant anything at all, whites should also learn to speak VBE, which turned out to be a logical but socially unrealistic idea. A number of us had tried this and discovered, much to our embarrassment, that the VBE speaking community thought we were making fun of them. It was okay for them to speak it in contexts they felt appropriate, but whites should not even try. This  was considered insulting. The problem appeared to be in the direction of second dialect acquisition. It's apparently okay for speakers of a socially stigmatized dialect to speak a socially accepted one but not for such learning to go in the opposite direction. I think this lesson has been learned by now.

Another problem with bidialectalism came from the education community itself. Many misunderstood it completely, believing that it was meant to teach Black children how to speak VBE, which, of course, would be utter nonsense, since most of them already spoke it. This misperception arises periodically even today, as illustrated by the Ebonics controversy a few years ago in Oakland. It seems that the notion of acceptable variation  comes hard to many people, especially to educators.

Finally, back to Sally's posts. It's how we teach our students that matters. Teachers (and the rest of us too) can rant about how stupid nonstandard or vernacular English sounds but that seems to accomplish little more than displaying our own preferences or, worse, our sense of superiority.  And maybe we were wrong to use the term, "bidialectalism," in the first place, since "dialect" seems to carry some unfortunate semantic baggage. As Geoff Pullum so eloquently put it, the gotcha game can be deadly. But high school teacher Laura Petelle seems to have it right. Her students need to learn standard forms of English if they expect to be admitted to the  college of their choice, where different language is expected. Or to get a good job for that matter. Or to get promoted in the job they have. That's how it worked for me anyway. But, as teacher Patelle says, Standard English is certainly not "God's Preferred Way of Speaking." That God is far too small.

Posted by Roger Shuy at February 10, 2007 02:13 PM