Saturday, March 8, 2008

Enforcing Standard English in Schools

Food for Thought: Should students who speak a non-standard dialect of English be forced to learn standard English in school?

The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich published the expression,"A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot"(A language is a dialect with an army and navy.)

What is the value in stigmatizing non-standard dialects? Is the intention really to promote widespread communication, or do we have ulterior motives relating to power and class?

This issue is hot in the educational community right now. Many educators draw a line between written and spoken language. They encourage students to speak in their native dialects so they can easily and fluently express ideas without worrying about correct grammar. In written language, however, students are required to use proper English.

As a teacher in the South Bronx, where many students are most comfortable using "street talk," I have adopted this stance because I want my students to be able to compete in a society that values standard English. Future employers often evaluate students' intelligence by the ease with which they can manipulate the language of academics. They need to know it. They need to be bi-dialectic.

But I am unsatisfied with this answer. Yes, I am teaching them how to play the game, how to gain membership in the club of the powerful and elite. But is this method ethical, or am I feeding into a corrupt system? At the end of the day, is it right for one dialect to be deemed supreme above all others?

This is a difficult question facing the education system right now. Denying the merits of students' native dialects could result in feelings of alienation and further proof to disadvantaged students that school is not meant for them. Accepting the value of alternative dialects, however, demands a degree of faith that we will not be creating a generation of people who speak mutually incomprehensible dialects.

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Ebonizer Scrooge said...

Need more from you on this, Elana. You've framed a question; now answer it with real references to you personal experience. Say something controversial, like Hamlet's Bronx text should read "To is or not to is, that be the question." Or not. But take a stand and defend it.

Elana said...

Clever, Ebonizer.

Anonymous said...

The issue of non-standard dialects was a big issue thiry-five years ago when I was studying speech pathology. What we learned then, and I believe it's still true, is that we all learn to "code switch" based on different social circumstances. (We speak differently to our bosses than to our dogs; we speak differently in church than at the ballpark). Failure to master different codes is as much a failure of social skills as of linguistic ability and "therapy" needs to take this social dimension into consideration.