Lexicon Valley

Which English You Speak Has Nothing to Do With How Smart You Are

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How can linguists and educators work together to help maintain the linguistic voices of the next Zora Neale Hurston or Albert Einstein while at the same time support students on the Common Core, SATs, GREs, and LSATs?

In classrooms across the U.S., there are kids who speak a wide variety of types of English. Even though it’s historical accident that anyone considers “isn’t” better than “ain’t” or “wash” better than “warsh,” those kids who just axed a question may feel dumb and be treated as if they’re dumb by the people around them. And it starts young: Even by the end of kindergarten, many students have absorbed messages that their language is wrong, incorrect, dumb, or stigmatized.

For example, when I studied the language patterns of 4- and 5-year-old black children in several U.S. cities, many of them were worried that just talking with me would somehow cause them to be held back a grade if they did not do well in the conversations. You can see how these feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and apprehension when communicating—what the linguist William Labov calls linguistic insecurity—would make it disheartening to try and learn higher skills like math and reading when you’re told you’re wrong as soon as you even open your mouth.

But where does this idea that certain varieties of English are worse come from, does it have any basis in reality, and what can teachers—and all of us—do about it?

First of all, let’s lay to rest this idea that English—or any language—has one dialect that’s just right and a whole bunch of others that are wrong. Not only has English changed throughout the ages, but there isn’t even any logic behind what’s currently in style: As the linguist Steven Pinker explains, “The choice of isn’t over ain’t, dragged over drug, and can’t get any over can’t get no did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the variety of English spoken around London when the written language became standardized. If history had unfolded differently, today’s correct forms could have been incorrect and vice versa.”

So why do people think of speakers of standardized English as being smarter, of a higher status, and as having more positive personality traits than speakers of nonstandardized English varieties? These values have more to do with who is in power: If people are devalued for some reason or another—race, gender, socioeconomic class, and so on—their language gets the same association. For example, the way that the British upper class speaks may sound snobby to some, but it’s most always judged academically acceptable. The language of Southern African-Americans may sound warm and fun but it’s often judged to be academically unacceptable or undesirable. It’s even in our media: As the linguist Rosina Lippi-Green points out, the way that cartoon characters speak, like the Lion King’s hyenas or Shrek’s donkey, reinforces our racial and linguistic stereotypes, encouraging kids to think of their classmates who sound like Simba or Shrek as “good guys,” people who sound like the hyenas as “bad guys,” and people who sound like Donkey as buffoons.

All too often, what happens is something like this story I heard from a math teacher in a first grade classroom, “One of the kids, an African American kid, was playing a game and he said, ‘I don’t got no dice.’ He didn’t have the materials he needed. And the teacher said, ‘You know, Joshua, we speak English in this class.’ Really harshly. And I just thought, oh gosh. There must be a better way to respond.”

But what’s a teacher to do? On the one hand, they need to help students prepare for a world that—like it or not—isn’t particularly accepting of linguistic variation. But on the other, they want to do so in a way that lets students continue to be proud of who they are and where they come from, rather than pushing them into tongue-tied linguistic insecurity.

It’s not a solved problem yet, but the educators I’m working with have two main approaches. The first is to talk in terms of being able to use and understand many varieties of English. Educators have also used the terms code-switching and toggle talk to express the idea that it’s useful to speak standardized English in certain contexts, like academia, but that it doesn’t have to come at the expense of speaking your own way in other contexts, with friends or at home.

The second is to point out that, in fact, many famous authors take great care in learning several language varieties. For example, in the preface to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain notes:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

When we encourage students to creatively mix their own varieties of English with the standardized version depending on the time and circumstances, we help them develop both their self-confidence and their own unique voices: Think how much blander the literature of Mark Twain or Maya Angelou would be if every character talked the same way. For more ideas on how to do this, my colleague Christine Mallinson and I have a list of resources here.

In fact, this kind of linguistic flexibility is a skill that’s becoming more and more recognized. For example, the recently-implemented Common Core Standards state that students need to “appreciate that the twenty-first-century classroom and workplace are settings in which people from often widely divergent cultures and who represent diverse experiences and perspectives must learn and work together…[and be] able to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds.”

But the task of challenging linguistic insecurity isn’t just the job of classroom teachers. From animated caricatures to the next great work of literature, we all need to start with this basic premise: Which variety of English you speak has nothing to do with how smart you are.

In a 1979 essay called “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?,” James Baldwin states: “A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo…” Otherwise, Baldwin warns: “it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.”