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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Respect for dialects

Excerpts from "Everyone Has an Accent" by Walt Wolfram
A North Carolina professor advocates teaching respect for dialects

[1] Everyone notices dialects, and lots of people seem to be fascinated by them. But is it simply a matter of curiosity? What really lies beneath the laughter and the impetuous comments people make about how others speak?

[2] The Dialect Game
Linguists use the term dialect to denote patterns in the way people use language. These patterns include pronunciation (or "accent"), vocabulary and grammatical structures that reflect the user's cultural and regional background. Dialect is not limited to spoken language; users of American Sign Language employ variations that reflect their regional and social backgrounds as well.

[3] A moment's reflection exposes the level of judgment and prejudice about dialects and, by extension, their speakers. Consider the following recorded examples:

"They hear this Brooklyn accent, they think you grew up in the slum, hanging out on the corner."

"Wisconsin people, they're really bad, they sound like they're Norwegian."

"It's ignorant, it sounds ignorant, they gonna hear this and say, 'Look at them two beautiful girls; if they'd keep their mouth shut they'd be great.'"
-- from the video American Tongues
"What makes me feel that Blacks tend to be ignorant is that they fail to see that the word is spelled A-S-K, not A-X."
-- from "The Oprah Winfrey Show"

[4] The societal norm seems to be that attitudes about language differences don't even have to be disguised. Well-intentioned people who would be hesitant to make overt statements about race, gender or class openly mock and disparage language differences. In English with an Accent (see Resources), author Rosina Lippi-Green says that dialect discrimination is "so commonly accepted, so widely perceived as appropriate, that it must be seen as the last back door to discrimination. And the door stands wide open."

[5] Truth and Fiction About Dialects
There is a popular belief that dialects are simply corruptions of "real" or "good" English that reflect basic ignorance of well-known grammar rules. But the truth is that dialect structures are in themselves quite natural and neutral. Their social impact comes solely from their association with different groups in our society. If people belong to a socially oppressed group, they can count on having their language stigmatized; if they belong to a prestigious group, their language will carry prestige value.

[6] Contrary to the common belief that standards of language are fixed forever, they respond, like any other aspect of culture, to the dynamics of social change.

[7] Variation in speech is at the core of social and historical identity, interwoven into the fabric of cultural differences.

[8] The misinformation and misunderstanding about dialects in our society is not simply a matter of innocent folklore. People's intelligence, capability and character are often judged on the basis of a sentence, a few phrases or even a single word. Studies show that children as young as 3 to 5 years of age show strong preferences -- and prejudices -- based on dialect variations among speakers. Teachers sometimes classify students' speech as "deficient" when it is simply different from the testing norm. In the workplace, perfectly capable workers who speak non-mainstream dialects may be denied occupational opportunity because they "just don't sound right for the job."

What's the Solution?
For over a decade now, a small group of linguists and educators have been piloting programs specifically designed to instruct students about dialect. The goal of these "dialect awareness" programs is straightforward: to provide accurate information about the nature of dialect differences and promote understanding of the role of dialects in American society.

[10] Learning about dialects is hardly at odds with the acquisition of standard English grammar. In fact, part of the education process involves mastering appropriate styles of speech for different occasions, including those situations where standard English is required. At the same time, growing evidence supports the conclusion that respect for and knowledge of a student's community dialect aids rather than hinders the acquisition of standard English.

Click here to read full article. It's a good read.


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