Wednesday, February 20, 2008

0h Hai!!1!! (Brushing up on my l33t speak..wait, is that l33t speak??)

Reading chapter six of Dialects in Schools and Communities gave me the same feeling I had in my linguistics class [you all know the class I'm talking about: the worst class in the English education program that (almost) each and every one of us had to suffer through with you-know-who]. It gave me the feeling of confusion and a loss of answers.

Should we or shouldn't we accommodate for a dialect? The problem is not in acknowledging the dialect itself. Rather, it is addressing and dealing with a dialect that interferes with a student's formal writing abilities. The issue is that there are so many factors influencing learning and writing beyond dialect, that I really wonder if a dialect alone is entirely to blame. A red flag for this, to me, was when the book willingly admitted research is "limited in terms of the role that a student's dialect background plays in the writing process." While I do understand that I grew up with a dialect much closer to standard English than some, I never used my family's Scandinavian "uffdah!" in any of my formal writings. Ever. I was able to see the difference between formal and informal writing and work with it. The fact that we are treating other dialects like it is hindering a student from understanding and seeing the apparent visual differences is a little insulting. I think most, if not all students, regardless of their speech, can see the differences in tones and styles of writing. Like the chapter said, it's simply important to catch this early and show them a mode of filtering and monitoring their writing for the audience.

The book points out how we should not condemn a dialect used in formal writing...but we shouldn't let it go either. I'm sort of at a loss here. I'm not sure how to handle this if we should do something but not do something either. The chapter argues that each dialect has its own system and grammatical rules that we should recognize, however it also does not deny that students should be taught standard English. It even goes on to say that using a dialect in a formal writing is not necessarily wrong either. This is the part where I make a mental note that I was completely wrong for going into English instead of Math. In math there is no "well, I don't know, 2 + 2 could equal 3." An obvious oversimplification, but valid no less. The answer is either right or wrong. But with English, so much is influenced by society and it is always changing, always. I have a friend in medical research that continues to berate me because he was marked down on two separate papers for grammatical errors: in the first, he was marked down for having a comma in a list of things before the "and insert-final-object-here" and in the second was again corrected for not having one before the "and." I have tried to explain to him that language is always changing and right now, the comma at the end of a list is in transition. He insists I cannot give him this answer as it can only be right or wrong. If he only knew...

So, the point? I guess I still don't know where to stand on this. I don't feel convinced that dialect alone influences the quality of a student's writing and I still don't really know how to address this...or not address this.

My resource link is Reflection's Edge. The archived article talks about dialects, its uses and importance, in creative writing and literature. I thought this would be an interesting discussion in class when reading Huck Finn or Dickens.


  1. I agree that we are getting mixed messages pertaining to the use of dialect in English class. Like everything else, it seems as teachers we must take everything as it comes and deal with individual situations one at a time. I would argue that dialect can be the primary issue a student is having, but if I'm understanding you correctly, you seem to argue that other factors definitely exist as well. For example, if by the time students get to high school English and have not yet figured out the differences between standard English and their personal dialects, then someone has likely failed that student in the past. Nevertheless, if the student has a problem understanding the nuances of formal English, it's our job to help that student.

    I would argue that dialect has no place in formal writing until the student is able to demonstrate a knowledge of the differences between formal and non-formal writing. Although I support students' use of dialect during conversation in class, they need to know how to conduct themselves formally both written and oral. Like misusing grammar rules for stylistic purposes, students should only use that dialect in formal writing when it is appropriate and tells the reader that they have control of the written word.

  2. Yeah, I agree that dialect is a pretty slippery issue. I personally think that teaching kids to code switch, and being explict about it, is really empowering. If you frame it as being able to move in and out of several different groups in society, then I think that's appreciating their dialect and showing them that formal/standard English has its place, too.
    Speaking of 'Huck Finn,' reading that as a white suburban kid in a pretty much all white school felt a little racist. My teacher flat out admitted that the reason we read it was to "experience dialect." Not a very good reason at all, considering the novel is over-read and doesn't have any intrinsic merit.