Thursday, June 26, 2008

Language of Power

The linguistic aspects of my TESL (teaching English as a second language) program are blowing my mind. Yes, I've been a snob about standard English! No, it's not any more legitimate a communication tool than any regional variation of English or any other language or dialect! Yes, standard English serves as an instrument of power, as it is the language of education and high socioeconomic status in this country, and yes, emphatically yes, people living in the U.S. coming from a different home language/dialect will have access to greater social, economic, and political opportunities with standard English on their side.

But all the times I've rolled my eyes as southeastern US accents, or the classic Quincy no-R's pronunciation, or the crude farmers' Portuguese of my ancestors...

According to my (thus far) favorite textbook:
...adding Standard English as a new language or dialect involves much more than learning grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. It requires the expansion of one's personal, social, racial and ethnic identity to make room for the new language and all that it symbolizes and implies.
(p. 44)


Mutual intelligibility is often cited as a criterion to test whether two language varieties are dialects of the same language. However, this test does not always work.[...]languages such as Spanish and Portuguese are mutually intelligible. Yet they are classified as separate languages. In these cases, political status rather than mutual intelligibility plays the deciding role in distinguishing a language from a dialect, thus the assertion that a language is "a dialect with an army and a navy".

Finally, a beautiful quote from African American author James Baldwin (1924-1987) rounds out the awesomeness provided by my textbook reading today:
It [language] is the most vivid and crucial key to identity: It reveals the private identity, and connects with, or divorces one from the larger public, or communal identity...To open your (if I may use Black English) to "put your business on the street": You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem and, alas, your future.

PS. I feel that I should add a sort of disclaimer: I'm becoming a teacher of Standard English. Why? Not because my students' languages are any better or worse than mine, but because learning SE will open doors for them. It will also make them bicultural, bilingual, and those are good things, if difficult. I love Standard English; it's my language, no better or worse than theirs.


Larry Jones said...

Language (communication) is all. I'm s student of semantics, you know. Eager to read about your studies.

Narya said...

This is all so varied. On one hand, I have a certain stake, could make an argument for, and earn significant income from, the notion that there are rules about language. Are they the only possible rules? Nope. But they are a set of rules, and it's possible to learn them, no matter what your background is within the same language. (As a second language, I think there are nuances that only become apparent after a long time/much experience; I'm thinking now of a friend who did research in Paris every summer for years. He was sufficiently fluent that parisians knew he wasn't quite Parisian, but they couldn't identify him as American, for example.)

OTOH, I also think about how much the guys at the bakery and I managed to communicate--some of it relatively complex concepts--without much shared language at all.

And I, too, want to hear more about your studies.

Larry Jones said...

I meant "a" instead of "s."

kStyle said...

Larry: I did not know! I would like to hear more about your studies.

Narya: Every language variation--"dialects" and "languages both--has its own set of rules. Dialects aren't random collections of words. In fact, "Ebonics" is also called "African English" because it is, in fact, English strongly influenced by the linguistic structures of West African languages!

Heck, I would argue that teh Internets have developed their own language/dialect and usages.

Turns out there are a ton of theories about both first- and second-language acquisition: how it happens, why it happens, what type of environment and which teaching methods are best for it. Most of these theories can be broken down into 3 major schools: behaviorist (Skinner), innatist (Chomsky), and interactionist (Gardner), but that is a whole separate post.

My brain is full. Time for bed.

kStyle said...

PS we can even get into: what is language? what is culture? and, yes, we did in this in my textbooks.

Larry: I knew whatcha meant.:)

Narya said...

I can add that I disagree with what I understand of Chomsky and his school, and I can also add that Wittgenstein (and I) had much to say about language, especially about how language and practice are intertwined.

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