Language shapes the way we think and determines what we can think about.
– Benjamin Lee Whorf
My sister Rachel is working toward her degree in English education and her minor in linguistics. She asked me tonight to take a look at a paper due in one of her classes later this week. It’s one of those moments that keeps me feeling useful as a big brother.
Rachel’s considering Zora Neal Hurston’s adherence to dialectical English when she was working as an anthropologist documenting early African American folktales.
I’ve not thought so much and so academically about the topic since I wrote my own term paper on African American Vernacular English (called Ebonics at the time).
This got me thinking.
Every once in a while, I’ll hear a student correct or chastise another student for saying “toof” instead of “tooth” or some other dialectically attributable difference.
Whenever I witness these moments, I take them as opportunities for discussion – the chance to show how understanding language and its connection to culture matters. They’ve been some of the richest culture-based conversations I’ve had in the classroom.
I wonder if waiting for the odd teachable moment might not be underserving in my role as an English teacher.
Colleagues in the Spanish department help their students understand dialectical variations across multiple Spanish-speaking countries and even regionally within those countries.
English teachers, though, remains tremendously staid in our approach to helping our students explore language. We not only ignore the international variations across English-speaking countries, we teach as though intense variations do not exist across America as well.
There is what is right and there is everything else.
Much of the time, the everything else is what our students are speaking in their homes, and intentionally or not, we make it seem wrong or less than.
I’m not advocating the abandonment of formal academic language or the prestige dialect as many of my undergraduate professors referred to it.
Instead, I’m suggesting room exists at the linguistic table to help our students understand the variation and complexity inherent in language.
To do so would be a radically complicated shift in approach. For one, classroom teachers would need to better show the cultural sensitivity we so often pride ourselves on when selecting texts.
Teaching Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for its authentic dialectical style is far from building lessons and discussions around the dialects students walk into our classrooms practicing and then building bridges from those dialects to the academic English we’ve been preaching for generations.
If we want our students to interact with the world – to be global citizens – we might need to help them become better national citizens first. To do that, we might need to help ourselves do the same.
Language is complex and intensely tied to culture. America is complex and intensely cultural. Perhaps we could be better diplomats.