Should Non-Standard English Be Taught in Schools?

March 15th, 2017

The 2016 presidential election brought into sharp focus the divisions among Americans about how to handle diversity. While race and country of origin came to the forefront of public and private debates, language is another issue that sparks passionate arguments. Oral language – the words we say and the way we speak them – is a strong marker of cultural background, not just across countries, but within them.

Americans have long debated educational policies for students whose native language is not English, but a subtler, often subconscious, debate has taken place about those who speak English in a dialect different from what academics refer to as Standardized English. Varieties of Non-Standardized English spoken in some communities of color, like African American Vernacular English (which has also been called Ebonics) and Caribbean English Creole, have traditionally been seen as incorrect and inferior, especially by schools and government institutions. It’s time for that to change, argues Patriann Smith, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University and a specialist in language and literacy. Standardized English has become a tool of power, she says, and denigrating other dialects has further marginalized people who have been see as “different” and sharpened divides among Americans from different cultures and ethnicities.

Writing in Policy Insights for the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Smith reviews where Non-Standardized Englishes (NSE) come from and what their implications have been for speakers. NSEs are a reflection of culture, not of intelligence or academic potential, she explains. For many African American, Caribbean, and African children and youth, it’s simply how they learned to speak English. For example, many African American children learn from their families to pronounce the word “ask” with the ‘k’ sound in the middle of the word. When educators make Standardized English (SE) the only option and leave no space for NSEs in the classroom, they highlight cultural differences and send the message that white, middle-class culture is superior to others.

For many who grew up speaking only SE, the knee-jerk reaction is that SE is “correct” and therefore that prioritizing SE is a logical, straightforward decision. But Smith points out several problems with the SE-only approach. It denigrates those who speak an NSE, putting them behind from the starting gate, especially in school. Students who speak an NSE are often seen as less competent and capable from their very first days in school, and that’s a problem for everyone – the students, peers, teachers, schools, and society at large. Smith believes that the dominant approach is also a problem for SE-only speakers. “Put simply, if the United States intends to remain a player on the global scale, it must prepare all citizens to meet the demands of such a diverse society,” she writes. “Individuals must communicate in various contexts, as they navigate spaces with many spoken languages and their varieties in the global community.”

Smith recommends that schools shift from a “monolingual” approach focused solely on SE to a “translingual” approach that focuses on how people communicate across dialects. That doesn’t mean that teachers and students all have to start speaking NSEs, but that everyone’s dialect should be seen as legitimate and useful and that peers can communicate across their different styles. It also means that educators be expected to think beyond the notion of bilingual or Limited English Proficient (LEP) status to a broader awareness about linguistic differences. “Rather than thinking about language as nation-based (from the country where you or your parents were born), it acknowledges that people speak differently even within a country based on their cultural backgrounds.” In contrast, most schools’ current approaches to NSE range from “correcting” it to accepting its use in the classroom but not teaching it.

Smith’s article includes a long list of policy recommendations for incorporating a translingual approach into education, but it’s short on specifics of how the approach can look in classrooms. But the bottom line it underscores is that educators should stop viewing NSEs and the students who speak them as inferior. It lays the groundwork for more detailed conversations about how to legitimize and even celebrate diverse language. That could be a tough sell right now, but it might be more important than ever.

Drawn from “A Distinctly American Opportunity: Exploring Non-Standardized English(es) in Literacy Policy and Practice” by Patriann Smith, published in Policy Insights for the Behavioral and Brain Sciences