In Support of Integrating Minority Dialect Literature into the Curriculum

by Stephanie Humphries

Ferrum College, 2000

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Argument:  These books use bad language.

Answer:  Such statements have no basis in linguistic fact. Instead, they are social judgments. As Peter Trudgill (1975, p. 28-29) writes:

Judgements which appear to be [about] language are in fact judgements based on social and cultural values, and have much more to do with the social structure of our community than with language. What happens is that, in any society, different groups of people are evaluated in different ways. Some groups have much more prestige and status than others, and, as a result, dialects and accents associated with these groups tend to be more favourably evaluated than other varieties. Types of language associated with high-prestige social groups are therefore considered ‘good’ and ‘attractive’ and so on, while other varieties are evaluated as less good in comparison. Judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ language are therefore based on social connotations of dialects and accents rather than anything inherent in the linguistic varieties themselves. They are judgements about speakers rather than about speech.

Argument:  Come on, double negation? That has no place in literature.

Answer:  Double negation, or more accurately "multiple negation," is used in many dialects and, as part of literature, helps to communicate a character's regional and social background. Besides, multiple negation only recently became unfashionable, having been common in nearly all English dialects at one time. Chaucer, for example, used multiple negation.

Argument:  Dialect in literature sets a poor example for students. They’ll start talking like that.

Answer:  The truth is, even in Appalachian literature, dialect is often restricted to dialogue. As a result, Standard American English is still conveyed as the dialect in which to write and the one with more prestige.

Students are not getting the message that they should not learn Standard American English. Rather, they begin to realize that their dialects have validity. As a result, they become more interested in language. If it is true that, “if a child feels his language is inferior, he is less likely to be willing to use it” (Trudgill, 1975, p. 62), then it stands to reason that if a student feels his or her dialect is acceptable, at least in some circumstances, he or she will be more willing to use it.

Too, the subject matter, location, characters and themes in Appalachian literature interest and are relevant to students who live in that area. Why not use reading material that is going to engage and motivate students? If students don’t “see” themselves in literature, they’ll come to resent reading.

Indeed, “the social distance between the child and the characters he reads about, symbolised by the language differences involved, would be smaller for most children if non-standard dialects were used-which might result in keener readers who were more able to identify with the characters, and thus with the activity of reading itself” (Trudgill, 1975, p. 75). Wouldn’t we rather have higher literacy rates and students who were excited about using language rather than students who are so insecure they dread reading?

Argument:  But I’m not from this region. I don’t talk like that. I can’t teach Appalachian literature, especially dialect.

Answer:  So, let the students teach you. It’s important that you learn the dialect features of the students you teach, since such differences can affect the quality of education speakers of minority dialects receive (Labov, 1995).

Indeed, research in the United Kingdom has suggested that “the most problematical situation is one where the teacher and child have markedly different accents and the teacher is not aware of the nature or extent of the differences” (Trudgill,1975. p. 48). Donna Christian, an authority on Appalachian dialects, suggests that “teachers and materials developers need a clear understanding of the systematic differences between standard and vernacular dialects in order to help students learn standard English” (Christian, 1997, p. 2-3).

Argument:  For their own good and to help them succeed, we should have students read and speak Standard American English.

Answer:  Philosophies differ. A few points should be mentioned.

Linguists, in general, are opposed to attempts to change students’ dialects in speech. One reason is that these attempts rarely succeed. Students don’t talk like their teachers. They most often talk like their friends. This is because dialects can be an important factor in group membership and a way of signaling group solidarity (Trudgill, p. 57). For a student to reject his or her dialect, he or she must want to change his or her identity in some way. This is, of course, a highly personal decision.

It cannot be denied, however, that in dialect studies, listeners tend to rate arguments and speech spoken without a strong regional dialect higher, in some dimensions, than arguments and speech that have strong dialect characteristics. Speakers who do not have strong dialect markers in their speech are often rated more highly in terms of intelligence, eloquence and authority. It is important to understand, though, that speakers with dialect markers are rated more highly on sincerity, persuasiveness and honesty. Speakers who change features of their native dialects, then, both gain and lose.

Even if students decided that they want to adopt more features of Standard American English in their speech, there is little, if any reason why schools should “prepare” students for changing their dialects. Research indicates that, if at some later point, a student decides to alter his or her dialect, whether for reasons of geographical or social mobility, he or she can do this with reasonable success. Rather than insisting that students “change” their dialects in school, we can rest assured that, if they choose, they will associate with others who have the desired dialect and, in a less conscious way, adapt different dialect features.

Such attempts at helping students “lose” their dialects often have negative consequences. For example, by “correcting” speech and rejecting dialects, we run the risk of making the student feel rejected (Trudgill, p. 58). This obviously has consequences for students’, particularly minority students’ self-esteem and success in school (Cazden, 1988). Also, it’s difficult to change one’s dialect. Psychologically and even physically, it can be demanding. As a result, dialect speakers are put at a disadvantage as they pay less attention to what they say and more attention to how they say it.

However, many linguists do support the concept of bidialectism, when students have command of two different dialects (most often, their native dialects and Standard American English). Using this approach, students explore differences between the way they talk to friends or at home and the way they might talk in formal settings, then explore similarities and differences, etc. Rather than asking students to eliminate their own dialects, this approach encourages them to develop both dialects so that they have more flexibility.

In contrast to speech, regarding writing, the general consensus among linguists is that students should use Standard American English. In written form, dialects are far less accepted in the workplace and other institutions. Too, students can learn standard written forms and have time to edit and proofread.


AppLit Bibliography on Appalachian Dialects

Cazden, C. (1988). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Christian, D. (1997). Vernacular dialect in U.S. schools. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Labov, W. (1995). Can reading failure be reversed: A linguistic approach. In V. Gadsden & D. Wagner (Eds.), Literacy among African-American youth: Issues in learning, teaching, and schooling. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Trudgill, P. (1975). Accent, Dialect and the School. London: Edward Arnold. [Note British spelling in quotations from Trudgill above.]

Wolfram, W., & Christian, D. (1989). Dialects and education: Issues and answers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall/Regents.

Wolfram, W., Christian, D., & Adger, C. (1997). Dialects in schools and communities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.