Reading and the Native American Learner Research Report



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Indian English

The term Indian English refers to the broad category of English dialects used by American Indians that do not conform in certain ways to what is commonly considered to be standard English. The varieties of Indian English often differ from standard English in aspects of grammar, phonology, semantics, and rules of discourse. However, they are nonetheless well-ordered and highly structured languages, “reflecting the linguistic competencies that must underlie all languages” (Fletcher, 1983, p.2). Although many American Indians are fluent speakers of standard English, Indian English is the first language learned by two-thirds of American Indian youth today (Leap, 1993). In this section we provide a brief discussion of the distinctive features of Indian English and the importance of Indian English varieties within the speech communities in which they are used.

Leap (1993), in a review of the literature on Indian English, discusses the ways in which these English varieties differ from standard English:


  • The phonologies of Indian English varieties and standard English often differ in a number of respects. For instance, Navajo English speaking students “will exchange [i] and [e], [iy] and [i], and [ey] for [e] (that is, high front vs. mid front; high front long vs. high front short; and mid front long vs. mid front short)” (p. 45).

  • Word formation and marking conventions in Indian English often differ from those in standard English. For instance, Indian English varieties commonly have “a lower frequency of plural and possessive suffix marking than found in other English codes” (p.53).

  • Some Indian English varieties have grammars which allow left-branching rather than right-branching syntactic constructions. For example, “They ride bikes is what I see them do” and “From the family is where we learn to be good [italics in original] (p.77).

  • Speakers of Indian English use articles and demonstrative pronouns differently from standard English speakers. For instance, “for some Indian English speakers, articles simply do not occur in noun-based English constructions - for example, in Navajo English They find bone in deep yard or He asked shopkeeper for sheep [italics in original]” (p.55).

  • Passive constructions with the verb “to get” rather than “to be” are common in Indian English varieties. For example, “The fly got bitten by the spider [italics in original] (p.69).

  • Many Indian English varieties allow for sentence constructions involving the deletion of the verbs “to get,” “to have” and “to be.” For example, “She _ Red Corn people” and “Then they would tell them what law he _ broken [italics in original] (p.70).

Leap also states that, in addition to the differences listed above, Indian English varieties differ to some degree from standard English in their pragmatics systems.15 One way the pragmatics systems can differ is in the rules of appropriate question-asking. For example, in Lakota English,


request-oriented questions - such as are necessary when students need new writing instruments so they can complete a seatwork assignment - are worded much more abruptly: Teacher, you must give me a pencil! For persons unfamiliar with Lakota English usage, such statements take teacher generosity for granted and ignore the social distance that always separates teachers and students in classroom settings. Persons familiar with Lakota community verbal etiquette realize that these statements closely parallel the “imperative verb” constructions in the speakers’ ancestral language and that Lakota speakers regularly use such constructions when making requests of kinspeople and other close friends [italics in original]. (p.86)
The pragmatics systems of Indian English varieties may also differ from the pragmatics system of standard English in regard to the use of silence. Leap suggests that the use of silence is an appropriate response within at least some Indian English varieties when individuals interact with strangers or are “involved in social domains where the assumptions about behavior are not completely clear” (p.87). (See “American Indian Student Silence” in the fourth section of this document for an expanded discussion of the sources of silence among American Indian students.)

Finally, Leap states that the pragmatics systems can also differ in terms of their principles of cooperative discourse (i.e., the assumptions that help speakers find appropriate, efficient, and effective ways to use language in different situations). For example, the work of Phillips (1972, 1983, quoted in Leap, 1993) suggests that on the Warm Springs Indian reservation the following assumptions guide the language use of adult and child tribal members:




  • “Face-to-face interaction is the most valued form of interpersonal communication.

  • Talking is closely linked to other types of physical activity; talk is rarely the only form of action found in a speech event.

  • Speaker age is closely related to speaker skill. To be a good talker, a speaker must be over age 35. Persons under age 35 should be good listeners and defer opportunities for speaking to their elders.

  • Listening is a passive activity. Listeners use gaze direction and other indirect cues to show they are paying attention when someone else is talking.

  • Speakers direct their comments to all participants in the audience, not to selected individuals” (Phillips, 1972, 1983 in Leap, 1993, p.80–81).

In contrast, language use within Warm Springs classrooms (which are environments that are controlled by non-Indian teachers) builds on entirely different assumptions:




  • “Individualized activity, not face-to-face communication, is the valued form of action within this setting.

  • Talk is a self-contained activity; talk occurs independently of other forms of classroom action and should not be disrupted by those actions.

  • Age-level has nothing to do with language skill; all persons in the classroom should know how to control talk appropriately.

  • Listening is an active activity. Listeners use gestures, direct eye contact, verbal rejoinders, and other clues to show that they understand what others are saying to them.

  • Speakers stress the main points of their topic and need not dwell on what they consider the unimportant details” (Leap, 1993, p.81).

Numerous explanations have been offered as to the sources of the distinctive nature of Indian English varieties such as the linguistic influences of trade languages and forms of “Black English” vernacular. However, Leap (1993) argues that


the distinctive characteristics of these codes derive, in large part, from their close association with their speakers’ ancestral language traditions. In many cases, rules of grammar and discourse from that tradition provide the basis for grammar and discourse in these English codes - even in instances where the speakers are not fluent in their ancestral language. (p.281–282)16
Leap notes that these Indian English varieties serve valuable purposes in the speech communities in which they are used, even among individuals who speak their ancestral language, standard English, or both. Indian English is of particular importance where it is
the only Indian-related language tradition that community members have maintained or the only such tradition that older community members have been willing to transmit to the younger generation. When this is the case, Indian English fluency becomes a highly valued social skill, and the nonstandard features of the Indian English conversation have an even greater cultural significance for their speakers [italics in original]. (p.3)
The work of Ogbu (e.g., 1991) suggests that, within such a context, Indian English fluency may be an important way for American Indian people who are not fluent in their ancestral language to nonetheless maintain an identity in opposition to the dominant societal group.
Section IV
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