Teaching the Standard as Additive Bilingualism: A Search for Progressive Methodology
After reading a variety of student essays exemplifying oral language features in the written work of non-standard dialect speakers, I began to wonder whether it would be possible to teach Standard English to beginning writers without invalidating their home dialects. How would I explain to a student who is struggling to write academically that Standard English is ultimately crucial to his/her academic success without somehow marginalizing the student or members of his/her community? As we approached the portion of the semester in which we discussed AAVE and Chicano dialect, I read the work of numerous theorists and teachers concerned with the issue of teaching the standard to speakers of English vernacular, but none of the articles offered any concrete solutions as to how we might address or promote dialect awareness in the classroom. The idea itself—promoting awareness—seemed to me exceptionally complex and abstract. I decided to do more research on the topic to see if I could find out how to incorporate awareness into a pragmatic pedagogy. By looking at the different attitudes toward standard and non-standard language varieties and assessing successful teaching methods, I hoped to learn more about how to present the acquisition of Standard English as additive instead of subtractive bilingualism, as expansion rather than substitution.
One issue I struggled with initially was why the academic emphasis on Standard English was often considered controversial byacademics. Since then, I’ve come to realize that all my life I’ve been taking the standard for granted. I have always spoken it, read it, used it. I never, in truth, considered it to be superior to other dialects, because I never pushed myself to think about other dialects. I was more concerned with what I thought were grammatical issues in students’ writing, not realizing where the supposed ‘issues’ stemmed from. After reading about the linguistic structures of AAVE, I wanted to know more about different communities’ attitudes toward standard and non-standard English varieties, as well as the intrinsic differences between the two.
In his article, “Beyond Language: Ebonics, Proper English, and Identity in a Black-American Speech Community,” John U. Ogbu examines the differences between Black English—referred to in the context of everyday life in the family and community as “low dialect”—and White-American proper English, which is considered “high dialect” in the context of jobs, education, and “communication with ‘outsiders’” (Ogbu 150). The author also interviews community members about their attitudes toward “proper” English and “slang,” pointing out the contradictions in both parents’ and students’ views on community solidarity and the sacrifices that must be made in the name of academic and financial success. Ogbu uses examples of code-switching during the interviews to highlight the failures of English education in which subtractive bilingualism—a method of teaching in which the home dialect is considered improper or vulgar and treated as a problem to be ‘fixed’—is the norm, even in schools with diverse student populations. He argues that traditional methods alienate not only students, but entire communities; they create an atmosphere of opposition wherein minority groups consisting of “involuntary immigrants”—populations who were brought to this country originally by force and sold into slavery—view Standard English as a just another tool of systematic oppression. Furthermore, Ogbu argues, “the presence of an oppositional relationship has serious implications for learning and using the standard English” (154).
There is ample evidence of a vicious cycle at work here. Students are marginalized by teachers who condone only Standard English and who convey deeply negative attitudes toward students’ home dialects. These students suffer to see their home languages, primary channels for self-expression and communication, being dragged through the mud and respond by rejecting any adherence to the standard as “acting white.” Many of the articles I read refer to this phenomenon, among them Ogbu’s “Beyond Language,” and Signithia Fordham’s “Dissin ‘the Standard’: Ebonics as Guerilla Warfare at Capital High.” Interestingly, each article focuses on one community and, in particular, one school. Fordham is interested not only in Capital High students’ “wholesale avoidance of the standard dialect,” but their rebellious attitudes toward it. She notes that many students merely “lease” the standard “on a daily basis from nine to three” (Fordham 272). One student Fordham observes, Rita, “often talked disparagingly about how her peers frequently equated high academic performance with ‘acting white’” (273).
Both Ogbu and Fordham describe subtractive bilingualism in the teaching of Standard English as an insidious approach that places non-standard dialect speakers in opposition to all that is considered “proper” and “good” in educational and institutional contexts. There exists for some a longstanding belief that any variation of the English language is merely “bad” English with no apparent system of rules to govern it. Contradicting this notion in her article, “CCCC’s Role in the Struggle for Language Rights,” Geneva Smitherman outlines the decades-long controversy surrounding the legitimacy of English Language varieties in academia. She cites both proponents and critics of Black English in particular, bringing to light scholars’ disparate views and the political and social movements that were taking place when certain articles were written. One of the proponents of dialect awareness, Sarah Webster Fabio, defines Black Language as “direct, creative, intelligent communication between black people based on a shared reality, awareness, understanding which generates interaction” (355). Taking a defensive stance of Black Language, James Banks states, “The desire to eliminate dialect is an egocentric solution proposed out of power and out of traditional modes of education that have always shunned the experimental in favor of the pragmatic… I can predict what lies in our future—a uniform society, most likely in uniform… we are hastening to our meeting with Orwell” (356).
On the other side of the spectrum are those traditionalists who see Standard English as the only correct form, the only teachable variety. Taking into account the conservative political zeitgeist of the 1980s, Smitherman presents the debate between right- and left-leaning language theorists as galvanized by Thomas J. Ferrell. In his 1983 “bombshell,” “IQ and Standard English,” which appeared in the journal, CCC, Farrell argues that “the non-standard forms of the verb ‘to be’ in Black English may affect the thinking of the users… black ghetto children have difficulty learning to read… I am hypothesizing that learning full standard deployment of the verb ‘to be’ is integral to developing Level II thinking because the deployment of that verb played a part in the development of abstract thinking in ancient Greece” (Smitherman 366). Instead of looking at the real literacy struggles of “black ghetto children,” who are actually suffering academically because their home languages are stigmatized and kept out of the classroom, Ferrell theorizes that their intelligence is affected by their non-standard version of the verb “to be,” thus reiterating and justifying the same harmful stigmas that produce illiteracy. After quoting Farrell, Smitherman includes a variety of scholars’ reactions, many of whose counterarguments were also published in CCC; the influx of opinions on the subject created an ongoing debate and brought the issue of dialect awareness back into the foreground of English education.
Myths about dialect, though they were long ago debunked by linguists who found proof that that structures of vernacular English were actually “systematic and fundamentally regular,” still persist to this day. Students suffer because this evidence is not taken seriously in many academic institutions. The implications of the public’s—and especially teachers’—longstanding rejection of the information brought to light by the Linguistic Society of America are evaluated in “African American Vernacular English and Dialect Awareness in English Departments,” by Riki Thompson. Citing Judge Charles Joiner’s decision in the lawsuit, King vs. Ann Arbor, Thompson writes “the Ann Arbor School District was liable in that ‘the failure to develop a program to assist their teachers to take into account the home language in teaching Standard English may be one of the causes of the children’s reading problems’… The school district was required to institute programs to help educate teachers about the language system of AAVE, to foster both increased knowledge and understanding about the dialect” (Thompson 3.) For me, this was a major discovery. A judge had actually ordered an entire school district to foster awareness of dialect in local schools—and this was way back in 1979. Thompson also highlights the 1996 decision of the Oakland School Board to “recognize the vernacular of African American Students in teaching them Standard English” (3). I gathered from the article that since programs had been developed to make sure minority students were not being left behind in the academic system, there must be more information out there on how to go about fostering awareness of dialect in the classroom.
I knew I wanted to teach Standard English as a language variety to be acquired for academic success, and I was confident that because I take the linguistic evidence legitimizing vernacular English seriously, I would not stoop to promoting “good” English over “bad.” Still, at this point in my research, I didn’t have anything close to a repertoire of practical ideas about how to incorporate dialect awareness into my day-to-day teaching. However, when I found Jeff Siegel’s article, “Stigmatized and Standardized Varieties in the Classroom: Interference or Separation?” I knew I was on the right track.
From both Siegel’s and Ogbu’s work, I learned about the idea of interference, or negative transfer, which Siegel defines as “the use of L1 features inappropriately in the L2, or confusion between the two.” He goes on to point out that “the fear of interference has kept nonstandard varieties and pidgins and creoles out of the classroom” (Siegel 702). It was interesting to me to see that such a seemingly small, debatable concept could be used as an argument to push every language variety but the standard out of English classrooms across the country. More striking was the body of data being ignored: “Empirical SLA research of the late 1960s and 1970s showed that interference or negative transfer accounts for only a small proportion of leaners’ errors” (703).
Immediately, I was reminded of Smitherman’s and Thompson’s findings on the public’s rejection of linguistic evidence supporting the legitimacy of non-standard varieties. It was disheartening to find that so much research, instead of serving to further people’s knowledge and enrich the US education system, has been largely discounted due to a lack of support by the general public. I could understand this happening in politics, where public opinion keeps lawmakers in office, but in education it seems counterintuitive. Everyone wants what’s best for their children (at least everyone says they do), so how can the public’s perceptions of education research outweigh the factual evidence supporting it?
Siegel, having established that negative transfer doesn’t hurt students’ chances of becoming fluent in a second language, examines three educational programs in which non-standard varieties are either used or addressed in the classroom. Through instrumental, accommodation, and awareness programs, he proposes, students learn the standard variety while developing fluency in their home languages. Accommodation programs, for instance, involve “full acceptance of the children’s natural language in the classroom.” The most successful teachers in this type of program “spoke with the children in AAVE,” and the least successful, “were not aware of the systematic dialect differences and constantly interrupted students to correct their language to conform to the standard.”
Most interesting to me, however, are the awareness programs, which emphasize a contrastive approach to language and dialect. Because I don’t speak a non-standard variety and would be hard-pressed to converse with students in AAVE or any other vernacular, I would, as Siegel suggests, teach the differences between Standard English and the other dialects represented in the classroom. Awareness activities outlined in the article include “contrasting features of HCE (Hawaii Creole English) and Standard English and emphasizing appropriate contexts for each.” Research suggests that using a contrastive method in the classroom is effective because “the acquisition of two linguistic systems requires the development of a separate mental representation for each… this is promoted by an awareness of the differences between the two” (711).
Mr. Lehrer, a seventh grade English teacher at Barrington Middle School in Detroit, uses a contrastive method combined with elements of the accommodation approach in his classroom (Hill 1). He demonstrates methods of teaching in an urban community that can be applied in any grade level, from elementary school to the university level. “In a climate where many teachers assume the home language of working class Detroit children is deficient, Mr. Lehrer’s practices are improvisational, based on changing demography in his classroom, for he assumes competence and a space for all students to recognize that they appropriate a deviation from Standard English” (Hill 2). The author of this profile, K. Dara Hill, discovered Mr. Lehrer when she was examining community reactions to the influx of transfer students, primarily Black students, into the Oakdale Valley School District between 2004 and 2005. While many teachers balked at the new population of students in the predominately white schools in Oakdale, which borders Detroit, Mr. Lehrer embraced the change in demographics and used it to alter his teaching style to accommodate his new students. He incorporated discussions of race, class, and social justice into the regular curriculum and encouraged students to use their home languages in certain contexts while promoting Standard English acquisition as additive bilingualism.
“Monet… expressed that she wrote a (poem), but that she speaks slang. She wanted to know if she could write the way she spoke without being marked down for it. Mr. Lehrer welcomed her idea, expressing that it was what he wanted her to do… Mr. Lehrer’s welcoming of non-standard voices explicated for Monet that her appropriation of African American Vernacular English was not the only deviation from Standard English. Therefore, Mr. Lehrer affirmed that people of varying races and backgrounds are tied to varying literacies that are connected with varying discourses” (Hill 14).
This account of Mr. Lehrer’s teaching methods and positive interactions with students shows that improvisation and accommodation, as long as such practices reflect one’s philosophy, are essential for promoting awareness of dialect in the classroom. Explicating the differences between Standard English and non-standard varieties—as well as providing contexts and occasions to use both—clarifies for students that the language they have grown up speaking or writing is not deficient or inferior, but neither is it the only way to speak or write. Using their home language, students may express themselves artistically, creatively, and intellectually. In learning the standard, students learn to express their ideas academically. Therein lies the difference. Hill goes on to say that, “promoting a balance between standard and non-standard writing conventions suits Delpit’s (1995) notion that students should not eradify the features of their non-standard home language and have opportunities to appropriate them. At the same time, intervention is required for formal writing contexts.”
When I started my search, I was doubtful that I would find many fruitful links between the abstract idea of promoting awareness and practical teaching methods. However, it was uplifting to find that many teachers and theorists are still trying to change the current-traditional academic climate to one of understanding, mutual respect, and acknowledgement of students’ needs. The discourse on awareness encompasses many ideas that are of interest to me now: additive and subtractive bilingualism, the differences between standard and non-standard language varieties, the implications of the public’s (and school systems’) refusal to acknowledge linguistic evidence supporting dialect awareness, and the benefits of instrumental, accommodation, and awareness programs in schools. I would like to find more examples of teaching methods modeled on awareness and accomodation, such Mr. Lehrer’s, but for now I have a much better idea of how to teach Standard English as additive bilingualism than I did when I began my search.
Ogbu, John U. “Beyond Language: Ebonics, Proper English, and Identity in a Black-American Speech Community.” American Educational Research Journal36.2 (1999): 147-184.
Fordham, Signithia. “Dissin’ ‘the Standard’: Ebonics as Guerilla Warfare at Capital High.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 30.3 (1999): 272-293.
Thompson, Riki. “African American Vernacular English and Dialect Awareness in English Departments.” A paper prepared for the Biennial Society for Caribbean Linguistics Conference. Washington: U.S. Department of Education (2002).
Smitherman, Geneva. “CCCC’s Role in the Struggle for Language Rights.” CCC 50.3 (1999): 349-374.
Siegel, Jeff. “Stigmatized and Standardized Varieties in the Classroom: Interference or Separation?” TESOL Quarterly 33.4 (1999): 701-728.
Hill, K. Dara. “Providing Access to Standard and Nonstandard Writing Conventions: How a Teacher Encouraged His Students Use of Literate Identity.” Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education 5.2 (2008).