Academic journal article English Journal

Moving Students toward Acceptance of "Other" Englishes

Academic journal article English Journal

Moving Students toward Acceptance of "Other" Englishes

Article excerpt

Not Wrong, Just Different

When I started an English MA program three years ago, it was with a different concept of what is right and wrong in standard English than I currently hold. Having spent my entire life in white, mostly mainstream-English-speaking schools and communities, I saw other varieties of English as incorrect, error-filled versions of my own standard. It turns out, though, that the error was mine. An introductory linguistics course made me question and rethink my view of other Englishes. Subsequent courses reinforced my new understanding that other dialects of English-ones I had been contributing to the marginalization of-are not wrong; they are just different from mine. But because I currently teach in a large, mostly white, high-achieving, suburban high school full of mainstream English speakers, I was unsure what I could do to help students who speak marginalized Englishes. I looked to Vershawn Ashanti Young's article, "Should Writers Use They Own English?" and his words gnawed at me: "we all should know everybody's dialect, at least as many as we can, and be open to the mix of them in oral and written communication" (111). His call for awareness-not just on the part of speakers of other Englishes but also for mainstream English speakers-made me realize that progress likely cannot happen without my students.

The issue of multilingualism is not solely one of schools with diverse populations. It is an issue for all schools. Without awareness of the validity of devalued Englishes on the part of mainstream speakers, it is less likely that the margins will ever be widened enough to include, much less center, the marginalized. And that is something I can address in my middle-class mainstream classroom.

Theory behind the Practice

Native English speakers are outnumbered globally by nonnative speakers and have been for decades. In 1991, Braj B. Kachru noted that nonnative speakers-those for whom English is either a lingua franca or the language of commerce or formal education-numbered more than a billion strong, while speakers for whom English is their mother tongue stood at just roughly 350 million (179). This means at the least that native speakers who purport to speak and write in standard English are entering an economy wherein they are outnumbered by those whose spoken and written English lie outside the mainstream. If for no other reason, native English speakers need to be exposed to and have an accepting attitude toward Englishes other than the mainstream because two out of three speakers of English are nonnative speakers, and native speakers will need to accept other Englishes to function in a global economy.

But further than that, mainstream English speakers also need to have an accepting attitude toward other native Englishes, including African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Chicano English, Appalachian English, and so on, to better understand and appreciate other speakers and to reduce prejudice based on language use: linguicism. Judgment based on language use remains a generally accepted prejudice in the United States: "Many of us feel free to make judgments about others because of the ways that they use language . . . . We act as though dialects and accents are windows to people's souls, and sometimes we dare to ignore or dismiss entire groups of people because of what we assume their linguistic habits reveal about them" (Zuidema 341). This continuing bastion of discrimination is not immovable, however. Peter Elbow notes that "we're already immersed in the first stage of divergence-where mainstream spoken language is starting to be acceptable for generally literate serious writing" (376), and that wider acceptance of less formal standard English will eventually lead to greater acceptance of marginalized Englishes. It is better for our mainstream-English- speaking students to be ahead of this curve-or even lead it-toward acceptance than to wallow behind in stubborn ignorance of the validity of other Englishes. …

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