For the last ten years I have taught English to adult immigrants in a variety of community based settings. My students' educational backgrounds have ranged from little or no formal schooling to postgraduate work. Those students with limited formal education often come to class with negative self-images, and at times suggest that they don't know anything of value. This essay aims to highlight ways that teachers can counter this perception, by helping students to see their sociolinguistic knowledge of their native language as an important tool in the learning of English. Rather than waiting for full fluency in English before introducing a critical analysis of language and class relations in the United States, a critical sociolinguistic stance can promote students' acquisition of English while helping them articulate their sometimes unspoken class critiques. While I believe that this approach can work with any immigrant group, this essay will focus on my work in the Haitian community, and on several key aspects of Haitian sociolinguistics.
Most adult immigrants who enroll in classes to learn English do so for the same reason--a shared recognition that limited English skills will prevent them from getting a better job. They believe that if they have any hope of escaping piece work in factories or hourly wages as housekeepers, they must improve their ability to speak English. As with generations of immigrants before them, their dreams of "making it" in the United States are directly tied to their level of English. When I ask new students what kind of work they do, many of them say, "Ahh, my English is no good," even before they tell me where they are working. In doing so, students display a sharp sociolinguistic awareness that language use will play a role in any judgments made about their work and social class status.
Unfortunately, most ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes and textbooks seem to be lacking this sort of sociolinguistic awareness. There is no discussion in ESOL textbooks of how language use is affected by power relations between speakers, or by salient social characteristics (such as gender, age or level of education). This creates a dangerous situation where language is presented context free. For example, here is an explanation of the imperative from a widely used textbook: "Imperative sentences ask someone to do something in a very direct way. Keep in mind that the level of politeness depends a great deal on intonations of the speakers voice." (1) Of course, what this explanation should include is that the level of politeness one can expect depends a great deal upon the power dynamic between the person using the imperative and the person they are talking to. How the imperative is used, and if it is used, helps to shape the relationship between the speakers.
Equally unfortunate is the fact that most teachers do not see students' own sociolinguistic knowledge as a valuable classroom resource. Many hold onto what Freire calls the "banking model" of education, where a teacher is responsible for pouring information into the students' heads. This leads them to be unaware of the fact that before students can use the grammatical term "imperative," as immigrant workers they may already be well aware of who gets to use the imperative in the world outside of the classroom. In fact, given the opportunity, these students can articulate their own sense of the sociolinguistics of the workplace, which can provide them with a chance to express complex thoughts in English, and to find solidarity with other students in their position. In addition, by calling on students' sociolinguistic knowledge, teachers get a fuller sense of each student's language use and knowledge.
Because of the primary importance of work in my students' lives, and my own interest in the role language can play in social class analysis (influenced by Antonio Gramsci and Mikhail Bakhtin), I chose work and social class to be the focus for much of the sociolinguistic inquiry that took place in my class. …