Teaching about Language
For some of us (and I include myself here) the idea of teaching about language is likely to produce some anxiety. We teach English, which ought to have something to do with the English language, but our training is really in the study of literature and (perhaps) rhetoric. So we frequently feel inadequate to work seriously with language. These fears seem to be well-founded when we look at a traditional breakdown of linguistics—the sort of list that usually begins with phonology and ends somewhere in the realm of pragmatics. Linguistics, as a scholarly field, often seems too technical and complicated to belong in the secondary classroom.
What are we English teachers to do? We can begin by setting priorities, asking what it is, after all, that students should understand about language. In this regard, two principles of language study can guide us: variation and change. One goal of language study is to encourage students to understand how the English language varies as they move from region to region, ethnic group to ethnic group, social class to social class, circumstance to circumstance. Although they may know this instinctively and may conduct themselves with great skill as they manage language variations in their own lives, they seldom really think about it. Schools often foster a monolithic view of language: A sameness of language has often been one of the goals of U.S. schooling. This makes it all the more important that we encourage students to confront the truth about English—that it exists in all the varieties that Caroline Adger, Donna Christian, and Walt Wolfram describe in “Language Variation in the United States” (pp. 220–233).
As many linguists suggest, a likely place to begin to teach about variation is with the study of dialects. We all speak a dialect, indeed