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School in North Carolina Teaches Its Students Standard English

February 23, 2010

According to this article from wect.com, by Casey Roman, educators at the Forest Hills Elementary School in Wilmington, North Carolina, are learning African American English in order to better understand their students. Teachers are then taking this knowledge and teaching students how express themselves in a more mainstream dialect of English.  The principal, Michael Cobb, said, “We’re trying to get our staff, which is not African American largely, to try to get them to understand it’s a different way of communicating. When students say something, don’t get offended.  Try to understand and go beyond that”.  Since then, standardized test scores have gone up.

The school’s attempt to understand its students and teach them how to function professionally in mainstream American society is admirable.  Whether we like to admit it or not, knowing how to understand and speak the mainstream dialect is a very important tool for success in the public sphere.

The issue lies not within the school’s attempt to teach their students’ mainstream English, but in the way Roman’s article approaches African American English.

Instead of calling it African American English, she calls the students’ language “slang” and “street talk”, implying that it is inferior to Standard English. She states, “These teachers aren’t learning how to use slang. They’re learning a responsible way to correct it in class.”

While Roman implies that they are trying to correct “slang” in the classroom only, the words “slang” and “street talk” are still pejorative. Studies by linguists have shown that African American English is not slang, rather it is systematic and rule governed.  Therefore, trying to “correct” students’ language implies that African American English is wrong, when in fact it is just different from Standard American English or a more mainstream dialect of English.

Roman’s error is common, and it is hard to tell if the school calls students’ language “slang,” or if Roman represents them that way. A better approach for Roman to take would be to acknowledge the students’ language as an acceptable form of English, and then to say that they are being taught Standard American English as another dialect of English.

If the public called African American English a dialect, this would give students the idea that the language they use is not wrong; it is just one of the many variations of English.

This would also avoid another issue that is brought up by calling the students’ language “slang.” That is, this is the language that they hear and speak at home, and that their families and friends speak as well.  Calling it “slang” might diminish students’ confidence, giving them the impression that not only they are wrong, but their parents and everyone they know are wrong as well.

With all of its issues, the Forest Hills Elementary School’s plan to teach its students mainstream English is a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, in American society today, Standard English is necessary to be respected in the professional field. The school is trying to understand how its students communicate, and then help them communicate with others who don’t understand African American English. The next step would be for people to stop using derogatory undertones when talking about African American English, and to respect it as its own dialect.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Scott Jenkins permalink
    November 1, 2010 11:09 pm

    While the use of pejorative terms to refer to AAE in the article is a sign of ignorance, this strikes me as an overall positive step in linguistic and cultural education for today’s youth. The dominant method in educating speakers of AAE has been subtractive, focusing on knocking down their own perfectly normal dialect and attempting to replace it with the Standard. The school in this article, however, has taken an important step by recognizing the validity of the dialect and attempting to build upon the knowledge of the students.

    Such a dichotomy, involving dual-mastery of a local dialect and a wider-functioning Standard dialect, is common throughout the world. The most apparent example is that of colloquial Arabic versus MSA, or Modern Standard Arabic. The latter is based on the language of the Q’ran and is used for journalism, business, and education. The former, on the other hand, is the varying regional dialect that is spoken natively. Just as with AAE and SAE, there exists a balance between the variations that, if used properly, can lead to greater success in and acceptance by the culture at hand.

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