ERIC Identifier: ED456674
Publication Date: 2001-09-00
Author: Hazen, Kirk
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Teaching about Dialects. ERIC Digest.
The study of dialects offers a fascinating approach to learning about
language. Ideally, by learning about how language varies geographically and
socially, students will come to understand at least two basic facts about
language: 1) that language changes over time, and 2) that language use is linked
to social identity.
Language variation, or dialect diversity, reflects the fact that languages
change over time and that people who live in the same geographical area or
maintain the same social identity share language norms; in other words, they
speak the same dialect. Although dialects differ geographically and socially, no
dialect is better structurally than another. While many people believe there to
be only one correct form of a language, what is standard actually varies from
dialect to dialect. For example, the normal Southern pronunciation of the word
pin does not differ from the pronunciation of the word pen. But because other
dialects make a distinction between the vowels i and e preceding the nasal sound
/n/, speakers of those dialects may assess the Southern pronunciation as
incorrect instead of simply different. Judging someone's pronunciation (or
grammar or word choice) as wrong may lead to unwarranted judgments about their
intelligence or ability.
Such dialect discrimination is widely tolerated in the United States. If
people had a better understanding of how language works, they would probably be
less inclined to make negative judgments about speakers of different dialects.
Knowledge about how language works is fundamental to understanding human
communication in the same way that a knowledge of biology leads to a better
understanding of how the human body works.
This digest addresses some of the difficulties teachers may encounter in
teaching about dialects and provides several activities for helping students
learn more about language and understand that language variation is a natural
DIFFICULTIES IN TEACHING ABOUT DIALECTS
In teaching about
dialects (i.e., language variation), teachers may encounter certain challenges,
including widespread misperceptions about how language works and intolerance
toward disempowered groups. Teaching about language variation may mean
questioning some widely held views about language. While popular views are not
always inaccurate, they may need to be re-examined. For example, blood-letting
was widely perceived as an appropriate solution for certain diseases when the
body was believed to have four primary humors that controlled health; since
then, advances in medical knowledge have led people to change their view of
blood-letting. In the same way, many people believe that there is a single set
of standards for English, but linguistic science shows that Standard English in
one part of the country is somewhat different from Standard English in other
parts of the country and from Standard English in other English-speaking
countries. Debate about what is "correct" can become a moral battlefield in
which individuals argue the merits of language use and language instruction
according to absolute standards of right and wrong.
Teachers can navigate this potential minefield by increasing their own
knowledge about sociolinguistic research on dialects of English. (See Demo,
2000, for a reading list.) They will come to understand and can help their
students understand that the difference between the Standard English dialect
spoken in Boston and the Standard English dialect spoken in Atlanta can be
explained by differences in regional norms for language use. The difference
between Standard English in Baltimore and vernacular English dialects in
Baltimore (e.g., African American Vernacular English and urban Appalachian
English) is explained by different social norms.
Attitudes about various dialects may also be influenced by a continuing
intolerance toward different ethnic and cultural groups. Teachers can directly
address implicit or institutionalized discrimination that shows up in language
(e.g., "the lady doctor" vs. "the doctor") or in attitudes toward language. The
extent to which the teacher is responsible for changing attitudes about other
people is a difficult question, but an open examination of language attitudes
can provide opportunities to discuss broader social issues.
TEACHING ABOUT DIALECTS
The best approach for teaching about dialects is to invite students into a
dialogue that engages them in examining some basic assumptions. This is not an
easy process, but most audiences demonstrate a high level of interest in
language matters. Teachers might start with a series of true-or-false questions,
such as the following:
Language is one of our most important cultural inventions.
Language change is a process of decay.
Grammar books used in schools cover most of the rules and processes of English.
Eskimos have many words for snow, and they "see" snow differently than others
Writing and speech are essentially the same thing.
Appalachian English is Elizabethan English.
Children require detailed instruction to learn language.
After the students have completed the exercise, the answers can be discussed.
(They are all false.) This kind of discussion brings the teacher and the
students into an awareness of how certain language-related terms, such as rules
and language, may be used in different senses. The group can decide together
what terms they need to define and how to locate and understand scientifically
Another useful strategy for teaching about dialects involves active learning:
looking for patterns of language variation. The teacher should guide the
students in examining language samples to find linguistic explanations for the
patterns they note. A second set of language samples can be used for testing the
students' hypotheses. In this manner, the students are following the scientific
method: observation (i.e., looking for patterns), hypothesis development, and
A good way to begin is to examine nonstigmatized data first. In other words,
look at a case in which variation is considered perfectly acceptable and
correct, such as the three spoken forms of the past tense (i.e., "walk/t/,"
"flag/d/," "bat/Id/"), as in the following exercise.
the Past Under the Microscope
Linguistic fact: Sounds are either voiced or voiceless. The /t/ in time is
voiceless, and the /d/ in dime is voiced. Voicing is the only difference between
these two sounds. This information will help students understand the exercise
The following words are all regular verbs, but the past tense marker
<-ed> that is attached to them comes in three different phonetic forms:
/t/, /d/, and /Id/.
Say each of these verbs aloud in the past tense. Notice the sound of the past
tense marker for each of them. Sort the verbs into the following three columns
according to which past tense marker attaches to them.
/t/ /d/ /Id/
This exercise helps students understand that language variation is quite
normal--something that every English speaker participates in. They see that
there is more than one way to pronounce , and the choice follows a pattern: If
the root word ends in /t/ or /d/, the ending is pronounced /Id/. If the root
word ends in a voiced sound other than /d/, the ending is pronounced /d/; if the
root ends in a voiceless sound other than /t/, the ending is pronounced /t/.
The next step is to introduce stigmatized data, that is, a linguistic pattern
that is sometimes evaluated negatively: perhaps a-prefixing from Appalachian
English (e.g., "She went a-hunting"), habitual be from African American
Vernacular English (e.g., "Tuesdays, we be bowling"), or the Southern vowel
merger (e.g., pronouncing pin and pen the same) (see Wolfram, Adger, &
Christian, 1999). It may be best to choose patterns that students are already
familiar with. On the other hand, if teachers want to avoid evoking the
students' language prejudices (associated with language patterns that students
would deem incorrect or non-standard), they may prefer to use examples of
language patterns that are not familiar to the students.
at Language Change
Another means of teaching the idea that language variation is natural is to
discuss its role in language change. Lexical variation can offer a good
approach. For example, the teacher can ask the students to do a grammatical
cloze exercise: "Today I work; yesterday I ________." They will respond,
"worked." At this point, the teacher can ask them if there is any stigma
attached to the word worked. Then the teacher can inform the class that the
original form was wrought (as in wrought-iron) and explain that many of the Old
English verbs that formed the past tense by changing a vowel have slipped into
the Modern English verb category. In such cases, the results of language change
are not stigmatized. Verbs in transition can be discussed (e.g., hang, hanged,
hung). The final category to consider includes verbs that are currently
undergoing such change and have stigmatized forms (e.g., know, knowed).
The general pedagogical approach is to guide the students from considering
unstigmatized variation in English to considering stigmatized variation. The
goal is to have them understand that stigmatization is a social judgment, not a
linguistic matter. Language variation is neither bad nor good. But because
discussion of correct English is sure to arise, it is best to address that topic
directly. The following definitions are useful.
In commenting that a segment of talk or writing is good or correct,
non-linguists may have in mind the kinds of criteria for what we would call
Prescriptively Correct English. Prescriptions for how people should use English
can be found in grammar books, books on writing style and usage, and in schools
and other institutions. The following assumptions are associated with
Prescriptively Correct English:
Some forms of the language always work better (linguistically) than other forms
of the language. For example, "She is not home today" always works better than
"She ain't home today."
English should be protected from corrupting influences that would cause decay in
its form. English has already been corrupted by slovenly use and should be
reformed to the standards of yesteryear.
But linguists and others are also concerned with using language in ways that
are appropriate for the situation. We can call this Rhetorically Correct
English, and it is associated with the following assumptions:
Some forms of the language work better than others in certain contexts. For
example, there are some contexts in which "She ain't home today" will work
better than "She is not home today."
No institutionalized authority exists to govern the production of English.
Appropriate language production is governed by the speaker's intention, the
audience, and the context.
Because change is a fundamental feature of human language, the Rhetorically
Correct English of any particular context will most likely be different from,
but neither inferior nor superior to, the Rhetorically Correct English of
Discussing different views of correct English helps students gain a more
scientific understanding of language. The goal is for students to see that
language variation is integral to human language.
Language variation is an engaging topic for
learning about language. It helps students understand that language has evolved
and that it continues to be shaped by geographic, historical, social, and ethnic
factors. In addition, learning about language variation allows them to examine
their views about what constitutes correct English and to evaluate intolerance
toward certain varieties of English. Through the study of language variation,
they are better able to understand the dynamics of language and its role in
FOR FURTHER READING
Christian, D. (1997). "Vernacular
dialects in U.S. schools" (ERIC Digest). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Language and Linguistics.
Crystal, D. (1995). "Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language." New
Demo, D. (2000). "Dialects in education" (ERIC/CLL Resource Guide Online).
Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Language and Linguistics.
Wolfram, W. (1990). "Incorporating dialect study into the language arts
class" (ERIC Digest). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Wolfram, W., Adger, C. T., & Christian, D. (1999). "Dialects in schools
and communities." Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum.