ERIC Identifier: ED318231
Publication Date: 1990-02-00
Author: Wolfram, Walt
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Incorporating Dialect Study into the Language Arts Class. ERIC
Educators often view dialect differences in education as little more than
barriers for students to overcome in acquiring competency in Standard English.
Thus, virtually all educational programs focusing on dialect differences are
constructed to move speakers towards the standard variety. In the process,
information about the nature of dialect differences may be acquired by the
student, but the acquisition of this information remains a by-product of the
process rather than an overt objective. However, it is possible to introduce
students to dialects from another perspective: dialect study as a type of
language study in its own right. From this perspective, dialects are viewed as
resources for learning about language and culture rather than as impediments to
education. This may be a novel vantage point, but one that merits serious
consideration in language arts education.
WHY SHOULD STUDENTS LEARN ABOUT DIALECTS?
There are several
reasons for introducing students to dialect diversity as a systematic part of
the language arts curriculum. First, there is a need to challenge popular myths
about dialects. The level of misinformation about dialects in our society is,
without exaggeration, severe enough to be compared to that of a modern
geophysicist claiming that the planet Earth is flat. In order to understand the
true dynamics of language and its role in society and education, students need a
basic understanding of the nature and development of dialect differences.
Students have a right to obtain accurate information about dialects; this
provides them with the opportunity to confront current dialect stereotypes and
The study of dialects also offers a unique, fascinating window through which
the nature of language may be viewed. Dialect diversity seems to pique
practically everyone's natural curiosity, and this inherent interest can be
seized upon to help language come alive for students. Language comes alive when
students actively examine how language varies over time and space, including
regional, social, ethnic, gender, and other types of social and physical
The active study of dialect structures further offers an approach for
developing critical thinking skills in students. The knowledge of language,
including dialects, involves a unique form of knowledge in that speakers know
about language simply by virtue of the fact that they speak it. Looking at
dialect differences provides a natural laboratory for making generalizations
drawn from carefully described sets of data. Students can hypothesize about
certain dialect forms and then check them out on the basis of actual usage
patterns. This, of course, is a type of scientific inquiry that can help develop
higher order thinking skills in students.
DOES THE STUDY OF DIALECTS WORK AGAINST LEARNING STANDARD
Studying dialects, including nonstandard or "vernacular" dialects,
does not threaten the sovereignty of Standard English. When students
realistically confront the functions of Standard English in our society,
however, they can develop a clear, honest understanding of the real reasons for
learning this variety. Without this understanding, students may retain the
prevalent but misguided notion that dialects other than Standard English are
simply unworthy approximations of the standard variety. In fact, a respect for
dialect variation and the roles different dialects play in American society
should encourage students to use Standard English for its socially justified,
pragmatic reasons. Furthermore, vernacular dialect speakers, as a by-product of
their study of dialects, may apply knowledge about dialect structures to various
educational skills, such as composing and editing.
WHAT THEMES SHOULD BE COVERED IN A CURRICULUM UNIT ON
Although the themes focused on in a curriculum unit on dialects
will vary depending on the level of language arts education involved, the
following kinds of topics should be included to ensure an adequate introduction
to the nature of dialects: (1) The naturalness of American English dialects.
This unit helps confront dialect stereotypes and prejudices as students see how
natural and inevitable dialect diversity is in American society. (2) The
patterning of dialects. This unit helps students see how language structures in
different dialects are patterned and "rule governed"; this is an essential
notion, because the popular notion is that only standard dialects, as set forth
typically in grammar books, have real rules. (3) Levels of dialects. This unit
shows how dialects are organized on various levels, including pronunciation,
grammar, vocabulary, and language use/pragmatic conventions. (4) The
consequences of dialects. This unit helps students see the social and
educational significance of standard and vernacular dialects, as these
respective varieties serve different functions in mainstream and indigenous
WHAT KINDS OF EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES ARE
Learning about dialects is most efficiently accomplished
through active learning that is supported by a variety of audio-visual aids.
Videos about dialects, or videos and audio recordings illustrating different
dialect speakers should be used along with firsthand data collection. Reading
can be used to support the curriculum, but the most effective learning will
involve the active participation of students.
Several videos on dialects are available commercially, including American
Tongues and The Story of English. American Tongues (produced by Alvarez &
Kolker) is an entertaining one-hour video that exposes the kinds of prejudices
and stereotypes that exist about dialects in our society. The Story of English
is an eight-part series produced by PBS and hosted by Robert MacNeil. The
episode entitled Black on White (Part I and Part II) is of particular interest
for its coverage of the historical development and current distribution of
Vernacular Black English. Appalshop, an Appalachian heritage foundation located
in Whitesburg, Kentucky, also produces video and audio cassettes featuring
Appalachian English speakers, including well-known story tellers such as Ray
Hicks and Anndrena Belcher. Interesting video and audio cassettes of folktales
told in Appalachian English are available commercially through Appalshop.
Exercises about dialects can also be used to engage students in learning
about the patterning of dialects. Following is a sample of an exercise on
dialect patterning, taken from Wolfram's Dialects and American English (1990).
A SOUTHERN VOWEL PRONUNCIATION
In some Southern dialects of
English, words like pin and pen are pronounced the same. Usually, both words are
pronounced as pin. The following is a list of words in which the i and e would
be pronounced the SAME in these dialects.
A. 1. tin and ten
2. kin and Ken
3. Lin and Len
4. tinder and tender
5. sinned and send
Although i and e are pronounced the same in the word pairs given above, there
are other words in which i and e are pronounced differently. Following are some
of the word pairs where the vowels are pronounced DIFFERENTLY.
B. 1. lit and let
2. pick and peck
3. pig and peg
4. rip and rep
5. litter and letter
Is there a pattern that can explain the similar pronunciation of i and e for
the words in List A and the different pronunciation of i and e in List B? To
answer this question, you have to look at the sounds that are found next to the
vowel in all of the examples given in List A, in particular those that come
after the vowel. What common sound is found next to the vowel in all of the
examples given in List A? Based on the pattern you discovered, now look at the
words in List C below. In List C, which of the word pairs would you expect to be
pronounced the SAME in the Southern dialect and which would you expect to be
C. 1. Rick and wreck
2. bit and bet
3. bin and Ben
4. Nick and neck
5. din and den
Can you state the rule for this Southern pronunciation that explains when
words with the vowels i and e of pin and pen will be pronounced the same?
The correct answers for C are as follows: 1. different; 2. different; 3.
same; 4. different; 5. same. The rule governing this pronunciation is as
follows: i and e are pronounced the same when the sound following them is the
nasal sound n.
WHAT KINDS OF CLASS RESEARCH PROJECTS CAN STUDENTS DO?
range of possible class projects is quite varied, depending on the level of the
class and its interests. For example, students may conduct a small dialect
survey with community members (parents, grandparents, and friends from different
areas) in which a questionnaire about particular dialect forms is constructed,
and data are gathered, collated, and analyzed by the class. The class might
choose to conduct open-ended interviews to elicit local stories and oral
history, tape recording them for later analysis of particular language forms or
use. A class project may focus on a specialized interest area, such as slang, in
which examples from class members are collected, the language processes used in
their formation are analyzed, and the interactional dynamics for peer usage are
examined. The types of class research projects seem limited only by the
interests of the students and the creativity of the instructor.
WHAT LEVELS OF EDUCATION ARE APPROPRIATE FOR THE STUDY OF
Appropriate levels for the study of dialects range from
mid-elementary levels to upper secondary levels and post-secondary education.
Some introductory notions about dialects may be introduced quite early in
elementary language arts programs, but such an elementary curriculum must rely
almost exclusively upon video and audio samples of dialects. A more concentrated
curriculum focusing on details of dialect development is appropriate for upper
level secondary education, but this program must also be strongly supported by
audio-visuals. While the best educational level for introducing dialects may not
yet be determined, it is apparent that language arts education can no longer
afford to ignore the study of dialects. Students have much to gain and nothing
to lose by studying the fascinating topic of dialect differences in American
Alvarez, L., & Kolker, A. (Producers).
(1987). "American tongues." New York, NY: Center for New American Media. (Available through New Day Films, New York, NY.)
Belcher, A. n.d. "For old times sake." (cassette tape "Hog on Ice" #2001) Gate City, VA: For Old Times Sake.
Hicks, R. (1975). "Fixin' to tell about Jack." Whitesburg, KY: Appalshop Films.
Public Broadcasting System (Hosted by Robert McNeil). (1986). "Story of English series: Black on white." (Available from Films Incorporated, Chicago, IL.)
Wolfram, W. & Christian, D. (1989). "Dialects and education: Issues and answers." Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents/Center for Applied Linguistics.
Wolfram, W. (1990). "Dialects and American English." Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Appalshop, Marketing and Sales, 306 Madison Street, Whitesburg, KY 41858 or (606) 633-0108.
The Center for New American Media, 524 Broadway, Second Floor, New York, NY 10012-4408. (American Tongues)