Linguistic diversity in the classroom (part 1): African American English and academic writing

Summer is coming to an end. Many teachers in the US are preparing for a new school year (and some have already started). As I get ready myself to head back into the classroom, I’ve been thinking about the ideas of linguistic diversity and language privilege and how teachers can deal with them in the classroom.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how we balance two competing ideas. First, I’ve written a lot recently saying that, from a linguistic point of view, difference in the way people use language is not necessarily a sign of people using language ‘incorrectly’. In particular, I talked about how different varieties of language are governed by different logics. African American English (AAE), for example, has a logic (or a set of rules) that often differs from the logic of so-called ‘standard’ English (check out, for example, my recent post on Rachel Jeantel’s language).

When I say that languages are equally valid, I mean “equal” in a purely analytic sense. In other words, there’s nothing that would make a linguist declare that one form of a language is inherently better than another (for example, in terms of the inherent ‘quality’ of its grammar). All languages and language varieties are useful tools for communicating with a particular community. They all exhibit linguistic regularity (that is they follow certain rules) and are all structurally complex (although usually they are complex in different ways).

However, the second idea also has to do with languages and whether or not they are equal. Specifically, languages and language varieties are not equal in all senses of the word. They are not economically, politically, or socially equal because their speakers are not economically, politically, or socially equal. As I discussed in a previous post, English speakers and in particular ‘standard’ English speakers enjoy a great deal of privilege due to their language. Since languages are all equally valid in a structural or analytic sense, this privilege does not stem from any particular quality of English or ‘standard’ English. Rather it is a reflection of broader inequalities in society such as structural racism. Hence, even though linguists treat AAE as equal to ‘standard’ English in terms of structural complexity and regularity, AAE and ‘standard’ English are not equal in the social, political, and economic advantages they afford their speakers.

Hence, even when we as teachers accept that languages and language varieties cannot be objectively shown to be ‘better’ or ‘worse’, many of us may still insist that this abstract idea is irrelevant to our work because students still need to learn the ‘standard’ if they want to be taken seriously especially as academic writers. Put another way, many teachers think that the ideas I’ve presented above have no relevance to their work in preparing students for academic and life success.

Of course, I have to respectfully disagree. I think that a teaching approach that both takes the validity of language varieties like AAE seriously and is respectful of linguistic diversity will differ quite radically from a more traditional approach. In a set of posts about this topic, I’m going to present an approach to teaching language drawn from my own experience teaching English composition courses (that is courses designed to teach usually first and second year undergraduate students how to write academically) at a university with a great deal of linguistic diversity. Although my examples pertain specifically to this context, I think the ideas I’m presenting here are also relevant to other teaching situations especially K-12 English classes.

For this post, I’m going to discuss AAE and how I try to approach my students who speak this variety of English in a way that ideally balances my goals both of (a) respecting their language and (b) introducing them to the very different language of academic writing.

The school experience of African American English speakers

I should note at the outset that African American English (AAE) speakers does not refer to all African Americans who happen to speak English. AAE is a specific language variety that is spoken mostly by African Americans (although it is theoretically possible for anyone, regardless of race, to speak AAE). However, not all African Americans speak AAE. Many speak ‘standard’ English. Many are bidialectal, which means that they speak both of these varieties to varying degrees.

I am a White ‘standard’ English speaker, so I have no direct experience with what it feels like to be an AAE speaker in a US classroom. What I present here is a summary of what I have learned from my AAE-speaking students and others (check out this video for some first hand perspectives on the issue).

Basically, many educators believe that AAE is ‘bad’, ‘incorrect’, or ‘improper’ English. Because of this, they may try to ‘correct’ features of their students’ AAE they perceive to be ‘wrong’ (that is those things that do not conform to ‘standard’ English). For example, if a student says “He don’t care” a teacher may correct him/her and say “He doesn’t care”. This type of correction is usually unsuccessful at changing the way AAE speakers use English. However, it is usually successful at passing on the belief that AAE is ‘incorrect’ and inculcating feelings of shame about AAE.

This is relevant to teachers at all levels, because it is likely that AAE-speaking students will probably interpret teachers’ (perhaps especially White teachers’) comments about their language as stemming from a desire to ‘correct’ the way they speak. This means that if you’re a teacher and you don’t wish to promote the idea that AAE is something that needs to be ‘corrected’, then you actually have to do a lot more work to explain yourself and your intentions to your AAE-speaking students.

Defining the subject to be studied: written academic English

At the beginning of any composition course, I discuss with students what the object that we will be studying is. In particular, I try to make a couple of points clear, and I’ll list them here as if I were presenting them to students:

1. In the course, I will not be talking about English generally. The language people use to communicate on facebook or that successful hip-hop artists use differs quite a bit from the language academics and successful students use when writing academically. I’m not being condescending when I say something like language on facebook or that hip-hop artists use. Although many people may have bad attitudes toward these language forms, they have utility and even beauty. The course I’m teaching happens to be about academic writing because this is a particularly important form of language for university study.

2. As a result, despite what you (the student) may assume, I have no intention to promote a universal set of rules about how to use language. I am here to guide students in developing as successful academic writers. I will make suggestions for what I think is a successful way to do things in the context of academic writing (I am after all a reasonably successful academic writer), but I do not intend those suggestions to apply to facebook, hip-hop, dinner table conversations, diaries, personal blogs, or any other language you might produce outside of academic writing.

3. Academic writing is something that few (if any) people learn to do as young children. Instead, we are trained in it in school, and we absorb it through reading and writing academic materials. That means that people can and do learn to use academic writing. You aren’t ‘just born with it’. Of course, for many people the task is made simpler because written academic English is a form of ‘standard’ English. As a result, if you grew up speaking ‘standard’ English the distance between the way you already use English and what you need to do to use written academic English is not as great as for someone who grew up speaking AAE. This distance is not coincidental. It reflects a societal bias toward White academics (especially historically, but even today African Americans are underrepresented in academic fields and those that are in academic fields probably feel a great deal of pressure to conform to ‘standard’ English particularly in writing). In addition, as university students who have already participated in years of education, you have come through an educational system that is inherently non-uniform. As a result, some of you may have had more experience with academic writing than others. The obstacles then are not the same for everyone, but given sufficient time and effort you can be a successful academic writer.

4. However, at its core, academic writing is about communicating complex ideas. Even though academic writing in the US is traditionally done in ‘standard’ English, the differences between the way you may use English and the way a ‘standard’ English speaker does are, at the end of the day, merely superficial. Developing original, complex thought that can be well-supported by drawing on various forms of evidence and is communicated in a coherent, structured argument is far more important than the so-called ‘standardness’ of your language.

I try to communicate these four points to students in order to demonstrate my outlook on academic writing, and in particular I try to highlight the things that differ from what students probably expect. They might, for example, expect me to be overly concerned with the details of grammar or to believe that ‘the rules’ of English apply universally regardless of context. I don’t, and I try to make this explicit early on, but it usually needs to be repeated throughout the course.

Dealing with diversity in spoken language

The composition classroom is not a silent one in which students spend their time writing. In fact, my students rarely write during class time. Instead, I expect students to contribute to discussions of readings and the writing process.

The first thing I should mention here is that I don’t see it as my job to ‘correct’ or even comment on students’ spoken language in an academic writing class (regardless of whether the prefix for the course is “English”). The only reason I might provide feedback on spoken language is that the student has said something they do not intend (that is they misspoke) or there is some particularly apt academic terminology that the student could use to be more precise.

However, when my class contains many AAE speakers, there are likely to be difficulties in communication between them and myself (and other ‘standard’ English speakers) in a way that goes beyond communication difficulties that we might find in a linguistically homogeneous classroom.

To provide an example, in a recent class, I assigned students a reading that contained an abbreviation for the American Civil Liberties Union: “ACLU”. I pronounce this word like this: “the a see el you” (that is I pronounce the letters by name, as you might do for an abbreviation like “the USA”). The ‘standard’ English speakers in the class understood me and also pronounced the word this way. During discussion, however, I found that I didn’t understand one particularly important word that an AAE-speaking student was saying. It turns out that he was pronouncing “ACLU” in a manner like this: “ae clue” (like you might pronounce an acronym like “AIDS”). I’m not sure whether all AAE speakers pronounce “ACLU” this way (or that race is really the relevant difference). However, the pronunciation split my class into AAE speakers and ‘standard’ English speakers, and I did not immediately recognize what my AAE-speaking student was saying.

It’s important that when situations like this arise that I do not use language that assigns the blame for these inevitable difficulties to the student. If the problem is a difference between AAE and ‘standard’ English, then my lack of familiarity with AAE is a reasonable explanation of the problem (the alternative that my AAE-speaking student is not familiar with the ‘standard’ pronunciation is also a reasonable explanation but it is one most people are more likely to arrive at). Both pronunciations of “ACLU”, “the a see el you” and “ae clue”, are valid, and I tried to reassure my student that it wasn’t that his speech was ‘wrong’ but that it was just unfamiliar to me. Of course, as I mentioned before the risk of him assuming that I thought his language was wrong (given both my Whiteness and my role as an English teacher) was high, but I made every effort I could to assert the legitimacy of his way of pronouncing the word. I did this by showing a genuine interest in the fact that my AAE-speaking students pronounced the word consistently differently and even pointing out that their strategy makes sense (pronouncing the letters in the abbreviation as a word as opposed to pronouncing the names of the letters and is consistent with other English words of the same type, for example “AIDS”).

Dealing with grammar in writing

Every writing class, however, ultimately involves reading and commenting on students’ writing. Dealing with the differences between AAE and ‘standard’ English in students’ writing is considerably more complex than dealing with these differences in their speech.

As with before, it’s important to highlight the validity of the language students produce, especially for other contexts. However, in the context of academic writing, ‘standard’ English dominates, which means using AAE puts students at a disadvantage. It’s my task then to come up with an approach that helps them work through these differences but does not disrespect students’ language use or punish them unnecessarily for it.

In order to illustrate how this works, I will discuss a feature of AAE that I encountered when reading the work of some of my AAE-speaking students. John Rickford and Christine Théberge Rafal have described this subtle but important difference between AAE and ‘standard’ English involving had+verb constructions. When ‘standard’ English speakers produce sentences like the following (which are taken from Rickford and Rafal’s paper, p. 229) it probably means that the action in (2) happened before that in (1).

(1) I was on my way to school, (2) and I had slipped and fell.

To a ‘standard’ English speaker these sentences probably mean that before leaving for school the speaker slipped and fell. However, the young AAE speaker who produced these sentences apparently intended for the events to be as follows: I left for school, and then I slipped and fell. This is made apparent by the next sentence:

(3) And I ran back in the house to change my clothes.

Here we see that “slipped and fell” is probably what spurred the action in (3). The fact that the student was out of the house is made apparent by (1). Hence, the speaker intends the order of events to be as follows: I left the house. I slipped and fell. I ran back in the house. As a side note, You may be wondering why the AAE speaker used “had slipped and fell” in (2) rather than simply “slipped and fell” (considering that these forms are likely in the speaker’s repertoire) if not to indicate that (2) happened before (1). I would suggest taking a look at Rickford and Rafal’s paper (or this more recent paper), but generally speaking they suggest that the AAE “had+verb” form is often used to mark or foreshadow significant points in a narrative or story.

I have frequently encountered uses of had+verb that are similar to this example in my AAE-speaking students’ writing. As a ‘standard’ English speaker, my tendency to interpret the had+verb clauses as signalling something further back in the past has often caused me difficulty in understanding their intended meaning. At first, like many teachers probably do, I assumed that students were just randomly inserting “had”. However, some research (resulting in me finding Rickford and Rafal’s paper among other resources) showed that in fact it was a well-documented rule-governed difference between ‘standard’ English and AAE.

This knowledge is important because it drastically changes the way I as the teacher responded to my students’ language. If the “had” in my students’ writing were random, I might have suggested that they do a better job proofreading their work. However, the fact that this is a regular feature of language suggests that no amount of self-editing will help the student arrive at what I think the ‘correct’ sentence should be. In other words, the had+verb is not caused by laziness or carelessness. As a result, I would always recommend teachers take a moment to find out if features of language that show up frequently have been documented by sociolinguists like Rickford and Rafal.

Instead, the ideal situation is for me to raise the students’ awareness of this difference and to help them begin to master the other ‘standard’ form. Therefore, I let the student know either in a comment or if the opportunity arises by having a quick chat about it after class or during my office hours. As always, I try to make it clear that this is not a universal rule, and it doesn’t mean the way he or she use language is ‘wrong’. I also try to point the student to resources that explain the relevant grammar point (with examples). For this example, I might use a resource like this one, which explains the ‘standard’ English past perfect.

In addition to helping students with their writing, I also have to evaluate their writing. Like most writing teachers, one of the criteria that I use to evaluate the students is their use of language including grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Importantly, I wouldn’t penalize the student for using the AAE had+verb (or similar AAE structures, when I am aware of them) particularly not the first time. For future writing after an explanation, I would expect the student to make an effort to monitor their use of the had+verb construction and may later choose to apply a penalty. However, I reserve the language section of my rubric for aspects of the student’s writing that suggest carelessness or a failure to use basic resources like spelling check or dictionaries or that show the student has not learned grammatical features of academic writing I have previously taught in the class.

What about voice? Can there be academic AAE?

Many writing instructors wish to help their students develop their own unique “voice”. By this they mean a capacity to write in a style that reflects the writer’s perspective, personality, and character.

Ultimately, we might say then that a pedagogical approach that tries to exclude AAE from academic writing prevents AAE speakers from finding and using their authentic voices because arguably AAE is a major aspect of their voices. In particular, expecting AAE-speaking students to produce written academic English that is unyieldingly ‘standard’ prevents them from communicating an authentic racial identity as Black men and women.

Balancing the idealistic goal of letting students express who they are and what they believe in with the practical issue of helping them to succeed is certainly a sensitive matter. Letting students express themselves too freely leaves them unprepared to deal with the expectations of others who will determine their academic or career success.

However, this should not lead us to adopt a vulgar pragmatism that assumes the best thing to do is to train students to meet but not necessarily challenge or resist the expectations of powerful gatekeepers. I have in mind in particular assigning students to read academics who write eloquently in a hybrid form of AAE and ‘standard’ English. As an example of what I mean by this, I have pulled out some quotes from H. Samy Alim and Genvea Smitherman‘s recent book Articulate While Black

Black folks also shift their use of the copula in regularly patterned ways depending on the race, gender, and cultural knowledge of the person they’re speaking to. For example, on the one hand, Black youth display high levels of the copula absence in their peer groups and when talking with Black male Hip Hop heads. On the other, they are much more likely to use the copula (is or are) when speaking to White women who know nothing about Hip Hop. All of this is what linguistic experts mean when they say that Black Language is “rule-governed and “systematic” like any other language variety (told y’all it wasn’t nu’in simple about Barack’s use of “Nah, we straight”) (p. 9).

White folks was already mystified and confused by this presidential candidate with the “funny name” whose mother was White and whose father was a citizen of Kenya… Now here the Black guy come comin up in the campaign with this weird “fist bump”–initiated, no less, by his slave descendant wife from the South Side Chi-Town ghetto… (White folks, we feel you; in retrospect, all of it may have been a bit much for y’all to process.) (p. 98)

These quotes show how Alim and Smitherman blend AAE with ‘standard’ written academic English to produce writing that accomplishes a number of things. First, because the topic of their book is AAE, the hybrid use of AAE and ‘standard’ English gives the writing a hint of insider perspective, using the language of the people who are being described to describe them. In this sense, I think it is a particularly apt use of AAE. Second, the use of AAE in a space traditionally reserved for ‘standard’ English, an academic book published by Oxford University Press, is important for improving people’s views of AAE. AAE cannot gain legitimacy if it is kept out of powerful spheres like academia. As long as we effectively keep AAE out of academia, the myth that speaking AAE is caused by lack of intelligence or laziness can continue unchecked. Alim’s and Smitherman’s use of AAE in an academic work like this is an indirect challenge to the idea that AAE is sloppy, lazy, or unintelligent language or that it is spoken by sloppy, lazy, unintelligent people. Hence, assigning students to read accessible work by writers like Alim and Smitherman can provide a model of what academic AAE might look like.

In my next post on this topic, I’ll take a look at the language of second language English speakers (with varying degrees of bilingualism) as it relates to teaching writing. In the mean time, if you’re a teacher and you’re interested in reading more about how to deal with linguistic diversity in the classroom, check out Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson‘s book Understanding English Language Variation in US SchoolsLet me know in the comments if you have any suggestions for teaching AAE speakers you want to share.

UPDATE (August 20, 2013): I’ve posted part 2 of this series here.

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Posted in Language and education, Linguistic diversity, Prescriptivism and language prejudice
2 comments on “Linguistic diversity in the classroom (part 1): African American English and academic writing
  1. Thanks for your tips! This is my first year teaching Comp at our open admissions university, where I just finished my masters work which partly focused on linguistics and particularly AAE.
    Other good resources I’m currently reading: Lisa Delpit’s “The Skin We Speak” and I just got Vershawn Young’s “Your Average Nigga: Performing Race Literacy and Masculinity”
    I’ve been really enjoying your blog, and plan to share it with my class🙂

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