I walked in on the first day of school to hushed whispers of, “Yo, you see dis white teacher? She look mad young, like 18!” When I asked them to stop cursing in the beginning of school, they would respond “Yo Professah, you not from da hood. You be beastin’. You just don’ geddit.” I was constantly fuming from their lack of respect that I barely took the time to try and understand the cultural differences instead of being constantly sensitive and insulted. Once I established a better rapport with my students, they have let me in enough to try and understand their approach to their African American identity without getting insulted.
African American vernacular English (AAVE) “varies by class, style, age, gender, and linguistic environment” (Wheeler1; 17). Regardless of dialect, though, the language has an abundance of meaning and identification for its speaker. Many of the terms of AAVE are picked up by not African American students, but also Hispanic students. Before I had built trusting relationships with my students, they took this language divide as a sign that I could never understand them. Language is often a much more tangible form of division than culture or background. A teacher’s attitude towards language can often pre-determine the nature of their relationship with their students. It is proven that the main effect of a child speaking AAVE is to “affect the teacher’s attitude toward the child, with a resultant negative expectation that affects teachers’ behavior toward the child in many ways” (Wheeler; 14). This concept is called dialect prejudice. When teachers associate the language a student speaks with their academic ability or their intelligence, they are setting their students and themselves up to fail.
It took a while to adjust to hearing a variety of dialects of informal English in a classroom, a place I had always seen as necessarily formal. I had to spend time discussing with them how crucial a role language plays in expressing their identity. They often voiced their beliefs that in “speaking slang” as they like to call it, they are often viewed as inferior by the White community. They described experiences where they felt that while speaking slang, they were viewed as unintelligent, uneducated, or “un-white,” but continued to do so because they were proud in what made them different. They believe language has many racial implications, yet they also believe it is the largest factor in their pride for their background and their identity.
Baldwin’s article explores the role of “black language” in the English language (or more formal English). Baldwin argues that White America is so deeply submerged in their own Formal American English that they are unable to recognize the role of slang and Black English in its creation. Baldwin writes, "language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identity: it reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one form, the larger, public, or communal identity." He implicitly suggests throughout the article that if white Americans do not recognize the origins of American English and Blacks' roles in creating it, then the power the language holds becomes futile.
As teachers of any subject area, it is necessary to use language as a vehicle of insight, not judgment. Very often the best writers may be the least articulate students, or vice versa. In embracing cultural diversity in our classroom, language diversity must also be taught. If we teach “grammar patterns” or rules of each dialect, “majority language students learn important lessons about appreciating cultural diversity among our peers.” (Wheeler; 15). We cannot chastise our students for speaking in informal English if they have a keen grasp of why they are speaking the way they do and if we provide them with the tools to code-switch between both their informal and formal languages. A classroom should be an environment in which all students should feel comfortable expressing themselves through any modality. If we muffle their natural voice by telling them it is not the “right” one, we are not only sending a message of prejudice, but we are handicapping their learning and impeding upon their desire to be a part of the classroom community. If a student does not believe we are invested in learning about their background with respect, then they will inevitably perform below their abilities.
In the article “The House That Race Built”, Akom argues that “too often a language is approached from the angle of how people use it rather than why” (Akom, 4). The article explores the concept that the language one uses determines their “life chances,” and in a more sophisticated way, supports the theories that many of my students voice on a day-to-day basis. We only have the power to break down the negative implications our students believe the differences in language holds in order to encourage them to express themselves in meaningful ways. I think the key to eliminating these stereotypes are to educate our students in the meaning behind their multiple discourses so they may have them at their disposal when they deem necessary. To attempt to eliminate their informal discourse would be to try and stomp on their personal identity rather than cultivating it.
Akom, A. A. (2000). The house that race built: Some observations on the use of the word Nigga, popular culture, and urban adolescent behavior. In L. Weis & M. Fine (Eds.). Construction sites: Excavating race, class, and gender among urban youth. New York: TC Press.
Baldwin, J. (1979). If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? The Black Scholar, 27, pp. 5-6.
Swords, Rachel, and Rebecca S. Wheeler. Code-switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms (Theory & Research Into Practice). Urbana, IL : National Council Of Teachers Of English, 2006.