Fussy Grammar and Dialects
Once upon a time, before the 1960s, schools trained kids in fussy, high-class English:
"Don't say 'ain't,' say 'is not.'"
"Don't say, 'If I was'; say 'If I were.'"
"Don't ask, 'Who did you vote for?'; ask 'Whom did you vote for?'"
It was thought that standard English was better than nonstandard English — that it was more logical, more elegant. It was thought that nonstandard variants of English were sloppy.
This is nonsense, and harmful.
It hurts kids to tell them the way their parents talk is wrong. And telling kids that becoming educated means betraying your heritage makes them less excited about school.
Fussy English grammar was complicit in much evil.
Enter the rights revolutions of the 1960s! After the '60s, schools stopped training in fussy, high-class grammar. It was recognized that demanding students to speak a specific dialect was, well, cultural imperialism! It was recognized that there's nothing actually better about "Standard" English, and nothing objectively lesser about all the "non-standard" Englishes.
This wasn't nonsense — but it ended up being harmful, too.
Being able to speak in the dominant dialect makes social mobility easier. Not being able to can make it harder.
And a school community split by dialects may find it more difficult to bond together.
Caught between the goals of teaching fussy grammar and making equal all dialects, schools have settled into a weak middle.
Our basic plan:
Teach absolutely fussy Standard English dialect — but only as one dialect. Never confuse "high class" with "good". And help kids explore dialects other than their own.
Kids will have multiple verbal toolkits — they'll be able to speak in multiple dialects, and appreciate the beauty of them. They'll move far beyond the notion (still present in some older generations) that lower-class dialects are "wrong".
If you walk into a classroom, you might see:
Kids learning about — and delighting in! — examples of different dialects. How do New Zealanders differ from the British, and how does the Irish accent differ from the South African? How does Cockney play with rhymes?
Kids learning the International Phonetic Alphabet in order to make sense of those differences — which will be crucial for their later mastery of foreign languages.
In this current wave of political mania over "cultural appropriation", what should we take care to avoid? Can we use investigating dialect and grammar as a way to spark conversations with children as to what's respectful, and what's not?
(This idea is currently in beta! If you've thoughts on how to make it better, please shoot an e-mail to Brandon at email@example.com.)
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