another post that mirrors Frank Smith

Here’s a post to a language teacher Listserv:

“I’ve heard guácala used a lot by our Mexican teenage relatives who come

to spend a year in our home to learn English. (Visiting their parents

in Mexico I’ve been laughed at for talking “like a teenager.” I’ve

pointed out that if they would send me adults instead of teenagers, I

would probably speak more like an adult.)”

Cute. Doesn’t that precisely represent what Frank Smith says? If you want someone to speak a certain kind of language, have them live around people who talk that way.

So if you want kids to speak Standard English, make sure they grow up in an environment where SE is spoken. If they grow up in a slum, they’ll speak like those people. If they grow up in the S.F Valley, they’ll talk valley-girl talk. People speak like the people they feel are like them. If the teacher is like them, they will talk that way.

Often on language teacher lists where I have described my wife’s mastery of SE coming out of a Black English background, I have been taken to task for suggesting that special approaches need be used to teach SE to kids speaking a non-standard dialect. “Your wife did it; why can’t they? You just have to have ’ganas’”

Well, the teachers my wife had were all Black. This was back in the day when the schools were segregated. Those teachers modeled SE for their students. Once we integrated and Black kids came to have mostly White teachers, they no longer had models. We can argue all day, as the conservatives will, that Black kids should somehow see those White teachers as “like themselves” despite the behavior of those teachers. But the fact remains, the kids don’t see themselves as like those teachers, for a great number of reasons.

So what is a teacher to do? How do you teach SE to kids who do not “relate” to you? The first thing is to engage them. Right now I am subbing in a district where it is just a big game: the teachers try to tie the kids down and the kids sabotage whatever the teachers try to do. It’s a circus, a lose-lose situation, and I haven’t heard a teacher yet who sees it.

Once engaged, the students can be drawn into representing their world in a variety of ways: writing, drawing, acting, dialoguing, and modulations of these. As you get them playing with language, you can do what the teachers who got caught up in the Ebonics controversy were trying to do: have the students begin differentiating between their home language, whatever that may be: English, Spanish, Cambodian, Black English, Russian, Chinese… and SE. As they differentiate, perhaps having one character speak dialect or home language or accented English and another speak SE or even a comic exaggeration of SE, like the White cop on Sanford & Son spoke.

But, no, that won’t happen. We prefer shaming and humiliating and threatening as our favorite teaching methods.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *