Alexa Santo, Touro GSE Teacher Candidate on Linguistic Diversity

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Alexa Santo is a teacher candidate at the Touro Graduate School of Education, TESOL and Bilingual Department.  She is 23 years old and a first-year Spanish teacher in New York City with a passion for languages and cultures. Alexa looks forward to creating inclusive classroom environments celebrating all aspects of diversity in her classroom.

Alexa’s thoughtful reflection on linguistic diversity grew out of readings and discussions on multicultural inclusiveness and creating welcoming classrooms for all children.

Diversity is brought to the United States every day. New immigrants are coming from Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Stritikus & Varghese, 2010, 285). These immigrants are not easily accepted by the mainstream culture in society, which is portrayed in the school system as well. “The strongly negative attitudes toward immigrant students in U.S. society influence these students’ perceptions of U.S. schooling” (Stritikus & Varghese, 2010, 289). The new wave of immigrants faces different challenges than of the European immigrants from the 1900s. This new wave has one crucial difference, skin color. The immigrants are placed into an “hourglass society” where social mobility is limited (Stritikus & Varghese, 2010, 288). The neighborhood where they choose to live will influence where their children go to school. These new students are changing the dynamic of American public schools linguistically and culturally. The schools are getting a flux of new cultures and languages into the classrooms due to the linguistic diversity of each student. Through linguistic diversity comes dialect variations to the classroom. “Dialect variation contributes to our diverse tapestry of language use” (Stritikus & Varghese, 2010, 289). “Educational practices in the United States embrace the idea that standard English should be the dominant variety of language used in all written and oral language communication (Stritikus & Varghese, 2010, 290). One of the primary dialects in the public schools is the Black dialect, or Ebonics (Stritikus & Varghese, 2010, 290. Many African American students find themselves in low-level tracks with limited educational opportunities. Teachers need to focus on the main goal that students successfully use academic English ( Stritikus & Varghese, 2010, 297).

Reading through this chapter brought a lot of confusion, surprise, and shock. Through exploring this chapter, it was the first time I ever read or saw the word, “Ebonics”. I was not sure what the word meant, so I started to read about “Black dialect”. I was perplexed by this term, something I have never heard before. As I read on, it surprised me that this language had its own rules and is a legitimate language. Like many others, I thought Ebonics was “slang” language and thought of it to be improper, which never had a place of value in the classroom. I never thought of African Americans have their own dialect. I have heard this dialect many times before and have repeatedly thought it sounded wrong or strange. I found myself in agreement while reading with the statement that standard English should be used in the school system, that all of the students should be held to this standard. I was taken aback when reading about the court case, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary vs Ann Arbor. I was confused on this term of Black Dialect being a system run language because it went against everything I had ever thought. I assumed that standard English was the only correct form of English to be used. I assumed that the language I often heard from certain communities where I live to be “slang” and improper even though I heard it every day. I think this idea that this language is wrong came from my home life and my schooling. I grew up in a very Caucasian neighborhood and went to a very Caucasian dominated elementary school. Once I went to middle school and high school my schools became very diverse. I grew up hearing my family and people I knew say that the way other people talked, if it was not like us, was incorrect or slang. The words were never spoken aloud, but the impression was there, that you did not want to speak this way if you wanted to be held to a high standard. In school, children who did not speak the standard English dialect were often always corrected for the language they used in the classroom. “Goin’” was not deemed correct and the students were expected to say “going”. I have held this assumption my whole life and never heard the term Ebonics for this dialect until this article. I never considered there to be a different dialect of English besides American English and British English, which are very different. I have learned about dialects my whole academic career by studying foreign languages, but I never would have considered this language to be a dialect prior to this article. My perspective of dialect had always been a European perspective of different dialects throughout Italy and Spain. In my current classroom, I would not correct a student for speaking Ebonics because I am not an English teacher. My focus every day is more on the Spanish language, but if I were an English teacher, I probably would have corrected the students because I viewed their language as improper.

My assumption and prior perspective were invalidated by Stritikus and Varghese’s article stating that Ebonics is a real, rule-governed, systematic language. “Dialect variation tends to be associated with race, social class, and geographic region, the dialects of groups with less social power tend to be viewed as inferior or incorrect versions of standard English. This is the case with Black English (BE)—also referred to as African American vernacular English—and Black Dialect” (Stritikus & Varghese, 2010, 290). Black dialect reflects a language that stems from slave descendants with roots from African language. This language is used every day in the black community it is part of their identity and use of expression (Lee, 2017). The legitimacy of Ebonics was recognized in the Oakland school board decision of 1996. “The board resolution stated that the district’s purpose should be to facilitate the acquisition and mastery of English language skills while respecting and embracing the legitimacy and richness of different language patterns” (Stritikus & Varghese, 2010, 293). I have learned and become aware of this dialect, that I am constantly surrounded by, is a proper dialect and is a recognized language. It is a dialect that should be respected and not treated as inferior.

Prior, I thought there was one way to speak Standard English, which was the only language to be used in the classroom. Now, I can see how certain views of teachers as well as my prior misconception, can prevent academic or achievement progress of African American students. If a teacher goes into the classroom with the viewpoint that the way the students speak is improper, incorrect or unsuccessful, automatically the students are set up to fail. Through the teacher’s personal opinions being projected onto the students, they are being set up for failure because the teacher will feel they cannot succeed, therefore the student will not. Their success rate is impeded because the teacher listens to their language, tells the students it is incorrect, and the students are left puzzled because this is their normal everyday language. Also, by insinuating this idea that their language is incorrect is affecting their social identity. It is putting a negative viewpoint on their community, friends, and families. A student will not be excited to learn if they feel threatened. Expectations of the students will be altered because by viewing their language as incorrect subconsciously you have lowered your learning expectations for them. In truth, Ebonics is an English dialect, just differing linguistically and culturally from my own dialect. Although their dialect is different, does not make my dialect more correct? It does not. This dialect is their real language. The students use this dialect because it is what is spoken at home and in their community. Then when they come to school, they are told it is not acceptable, that it is not standard English. Even though the dialects differ, we are able to communicate and understand each other with common understanding. We are speaking two different dialects that can communicate, therefore students should not be penalized (Lee, 2017). I have never spoken my thoughts to the students about their different dialect, but I have had thought that their language was incorrect. It is important to remember that every student has the ability to learn. All students need to receive the same opportunities and expectations regardless if they are different than the teacher. It is not the teacher’s right to judge a student. It is the teacher’s job to teach and provide the best learning environment for the students, which not cannot have racism, bias, or negative views.

Gaining this new perspective will be crucial for my teaching career moving forward. In my classroom, I will continue to celebrate cultural diversity, but now I will include the recognition of the linguistic diversity of English. It is important to keep all of our students’ identities at the highest level of respect and that includes their language. I plan to have a welcoming classroom where each and every student feels comfortable speaking their language dialects and including their culture as Stritikus and Varghese suggest. “Maximum potential to succeed when their language and culture are used and developed in instruction” (Stritikus and Varghese, 2010, 303). A common practice of mine in the Spanish classroom is to never correct a student while he or she is speaking unless it is a crucial error because this can cause embarrassment. It will cause the students to become closed off and discourage them from participating in the future. I think this is an important strategy to include when the students are speaking English as well. If another teacher or I disrupt a student while they are speaking, they will not want to participate, and their learning will be affected. All languages and dialects will be honored in my classroom. Dialects of English different than my own will not lead to the idea of “incorrect” English, but a realization that it is different and to be honored with respect in the classroom. Teachers must do better in looking past stereotypes, our prejudices, and our preconceived notions of certain students in order to see how we can better ourselves and our curricula for the sake of teaching all students. If teachers are not culturally competent or willing to learn about their students to provide them with the best education possible, how can we expect our students, who are marginalized, to want to give us their all? Learning about all of my students’ cultures and linguistic diversity will be the major resource for my teaching. Students will benefit from cooperative learning using student-centered instruction that allows them to gain ownership of their learning (Stritikus and Varghese, 2010, 293). To gain ownership their cultural and linguistic differences need to be identified, treated respectfully, and given equal opportunities. It is imperative that instruction holds language variation and use of students’ nonacademic dialects, the connection between language and identity, and the relationships made through language (Godley & Minnici, 2008) at high importance. Every teacher needs to confront personal bias’ because students speak differently than them, has no place in the classroom. I will not let it have a place in mine.

References

Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. M. (Eds.). (2010). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives. John Wiley & Sons

Godley, A. J., & Minnici, A. (2008). Critical Language Pedagogy in an Urban High School English Class. Urban Education,43(3), 319-346. doi:10.1177/0042085907311801

Lee, A. (2017). Why “Correcting” African American Language Speakers is Counterproductive. Language Arts Journal of Michigan,32(2). doi:10.9707/2168-149x.2162

Author: drcowinj

As an Assistant Professor for TESOL and Bilingual Programs at Touro College, Graduate School of Education Dr. Cowin’s focus is on the Responsibility to Touro Students (Teaching), Responsibility to the Discipline (Scholarship), Responsibility to Touro College and Community (Service). Dr. Cowin strives to inspire students to be creative and to model the love of lifelong learning by inculcating the habits and attitudes that create agile mindsets. 21st-century learning extends well beyond the classroom, and Dr. Cowin incorporates takes full advantage of online learning technologies for L2 language acquisition and current global trends in teaching English as a Second Language She represents high levels of scholarship and participates fully in the larger world of TESOL academic discipline. Ongoing research, expressed in scholarly contributions to the advancement of knowledge is demonstrated through publication, presentation and participation in academic conferences, articles in Education Update, blogging and other scholarly activities, including public performances or exhibitions at conferences and workshops such as the Plekhanov University of Economics keynote address in 2018. Of special interest to her are The Blockchain of Things and its implications for Higher Education, Current Global Trends in Teaching English; Developing Materials and Resources in Teaching English – Methodology; E-learning & Micro-Methodology in Teaching English; and E-Resources Discovery and Analysis.

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