Standard American English is the form of English that almost everyone speaks – but no one speaks it completely, due to regional dialects and accents (Fromkin, Rodman, & Hyams, 2011). It is the language that is used in most American schools – the language needed for students to succeed in school and in life. Standard American English is the language used on high stakes tests and the language form that can open the door to a higher education, improved career/job opportunities, and moving up in socioeconomic status.
Dialects are a natural form of language. Everyone speaks some form of dialect. A dialect is a “mutually intelligible form of a language that differs in systematic ways” (Fromkin, et al. 2011). They are the differences in the ways groups of people speak a certain language. It is very difficult to assign a dialect to a particular region due to the “dialect continuum” (Fromkin, et al. 2011). This “dialect continuum” is where dialects merge into each other.
A Creole is a language that first began as a Pidgin (a language that is developed to communicate with others where the language being used is not native to anyone). After time, a Pidgin can morph into a Creole – a full language with its own grammar and lexicon (Fromkin, et al. 2011).
Barriers of Standard American English
Sadly, dialect prejudice does exist in the United States. If one does not speak the lexicon of Standard American English, many people may prematurely judge the person as unable to learn, illiterate, or stupid. No one dialect of American English is better than another but there are many people who think that the Standard American English is the real English.
This view of one’s language can be very detrimental to those who do not speak the Standard dialect. For students, teachers may see these students as unresponsive in the classroom, disruptive, or even slow learners (Crochunis, Erdrey, & Swedlow, 2002). Other students may look down upon the students whose dialect is not the same as theirs – causing social harm, self-esteem and self-worth issues. One’s social identity is linked to language use, which can help or hinder the building of meaningful, trusting relationships (Crochunis, et al. 2002).
Students may face peer pressure to change their dialect – despite the conflicts that this may cause at home or within the community with the sense of belonging. Some would see changing one’s language as a betrayal of family, friends, and community - (Crochunis, et al. 2002)–the caring institutions which help raise a child.
Students may also be penalized for their language (Crochunis, et al. 2002), especially in writing. When a student sees his/her paper marked up, with many errors identified, it is very disheartening. Penalization of speaking a different dialect may happen through peer relationships, as well.
Language Varieties within the United States
Many dialects of English exist throughout the United States. There are regional dialects for every distinct part of the United States, as well as dialects that stem from different ethnicities. Some examples of differing dialects within the U.S. are African American English, Chicano English, Southern White English, New England English, Smokey Mountains English, Appalachian English, Cajun English, Puerto Rican English, Midwestern English, and many, many more!
Language Varieties: African American English
African American Language or African American English, is a form of English developed by African slaves in the southern United States. It has many similarities to Standard American English – such as vocabulary. However, it was also used as a way to gain privacy from the white slave owners of the time, so words may be used differently with different meanings (Crochunis, et al. 2002).
African Americal English (AAE) uses oratorical devices – such as rhythm, rhymes, metaphors, and repetition (Crochunis, et al. 2002). Standard American English generally does not use these devices in everyday speak.
Some features that distinguish AAE from SAE (Standard American English) are the omission of the final consonant in consonant clusters, the omittion of copula and possessives, differentiation in verb patterns (Crochunis, et al. 2002), r-deletion, use of multiple negatives, and replacement of “there” (Fromkin, et al. 2011).
What does all of that mean? With consonant clusters, the omission of the final consonant means that words like cold, fold, mold, and hold end up being pronounced as col, fol, mol, and hol (Crochunis, et al. 2002). All of the words in this particular example drop the final d of each word.
AAE often skips using the form of “to be” that is generally found in Standard American English (SAE). The way it is skipped also implies tense and frequency. He be goin could be interpreted as He often goes, He goes, or He usually goes, depending on the context of the phrase (Crochunis, et al. 2002). The possessive ‘s is also dropped in AAE.
The /r/ is deleted in words – unless the sound is directly before a vowel (Fromkin, et al. 2011). Poor would sound more like the word Poe. In some regions, the /l/ sound may also be deleted (Fromkin, et al. 2011), causing some words to sound identical, like toll and toe.
In SAE, the use of double negatives means a positive statement. The second negative cancels out the first negative, creating a positive. In AAE, the use of multiple negatives is quite acceptable (Fromkin, et al. 2011).
As for the word “there,” it may be replaced with several other words, depending on the context being used by the speaker (Fromkin, et al. 2011). For a positive sentence, “there” would be replaced with “it’s.” In a negative sentence, however, “don’t” or “ain’t” would take its place.
There are some language issues for African Americans who use AAE in school and business use. Even though it is not inferior to SAE in any way, many people to do see it as inferior and hold to preconceived prejudices about the speakers. These prejudices may be that the speaker is stupid, a slow learner, or not worthwhile, etc. To be successful in the United States, one must generally use the SAE in schools and in the job-place.
However, if one stops using AAE at home or in the community, it may be seen as a traitorous action to the family/community members. The loss of this support system, especially to school-aged children and teens, can be a catastrophe waiting to happen.
However, if a person does not learn SAE in school, then it can be quite a hindrance when seeking higher education or potential careers. Many of my African American students face this in our school system. To betray their own dialect makes them an outcast. To continue to use AAE makes them a target for their peers and less understanding teachers.
Language Varieties: Chicano English
Chicano English is a dialect that began in the southwestern United States, in many communities where immigrants who spoke no English, only Spanish settled. As they began to learn English, their children were growing up speaking both English and Spanish. This dialect emerged as a result. It is not Spanglish (or the code-switching of English and Spanish).
Many sounds are the same in both Standard American English and Chicano English, however some sounds retain more of the Spanish pronunciation. Much of the same lexicon is used, but different communities may use words that are only heard in that community, especially in gangs (Fromkin, et al. 2011). Just like Standard English and African American English, context is highly useful in deciphering what is being said and meant in the Chicano English dialect (Fromkin, et al. 2011).
Those who use Chicano English are generally fully aware of the Standard American English vowel sounds, however, they may choose to substitute the English vowel sounds with the Spanish vowel sounds (Fromkin, et al. 2011). This would make context of the word very important, especially since ship may be pronounced as sheep in this instance.
Some consonant sounds are also frequently changed in Chicano English. For example, the /tʃ/ and /ʃ/ sounds are often used interchangeably, again, making context use important (Fromkin, et al. 2011). This means that words spelled with “sh” may be pronounced as if they are spelled with “ch” and vice versa (Fromkin, et al. 2011). The /z/ sound often takes on one of the [s] sounds. /t/ may also be substituted for /θ/ and /d/ may be used for the /ð/ sound (Fromkin, et al. 2011).
Like AAE, Chicano English also uses consonant cluster reduction methods, dropping the final consonant of many words (Fromkin, et al. 2011). War and ward would then be pronounced the same.
Again, like AAE, Chicano English uses the multiple negative (Fromkin, et al. 2011). This may come from the Spanish sentence structure, where double negatives are frequently used. However, other dialects of English also use the double negative.
Just like with African American English, the implications of speaking only Standard American English or Chicano English can hamper educational or career opportunities. Turning one’s back on the community language can also lead to detrimental effects, such as being outcast from the community – both at home and at school.
Dialect Implications for Writing
Writing SAE is especially difficult for those who speak the non-Standard dialects. Written Standard English is very difficult to master. Grammar rules abound, along with lexical rules. Making the wrong word choices or errors in word order, spellings, etc. can cause even more misconceptions about the writer. Without “proper” writing skills, students may be singled out by their teachers. When a student repeatedly sees many errors pointed out in his/her writing, it is a huge blow to the student’s self-esteem. Eventually, without the proper intervention, the student may just give up. With the proper interventions, like peer conferences, teacher-student conferences, and the validation of the student’s home language/dialect, the writing process may become easier and more manageable for the student.
Without the proper help in school, when it comes time to fill out job applications and create résumés, the task becomes more challenging. The chances of finding a decent-paying job without impressing the potential employers with good application and résumé skills are very low, especially in today’s slow economy.
If a person does make it past the application and résumé process, the spoken language barrier may still exist. Employers generally have a certain “type” of person in mind for each job vacancy. Language – written and spoken – is an unseen requirement that is being given much consideration. The person who sounds more educated (which, in the United States usually means being able to speak and write in Standard American English) will have a better chance at the job than someone who may be more qualified but does not sound as educated.
Possible Ways to Address or Overcome Problems
For those who do not speak the Standard American English dialect, there are ways to make the problems mentioned above more manageable.
Teachers play a tremendous role in helping their students succeed at SAE. How can teachers help their students? Teachers need to successfully teach the grammar, style, and mechanics of the middle class discourse (the middle class discourse is the closest to SAE) (Delpit, 2006). Teachers also need to inform students of the subtleties of SAE – the execution of eloquent writing and speaking, neatness, careful thought processes, charisma, and mannerisms while speaking (Delpit, 2006).
An important first step for teachers and students is that teachers acknowledge the student’s home language/dialect as a real language and that there will be conflicts between the student’s discourse and SAE (Delpit, 2006). Acknowledging a student’s form of expression helps a teacher to gain that student’s respect and build a connection so the affective filter does not interfere with learning. Teachers can let students know that American society is sometimes unfair with language – that SAE is used to measure student knowledge and growth on high-stakes exams– even though many students are unfamiliar with aspects of SAE (Delpit, 2006). Teachers can turn the latter around – and discuss the injustice of ensuring that only certain people are allowed to succeed on these exams, and in bettering their lives in the future.
Exposing students to SAE language forms and explicitly teaching/identifying the similarities and differences to the students’ discourses is also a tool in the teachers “toolbox” of strategies (Coelho, 2003). Overemphasizing correctness may lead to disinterest on the student’s behalf.
In my own experience, I ask students to listen, watch, and repeat what their peers are doing. My students are asked to listen to how their peers speak – and to identify what differences in register, grammar, and word choice are used. Privately, the student and I discuss the findings and why their peers speak in that particular manner. Students are also asked to watch their classmates – what gestures do they use and when, which are appropriate, and how those gestures are interpreted by the person/people being spoken to. After my students have listened and watched, then I ask them to try using some of the euphemisms and gestures that they have seen their friends and classmates use.
Many of the students who I ask to use this find it very entertaining and they end up comparing notes with trustworthy peers and friends. They have become language “detectives” and do not even know it! They also succeed in learning some of the subtleties of SAE – the gestures and register that accompany certain words. I have used this before with ESL students and students who speak another dialect of English – like Appalachian English.
There are many resources for teachers to use to help them identify linguistic traits. One such resource is the Language Varieties website. This website describes African American English in detail – from history/background, to the origins of some commonly used AAE words (which have also been adopted by many non-African Americans), sounds, and other differences from SAE.
PBS.org’s Do you Speak American? also has a very interesting website – with many different American dialects. This particular site features Chicano English, as well as AAE. This website will briefly describe each dialect’s background, similarities and differences from SAE, as well as commonly held myths about dialects. If one is in the mood for a challenge, this website features a game to identify different American dialects and correctly place them on a map of the United States. It is quite interesting and a little more difficult than one might think…
The Educational Testing System (ETS) also has an interesting article on “African American and European American candidates in a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards” (ETS, n.d.). This study identifies differences in American Edited English among the two types of candidates.
Duchnowski’s article, Chicano English: Language Issues and their Relationship to Culture (n.d.), gives a very detailed background of Chicano English and the differences from SAE. Duchnowski also gives several more resources for one to use on understanding Chicano English better.
The Varieties of English website offers activities and information on the phonetics, phonology, accents, lexicon, and historical issues of Chicano English. It also provides help in using the International Phonetic Alphabet with Chicano English. This site features several other dialects, as well, including African American English.
I believe students would find PBS’s Do you Speak American? very useful for information on their own dialect, as well as on Standard American English. This site, as described above, even provides a map of where certain dialects may be found in the United States. This map may be helpful to students so they can understand they are not alone when it comes to speaking a dialect of English. Students will be able to understand the differences in their dialects by reading about the dialects in their region and becoming aware of the differences and similarities in their dialects and Standard American English. Students can also play several games on this website, as well as view the “Jeopardy with a Twist” video so they can see how different dialects work and how they can gain access to SAE.
The Backstage website has some great tips for learning a new dialect – it is from an actor’s point of view, not a student’s, but it does help point out the steps needed to acquire a different dialect. This website can help students understand the value of listening, mimicking, deconstructing what they have heard and have attempted and trying to get the sounds (especially the vowels) just right, and then recording yourself so you can hear the difference in your speech and that of your target dialect, in this case Standard American English. This website also put value on everyone’s dialect – not just one.
Speak Method is an interesting website that features factual information about the importance of SAE and accents. This resource also offers free lessons to learn SAE, using online videos and tests. Also offered are tutored classes, using Skype, but these are not free. The website even explains the importance of posture, breathing, and how the different parts of the mouth and throat are used to make certain sounds. A chart is provided to outline some of the differences of SAE with other dialects around the world.
Backstage. (2011). Teaching Yourself a Dialect. Retrieved from: http://www.backstage.com/bso/advice-vocal-ease/teaching-yourself-a-dialect-1005193732.story.
Coelho, E. (2003). Adding English: a Guide to teaching in multilingual classrooms.Don Mills, Ontario: Pippin Publishing.
Crochunis, T., Erdrey, S., & Swedlow, J. (2002). The diversity kit. Brown University: Education Alliance.
Delpit, L. (2006). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.
Duchnowski, D. (n.d.) Chicano English: Language Issues and their Relationship to Culture. Retrieved from: http://courses.wcsu.edu/valkommen/dawn.htm.
ETS. (n.d.) Writing Differences in Teacher Performance Assessments: Use of African American Language. Retrieved from: http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-03-26-Wylie.pdf.
Fromkin, Rodman, & Hyams. (2011). An Introduction to Language. Retrieved August 12, 2011, from CourseSmart Solutions - WGU: http://wgu.coursesmart.com/an-introduction-to-language-9th-edition/fromkin-rodman-hyams/dp/9781428263925#extendedisbn
Language Varieties. (n.d.) Retrieved from: http://www.hawaii.edu/satocenter/langnet/index.html.
PBS. (2005). Do you speak American? Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/americanvarieties/.
Speak Method. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.speakmethod.com/accentfacts.html.
Varieties of English. (n.d.) Chicano English. Retrieved from: http://www.ic.arizona.edu/~lsp/index.html.