Vol. 4. No. 1 R-14 July 1999
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Dialects in Schools and Communities

Walt Wolfram, Carolyn Temple Adger, and Donna Christian (1999)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xi + 239
ISBN 0-8058-2862-1 (paper); 0-8058-2862-1 (cloth)
US $24.95 (paper); $49.95 (cloth)

ESL/EFL teachers should have a heightened awareness of dialect variation in English for a variety of reasons. First, we want to know as much as possible about the language we teach so we can represent it accurately in the classroom. Second, we are always conscious of our own speech and writing and our role as a model for learners, and want to feel that we are presenting our students with an appropriate model. Third, we may want a sense of security; we want to feel that the explosion in the use of English as a world language has not left us stranded with our own archaic version of it, which may only become more isolated from the mainstream even as we continue to teach it, wherever we are. Finally, we want to be able to analyze forms of English in terms of their utility to our learners, in terms of how we can best use our time to teach our students what they will most need to know.

We will not have our concerns addressed directly in this book, which is addressed primarily to public educators and practitioners at the elementary and secondary levels in the U.S., and which is intended as an "updated, still-interim report on the state of language variation and education in the United States" (p. x). We will, however, get valuable insight into the nature of dialects in U.S. English and the way in which our concept of language education is affected by dialect diversity in the U.S. classroom.

The authors begin by describing what dialects are, and the kinds of variation one might expect to find in the U.S. and in U.S. classrooms. The authors describe variations in grammar, phonology, and vocabulary, and in one well-written section, describe variation in communicative behavior and some of the possible consequences of this variation in an educational setting.

A recurring theme of the book is that dialect difference is not deficit; in other words, "because no one linguistic system can be shown to be inherently better, there is no reason to assume that using a particular dialect can be associated with having any kind of inherent deficit or advantage" (p. 20). Thus the authors are clearly on one side of a debate that overshadows discussions of dialect variation in the classroom. They face this debate quite squarely, and, admitting that they may be in the minority position, justify that position and continue with arguments that follow from it. We are given examples of the influence of dialects in the field of writing, oral language, and reading; in students' perception of reading tests, for example, and in other kinds of assessment. At [-1-] every step the authors attack the popular view that "variation erodes the language," a view that "supports the illusion of a unitary English" (the mistaken notion that there is one logical correct form of English and that all other varieties are imperfect approximations), an illusion that "has permeated educational endeavors with serious consequences" (pp. 99-100). Among their recommendations are that educators should recognize dialects as valid subgroupings of the language, learn more about the dialects of their students, and seek equity in testing (keeping in mind that testing aptitude in standard English is not the same as testing ability to learn, since people can learn in all dialects). Finally, we are shown how dialect awareness can be promoted among students themselves, so students become more aware of the richness of variation in English, as well as themselves being resources for the documenting of that richness in America's communities.

The picture that emerges from this political battlefield is, to the ESL/EFL teacher, a mixed message. Because language is at the same time both political and personal, it is essential that we understand the political and personal ramifications of the variations of English that we teach. Thus it is essential that we learn about, and represent to the best of our ability, the variations of our language (I include here variations occurring in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and countless other places), as well as variations in register and in communicative behavior in the English-speaking world. Of course this is a tall order, for as this book makes clear, understanding variation even within the U.S. is a gargantuan task. Yet those who represent the English language in classrooms would best set that as a goal. It is irresponsible for any English teacher to represent some dialectal forms as "wrong," or worse, to represent those dialectal forms as stemming from ignorance, or inability to communicate correctly. In this sense the authors' crusade against the traditionally judgmental majority is justified, though possibly hopeless, or at best difficult. We teachers will have to live with the insecurity that stems from the linguistic fact that standard English contains a great deal of variation, even when limited to versions observed in the U.S. or in more limited geographical areas, and that nobody has access to the "correct version" by birthright or any other means.

All educators have to face two overpowering facts, however, both of which overshadow the joy of teaching the pure and infinite richness of our respective subject matters. The first of these is that education occurs in a political arena, and many people have great stakes in what is taught, and in what priority, for both political and personal reasons. The standards of an educational institution are the result of political and practical compromises on the part of both educators and the members of their communities, all of whom have a high stake in the final product. Valuing many [-2-] variants of English equally, even within the U.S., would be, as a practical matter, impossible. Maintaining that there is a rough national standard (simply ignoring or not testing variations that are in dispute), by which any student can be judged against any other, is necessary for political and practical reasons, and is forced upon the system by political realities, even if the concept of a unified standard doesn't hold up against linguistic scrutiny. An example of this is the controversy over dialect readers (pp. 154-155), which are intended to incorporate the grammar and vocabulary features of a vernacular dialect into readers that are being used to teach students of a particular dialect. They are intended to be used as a transition to standard English; the authors believe that they could be used effectively and should be given more consideration. Yet they admit that dialect readers have met strong opposition from the beginning, and therefore have been investigated in only a limited way. And political reality dictates that a reform not supported by the community that is to adopt it is doomed (consider bilingual education in California), regardless of its theoretical value, or the support of educators who believe firmly in it. Carrying the authors' logic to its extreme, we should be able to have entire educational systems use vernacular dialects, without the necessity of teaching the standard dialect, eventually, or ever. The classroom dictates that we pick one goal and strive for it; national political reality dictates that we have a common language and judge each other by mastery of it. Neither of these realities shows any sign of changing.

The other fact that overshadows the dialect controversy is that the testing system itself encourages the "right/wrong" dichotomy, and can hardly avoid applying it to the dialect system. For example, given a question in which the right answer is standard English, test authors will use vernacular dialects to provide distracters, as they need plausible distracters to make a valid test. Nobody actually has to call the vernacular dialects wrong; the system alone shows that. According to the authors, "language attitudes that interpret language change and dialect diversity as signs of language degradation demonstrate naive disregard for fundamental linguistic processes . . . [and] may preserve institutional strategies like testing that privilege speakers of standard dialects and classify speakers of other dialects as language deficient because they are outside the norm" (p. 104). Be that as it may, it seems that political reality is leaning toward the position that both preserves and maintains this kind of standard testing, and at the same time preserves the illusion, however fragile, of a standard English.

Thomas Leverett
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..

Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page