By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
There’s been a great deal of hoopla lately over a statement made by Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid in which he commented during the last presidential campaign that he thought Barack Obama had a good chance of winning the election because he “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Of course, people have reacted very negatively to such a statement, claiming it was basically racist. Others have added that hearing Senator Reid’s choice of words, Negro dialect, was like going through a time warp back to the mid-twentieth century. So what’s really going on, and how might this be of concern to ESOL teachers?
I don’t think that Senator Reid was saying anything that many – if not most of us – don’t think, but may not have the fortitude to openly verbalize. For quite a long time, we have struggled with the issue of how we judge people by their speech. The truth is that many of us don’t look favorably on people who speak in what are considered nonstandard dialects of English. Theoretically speaking, those people may have large portfolios and be living very “comfortably,” but if they open their mouths and speak with a Brooklyn or Cockney accent or Southern drawl, or if they use vocabulary and grammar associated with African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, sometimes referred to as Ebonics) or Chicano English, we don’t consider them polished and of high social status. That’s just the way it is. Unfortunately, we do judge books by their covers. And that was the point that Harry Reid was getting at. He wasn’t being racist; he was simply being realistic and honest.
In the 1980’s, while working as Associate Director of the English Language Institute at a university in South Florida, I was approached by many instructors who told me of their frustrations in dealing with students who wrote the way they spoke, that is, in nonstandard English. The instructors pleaded with me to create a course that would correct the problem. They felt it was a terrible disservice to the students that nobody was telling them they needed to speak and write in standard English in order to get ahead in the future. They knew their views might not be considered “pc” at that time, but their consciences wouldn’t allow them to say nothing about this problem.
I couldn’t have agreed with them more. Using nonstandard dialectal variations in the streets or with family and friends in relaxed, totally informal situations is just fine, but should we consider such language as proper for school or the workplace or government? The answer is decidedly no for many reasons, probably the most important being that we need to speak a standard form of our language in such settings so that chances for miscommunications or misunderstandings are minimized. Another important reason is to make sure that the listener is focusing on the meaning of our message rather than on any “oddities” in how we deliver the message.
I conscientiously worked on a proposal to offer a course at the university called “English as a Standard Dialect.” When the proposal was ready, I decided to test the waters by showing it to faculty members who were representative of the groups of students my colleagues had been complaining about. I figured that would be a smart move before showing the proposal to university officials for approval. The faculty members who saw what I had prepared gave me very positive feedback. Not one of them found the proposal offensive, which I found gratifying. I then presented my proposal to the dean – and that’s as far as things went. He considered the course too controversial, a political hot potato, even with the positive feedback I’d already gotten. No matter what I said, it made no difference, and he refused to let me develop the course any further. I feel that was a terrible mistake, and I’ve always felt bad that the students who needed the language skills my course could have offered them never got those skills.
The main thrust of my proposal was that there’s nothing wrong with students using their dialects in appropriate settings, but that they should learn how to code switch and use standard English in settings appropriate for that dialect as well. In other words, the course would not put down the dialects that the students used all the time, but it would offer them the skills to have an option they really needed to have at their disposal. I had been given that option when I was in elementary and junior high school back in Brooklyn, New York. All of my teachers, not just my English teachers, made it a point to teach us standard English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation and when it was not appropriate to use Brooklynese. The language skills that our teachers gave us in how and when to code switch have served me well my whole life. I’m sure that’s what Harry Reid meant when he said that Barack Obama “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Senator Reid must have recognized the fact that people with enough language skills can code switch at will – which is a good thing.
This subject about having at least two dialects in English, the standard one and the dialectal variation, is something that ESOL teachers working in English-speaking countries should keep in mind. But I’ve never lost sight of the fact that ESOL teachers must clearly explain the differences to their students and teach them very carefully when to use one or the other form if this is truly an issue where they are located and if their students are ready to deal with it. That’s for each teacher to determine.
Here are three very simple examples of the kinds of code switching that ESOL teachers might need to deal with at one time or another:
• In the New York City area, you get on line when waiting to do something, but in the rest of the United States, you get in line.
• In parts of New England, the word wicked means very, as in saying It’s wicked cold outside.
• In AAVE, you say He workin’, while in standard English you say He’s working. In AAVE you say He be workin’, while in standard English you say He works.
To sum up, let’s not overreact to what Senator Reid said about our current President’s language skills. True, he may have made his point somewhat crudely, but that doesn’t diminish the validity in what he said. Every English speaker or English language learner should have solid skills in using the standard dialect that is understood by everybody, but that doesn’t mean that those same people shouldn’t have the skills in one or another dialectal variation when appropriate. Da’s wussup wit’ dat.
So what’s your take on this subject? I’d love to hear your comments.