Let them speak dialect

16th October 1998 at 01:00
At the end of my last term at teacher training college just before the summer, I presented a paper to my classmates in the English subject group. I had chosen "The Language Children Speak at Home" as my topic, and my research threw up some enlightening information.

For example, schools teach their pupils Standard English as accepted throughout the world of employment. However, national guidelines increasingly recommend that children should be made aware of the "difference" between language forms such as dialects. But often in the case of Standard English "different" is presented as "superior", while dialects are described as "historical" and "quaint". Tasks encourage pupils to "translate" their dialects into the standard form; teachers correct perceived inadequacies of accent, such as glottal stops. The spoken media and popular teenage fiction promote American English as the alternative to Standard, and dialects are regarded as passing curiosities.

The problem is that language is not just a communicative code: it is an inherent part of human identity. Language is solidarity; that is why pupils talk like each other, not like their teachers. It has been known for many years that dialects are strongest among working-class families. Their poor educational record is often blamed on the fact that they have difficulties with Standard English. Social judgments are made as soon as a person opens his or her mouth to speak.

What seems to have been ignored in the recent debate on how and why to consider non-Standard forms in the English classroom, however, is the research by sociolinguists which proves that boys are particularly attached to their home dialects. There are a couple of reasons for this: boys relate strongly to a group identity and want to avoid the appearance of "selling out" to authority; and girls are more willing to accept standard and socially "superior" dialects in the interests of "getting on".

If I downgrade a pupil's accent or dialect, I am, in effect, degrading his or her family, friends, history, culture, self-esteem and identity. I am forcing that pupil to choose between his family and his education. The evidence suggests that many boys will reject me and all I stand for, even if that means jeopardising their future.

As part of my paper, the class carried out an exercise in which they were not allowed to use English. Reflecting on the experience, their feelings ranged from "offended" to "frustrated" and "out of control". If mature and linguistically capable adults feel this way, it is no wonder that our pupils who are being squeezed into the Standard English mould may respond with poor performance and hostility. It's certainly not the only reason boys do less well at school than girls, but it may be a contributing factor.

Abiy Orr is an English teacher at Gairloch High School, Wester Ross

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