In their new book We Do Language: English Language Variation in the Secondary English Classroom, Anne Harper Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson encourage educators to take a more critical approach to understanding the ways that students employ non-standardized English language varieties. Although the primary audience for the book is secondary English teachers, anyone who teaches in today’s ever-changing linguistically diverse classrooms will find it a beneficial resource.
Language is as inextricably linked to our cultural experiences as the number of boxes that we can check on a form. As people, cultures, technologies, and contexts change, so does the language that we use to express ourselves. I don’t have to look any farther than that last text that I sent or received to see how new literacies have changed language. With that being said, as educators it is still somewhat difficult to determine what is permissible in terms of non-standardized use of English in the college classroom. Navigating the space between expectations for standardized English proficiency and acceptance of non-standardized English varieties can be second nature for some and completely perplexing for others. To assist in navigating this terrain, Charity Hudley and Mallinson advocate for what they call “linguistic awareness” in classrooms and beyond.
The chapter that I found most intriguing in this regard was titled “Language Varies.” In it the authors identify what they describe as three linguistic truths and explain why it is important to possess more than a superficial understanding of these seemingly obvious truths. The truths put forth are: “Communication Occurs in Social Contexts,” “Language is Always Changing,” and “Language Differences are not Language Deficits” (ch. 2). Additionally, they include a set of “linguistic reflection” questions such as “Where do you hear different types of language?” and “What type of language variation do you find interesting?” (ch. 2). These questions encourage readers to confront our own ideas about language varieties. The chapter concludes with suggestions for “supporting linguistically and culturally diverse students” (ch. 2). Although the authors do not provide specific strategies for doing this, they argue that “to help all students . . . become communicatively competent, it is important for educators to be able to identify language differences in culturally responsive and sociolinguistically informed ways” (ch.2).The authors believe that educators who have a firm grasp of the linguistic truths “are able to build on their students’ home languages and language varieties as they help [them] learn the norms and conventions of standardized English” (ch. 2).
Charity Hudley and Mallinson assert that, “language varieties are often stigmatized,” which brings with it additional ills (ch. 2). To that end they argue, “The tenets of multiculuralism challenge us to critically examine these notions, however, and, to see [language] differences as part of the natural spectrum of humanity” (ch. 2). This becomes of increasing importance as the ever-expanding definition of multiculturalism presents itself in college classrooms, particularly for adults students whose cultural and linguistic voices may be more firmly cemented.
The authors argue, “Any language variety is just as logical and internally consistent as another, and, just like standardized English, non-standardized varities of English are rule-governed and predictable in their linguistic structure” (ch. 2). Therein lies the problem for many instructors; how does one become familiar with the rules of the language variety that a student is using? I have experienced situations where colleagues have wrongly equated a student’s incorrect use of grammar with a dialect or vernacular. On the more disturbing end of the spectrum, I vividly remember an experience where I witnessed a colleague belittle a student by telling him that his use of an English language variety showed his “inability to speak standard American English.” In that case, I intervened to salvage what remained of the student’s visibily diminished self-esteem. Because of my familiarity with the language variety he used, I was able to offer suggestions that would help rather than hinder the student’s academic progress.
In cases where I am unfamiliar with a language variety, I ask the student to explain to me what he or she means. I find that this empowers students because rather than feel that they are deficient, they see that they are using a variation of the language and that they are fluent enough to translate it into another variety. Depending on the assignment, we can determine which variety of English is best suited for the audience. If students do not learn the correct contexts for using standardized and non-standardized varieties of English in the college classroom, where will they learn them?
Although some hardline sociolinguists and home language advocates argue that one should be able to use any English language variety anywhere, the reality is that we live in a world where context dictates which variety of English we use as much as it dictates that I don’t wear my pajamas to a job interview. As an educator, I would do my students a grave disservice to not teach this. As educators we can find ways to empower students linguistically and respect their cultural identities. To support this notion, the authors cite earlier work by Smitherman and Villanueva who argue, “real-word educational and professional situations bring together speakers of different languages and language varieties. Students who are able to navigate this diversity are well positioned to succeed in a multicultural society” (qtd in Charity Hudley and Mallinson, ch. 2). I would argue that the same is true for faculty. I believe that the more linguistically aware I am as a teacher, the better prepared I will be to teach in our multicultural classrooms.