An goen tu tro Rakxs, or, Whose Language is it Anyway?

June 13, 2013    language literacy writing

I recently picked up a copy of ’s Children, Language, and Literacy: Diverse Learners in Diverse Times from the library. This book caught my eye as I was browsing the stacks, the title suggesting that its pages might help me grapple with some of the questions I’ve encountered this past school year while working with young learners.

As I read chapter two, “Standardized Language, Standardized Childhood,” I began to search for examples of what Genishi and Dyson described in my own experience. They write, for instance, of the many languages and dialects that children speak at home:

Children […] are socialized into language use in different families, with different socioeconomic resources and challenges, in different regions of the country, with different sociocultural histories. […] Dialects are systematic variations in a language’s grammatical rules, associated with geographic, social, and cultural boundaries. These variations are audible in the ways speech sounds are combined and pronounced (phonology), the ways words are combined to form grammatical sentences (syntax), the meanings of words (semantics), and the way speech varies among situations (pragmatics). The dialects considered “standard” are those spoken by the most powerful people in a certain geographic area, but they are no more systematic than the dialects labled “nonstandard.” (p. 20)

Crucially, the authors point out that children who use languages or dialects at home that are not the language of wider communication (i.e., the language of the group in power) still speak grammatically.

I turned to examples of student writing I had on file to see if I could recognize any linguistic differences between students. Not surprisingly, I found a few examples.

Two second-grade students from the same class described the same feature of Beverly McIver’s Love Mom in different languages:

Student 1: She got’s Big glasses

Student 2: She has glasses

A first-grade student and English Language Learner in a bilingual (Spanish) classroom wrote a story inspired by Zhang Dali’s Demolition; in his illustration, a particularly aggressive statue says:

An goen tu tro Rakxs

These students’ words display some of the linguistic diversity that we’ve witnessed in just one year of Words & Pictures at the Nasher. Despite the fact that these students have different native languages, they are expected to meet the same educational standards (emphasis added):

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

The Common Core State Standards do, on some level, acknowledge the existence of other Englishes. Fifth graders, for example, are asked to “Compare and contrast the varieties of English (e.g., dialects, registers) used in stories, dramas, or poems.” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.3b) I wonder, however, if we are doing emerging readers and writers a disservice by favoring standard English over their home languages.

Genishi and Dyson:

Children’s sociolinguistic flexibility does not tend to be a major focus of early schooling. Languages and language varieties other than standardized English are generally viewed as problems, not as the basis of children’s communicative repertoires. This view of languages and language varieties as problematic is not only or even mainly due to concerns about the ease of communication at school. Rather, it derives from concerns about “standards” and the power to set them and, also, to meet them. Ain’t is not less clear than isn’t, but its social reverberations are different. And this is why people are so intense, emotional, and ambivalent about some fo the children’s ways with words. (p. 30)

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) states in its Resolution on the Student’s Right to Incorporate Heritage and Home Languages in Writing:

The ability to incorporate both home language and the language of wider communication in writing is a valued skill beyond schools. Well-known authors regularly use these strategies to enrich and extend possibilities for expression in fiction and nonfiction texts […]. In the same way, students and their audiences can benefit from opportunities and encouragement to draw on varied linguistic and cultural resources in their writing.

Such opportunities affirm student voice and address issues of identity, culture, and politics: When students’ home languages – spoken or written – are denied, their voices become muted and they become invisible in the larger society. Such “cultural dissonance [causes them] to shrink away from formal education before they [can] fully develop” (Gilyard, 1991).

Followup Questions

  • As online- and mobile-device-mediated speech becomes the dominant form of written communication, what new conventions will arise in young people’s writing? What challenges will educators face?
  • Given that museums, like schools, have historically been the arbiters of the “correct” readings of history and culture, how can we change our language to ensure that we meet the needs of our diverse communities?
  • If the language we use to interpret art–be it on wall labels or from a museum educator–is the language of the powerful, how does this affect learners’ understanding of works by artists from marginalized communities?