Monday, August 30, 2010

Academic Language

In my previous post about "Chantal," I mentioned that she said she had never been to "no restaurant."  Actually, I think she may have said "I ain't never been to no restaurant."  A couple of people expressed surprise that a high school graduate who is now attending college would have said something that grammatically incorrect, and I realized that I haven't explained academic language.

While Chantal may not have received the best education (except in third grade, of course!), she did get an education, she did well in school, and she's a smart person.  I haven't seen her high school papers, but I'm sure she knows not to use double negatives or the word "ain't."  There's (probably) a difference between how she writes and how she speaks.

The interesting part about this is that many people are aware that there is a difference between Black English Vernacular ("ebonics") and academic language.  So we know that we need to teach black kids how to write and speak in academic English as opposed how they talk at home or "on the street."  (I'm not sure why that phrase is always used).  The thing I don't understand is why we don't focus on how nobody speaks the way they write.

When I was teaching third grade, the kids would write something like "I'm fenna* go to the store" or "I lost a toof."  I think the automatic reaction of many people is to point out that it's not right.  I never liked this, I think partly because I was really uncomfortable with the idea of the white suburban teacher coming in and teaching the poor black city kids what was right and what wasn't.  Instead, I would tell them that how we talk is not the same as how we write.  We might say "toof" or "fenna" but we write "tooth" or "going to."

Usually, the next thing I would explain, is that we're not actually writing in a "white" way.  If you think about it, most white people don't speak entirely in academic language either.  When I listen to conversations with my white friends (and myself), I notice us saying "like," "um," and "gonna."  We don't write these things.  Some of my friends use the word "dude" a lot.  It doesn't make it into their writing.  None of us (well, very few) write the way we talk.  We just have this idea that "ebonics" is less educated than white slang.

I'm sure I'm not explaining this very well -- I'm not a linguist.  But I get concerned when "correct" English is equated with sounding white.

Four years ago: The First Day of School

*I learned, upon beginning my teaching career, of the word "fenna," also spelled "finna."  I believe it's short for "fixing to" and is used as I use "gonna."  It can also be "fit to" as in "I'm fit to lose my mind."  Interestingly, my white Southern friends and the black kids at my school both use this term equally.


Ruth said...

You may be interested in reading books/articles by Lisa Delpit.

Rosie said...

I've read your blog on and off for a while but never commented before. I think you make a really good point here. I'm Australian and trained as a primary school teacher. I remember when they looked at indigenous education in my university course they had a bit of a dilemma. They didn't want us to impose proper English, as Aboriginal English is its own dialect - not actually incorrect, just a different language. But then again, in order to empower the kids to participate in higher education, they needed to be able write in 'proper' English. But your point is a good one - no one write academically the way they speak.

B said...

Thanks! i'm glad you commented on this one. :)