Commentary

On Linguistic Diversity in the Classroom

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The British and Americans have been said to be a people divided by the same language, but the divisions may well be greater among each than between them.

English as a standard against which to regard such variations as Cockney slang, a Scottish burr, or an Oxbridge idiom. But what standard can Americans comfortably offer without implying invidious distinctions? Which president's English might serve as a model in syntax and in pronunciation?

ethnic background, education, and even age group. Recent studies suggest that our language is becoming even more variegated in spite of what might have been expected to be the homogenizing influence of television.

always been exceedingly elusive to prescribe, or even to describe. Our language happens to be a melange of words, idioms, grammatical idiosyncrasies, and assorted linguistic constructions deriving from Latinic, Germanic, Semitic, African, and Asian sources--in short, from every culture and people the English (and Americans) have in their long history touched.

foreign words, phrases, pronunciations, intonations, and idioms--a capacity that keeps it rich and vital--creates a most delicate problem in the classroom and in many communities.

English for the country at large testify to the widespread distress produced by the motley and mercurial character of our language. Senators Steven D. Symms, Republican of Idaho, and Jeremiah Denton, Republican of Alabama, have gone so far as to propose a constitutional amendment to make English the country's "official" language, whatever that may turn out to mean.

recreational as choosing a national flower. Legal efforts to impose a pure English can get quickly entangled with more suspicious ends, like defining a pure race or establishing a single true religion.

our "language minorities," as they refer to them, may "outbreed" (also their term) the English-speaking majority by the end of the century. Actually, certain sections of the country--such as the greater Miami area and portions of California--are already predominantly Spanish-speaking enclaves. New Mexico has for decades been printing official state documents in Spanish and in English; federal agencies issue instructions in more then one language.

fear of losing political, social, religious, or ethnic dominance. And, to put it bluntly, legislating language falls into the same class of asserting state control as imposing or banning opinion, speech, thought, or religion.

immigrants to learn a more or less common and orderly English, written and spoken to readily available standards, with the anarchic forces of language and of life itself? To ask the question in this form is perhaps to answer it. For are not our schools dedicated precisely to disseminating knowledge and skills that enable students to follow productive and civilized lives?

Whatever we may do to meet the challenge of teaching a constantly changing English, we must base our efforts on an acceptance of that language as the dominant one in our culture at this time, although its boundaries may remain ragged and its contents endlessly adaptable. Recent legislation in California--mandating an emphasis on the teaching of standard English in districts where more than 10 percent of students "lack linguistic proficiency"in that medium--may well serve as a nonthreatening example to other states.

We will have to separate the scientific, descriptive study of English, which can only be "permissive" since it proceeds objectively, from the socially normative character of the language, which determines its subjective import in a context--for example, on the job or in the classroom.

To find appropriate standards of usage, we need go only to newspapers, magazines, and books for written English and to television, radio, recordings, and movies for the uttered language. We must acknowledge that there is a socially "correct" or acceptable English, as there are socially proper ways to dress and behave in public, however we may speak, write, or garb ourselves informally or in private. Many minority communities have come to accept standard English as the "cash tongue," necessary to make one's way in a culture dominated by that tongue.

To improve the teaching of English as we simultaneously recognize its virtually chameleonic nature, we should, first, expect teachers in all disciplines to have as full a sense of the nature of language as they do of scientific evidence or the nature of democracy. Too many teachers have primitive notions about "correctness." They prefer stilted and complex expression to that which is natural and plain; they teach students mechanical rules instead of how to read and write sensitively.

Second, teachers should make a special effort to learn something of the formal nature of the foreign languages, dialects, and variants of standard English students normally use. Black English, for example, has a complex syntax and idiom, approaching that of a separate language, which has in recent years been formally examined in such sensible and academically solid works as Sylvia W. Holton's Down Home and Uptown: The Representation of Black Speech in American Fiction and John Baugh's Black Street Speech: Its History, Structure, and Survival.

Teachers in communities where language patterns other than standard English predominate should orient themselves to these patterns. If nothing else, teachers' ears should be attuned to current idiom; the world of daily speech and writing is a revealing one and, whether they like it or not, teachers should know it.

Third, communities with large foreign-language-speaking populations should devise ways of comfortably assimilating those populations into the English-centered school system. New York City has worked out ways of allowing Hispanic students to begin college using their own tongue but to graduate with a respectable command of standard English. We do no one a service if we support, out of a distorted pride, a rigid monolingualism--whether in English, another language, or an English dialect (such as black English)--or a fraudulent bilingualism in which familiarity with one of the languages is shallow and minimal.

Fourth, we should support among those for whom English is a second tongue the serious study of their first one. Complaints about the narrowness of American students in their study of foreign languages have a hollow ring when we discourage those who are already fluent in a foreign tongue from using or studying it.

We mock the welcome and the equality of opportunity symbolized by the Statue of Liberty when we ban or denigrate any language or dialect. The demands of hospitality, courtesy, democracy, and sheer practicality require that we respond to the communication needs of all our people.

We must ease the way both for those who already use standard English comfortably and for those who have yet to gain proficiency in it. We gain more by flexibility, patience, and a continuing willingness to learn than by a stubborn resistance to language adaptability of any sort.

Vol. 05, Issue 11, Page 28

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