Updated: May 12
written April 14, 2014
I gave a lecture to a classroom of pre-service teachers, who were predominantly African-American, and when speaking about language differences and language disorders, one young man asked me, “How do we get teachers to respect the dialect that these kids have from home?” Ahhh, the question of ages. I gave him some ideas of what to say and do, but when I thought about it later I realized that we, as a people, are still holding on to many misconceptions about dialect that have turned to disrespect. And I believe that we are disrespectful about ideas and other things when we don’t fully understand them.
Case in point, the other day I was watching 20/20 and the journalist was interviewing a Black man who spoke using African American English (AAE). They used captions when he spoke. Okay, fine. Not everyone really understands AAE, so use captions for those who don’t. BUT, when the man said that he was “fitna go by me a ticket”, the caption read, “gonna go by me a ticket.” And there were a few more examples like that. Gonna. That’s not what he said. He used a common word spoken in AAE and because the programmers didn’t understand this, they “fixed” his words for him and hence, in my opinion, disrespected the use of AAE.
My mom was reading a book the other day, a true story of a Black girl living in New York, written by a White woman. My mom asked me to read some of the dialogue of the story because it seemed strange to her, but didn’t know why. When I read it, it was because the character spoke using AAE, but instead of using systematic rules, the author just used what she thought were the correct features; random use of “improper grammar.”
All of this to say that there are 3 misconceptions about dialect that we (and I mean all of us, White, Black, Asian, lower-income, middle-income, etc.) continue to have that I think need to be addressed so that 1) we can understand dialect better, 2) we can understand each other better, and 3) we can respect those who speak it. While I know how difficult it is for people to speak about race, class, poverty, language, it needs to be done if we expect any change to occur at all.
MISCONCEPTION #1 – “He doesn’t use proper grammar when he speaks.”
In 2014, we.are.still.thinking.this?? Usually, I hear this statement used by anyone who is talking about the way a Black person speaks and more often than not, someone from a low-income community. [I also hear this statement when speaking about a White person from a rural environment. I could go on...but I won't] And when I hear this, I know the assumptions that fall close behind; he’s uneducated, he’s not intelligent, he doesn’t speak “correctly.” Well, here’s the deal. He’s using a rule-governed, systematic way of speaking that is not the mainstream variety we may hear on the news, but it’s still a linguistic system and one that should be respected. Some linguists say African American English -AAE- has its roots in West African languages, some say in the speech of Creole-speaking slaves. Either way, it’s legit folks.
MISCONCEPTION #2 – “She speaks in broken English.”
Ugh! Yet another way we use language to try and talk about the person. I usually hear people say this when they are listening to someone whose first language is not English. This may be someone whose native language is Korean, Tagalog, Spanish, etc. But, the “broken” part people are hearing is the influence of another language when speaking English**. So, when someone speaks in what people see as fragmented sentences, please understand that this person is probably at least bilingual, meaning they likely possess some more cognitively advanced skills than the monolingual person who is trying hard to “correct” their poor, broken, English.
MISCONCEPTION #3 – “She talks White.”
Ha! To this day, I’m still getting this said to me. Just the other day the Black Greyhound bus driver saw my name on my ticket and said, “Yeah, you sound like a Megan.” Thank goodness my self-esteem is better now at 36 to take that. With a statement like that, he made assumptions about my “Blackness” or shall I say, “lack of Blackness.” But, in reality, the assumptions should be in the place and way I was socialized to talk. I grew up in a middle-class community with all races on the block. My parents, brothers, peers, and teachers all spoke Mainstream American English, and hence, so did I. Does that make me less “Black,” I think not. I am what I am.
We are a country filled with beautiful diversity. Dialect is just one aspect of it. The more we understand it, the more we can respect it and those who speak their own variety of it.
To become more educated about AAE and have an examined perspective when you talk to your friends- download a copy of my Flavors of English - AAE Edition.
**Just a side note - I met an cab driver whose first language was not English and he told me he felt his "broken English" - words he used to describe how he spoke - was as a result of not knowing enough vocabulary words in English to fully express himself. I still don't like the word "broken," but food for thought...