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Who You Callin' "Informal?" Why AAE is NOT Innately Informal

Updated: Feb 13

I want you to imagine your closet full of clothes.

Now, I want you to imagine you are heading to a formal event, this could be a celebration of some sort, which clothes do you pick?

What if you were heading to a more casual place, say a friend’s house, which set of clothes do you pick now?

Women standing in front of a closet of clothes with empty hangers in her hands.
Choosing an outfit to wear.

So, what I’m hoping you did is that you picked clothes that were actually in your closet. I am very well aware that at times we all feel like we may want to borrow someone else’s clothes, and that’s fine. But, the point I want to make here is that we ALL have clothes that we consider more formal than others.

Now, hold this thought while we transition to language. (You knew it was coming;)

I recently had some conversations with colleagues about “formal” ways of speaking versus “informal” ways of speaking.

If you are in the world of education at all, then you have probably heard the following terms/ideas before:

School language is to Home language as Formal language is to Informal language.

Simply put, the way we speak at school is to be considered “formal” and the way we speak at home is considered “informal.”

Let’s now talk about 2 different sets of children. The first set of children are those who come to school speaking Mainstream/General American English. The second set of children come to school speaking African American English.

For the first set of children, those speaking m/gAE, they already are using the rules of language that school is expecting of them. For example:

  • The subject-verb agreement matches what a teacher would expect -- They were…

  • The possessive marker matches what a teacher expects -- My mom’s car…

  • The phonology matches what a teacher expects -- This….

For the second set of children, those speaking AAE at home, the language rules they have learned from home are different. For example:

  • The subject-verb agreement does not match teachers’ expectations --They was…

  • The possessive marker does not match teachers’ expectations -- My mom car…

  • The phonology does not match what the teacher expects to hear -- Dis…

Even though school does have another level of speaking & writing that many educators and researchers have coined “academic language,” it is still based in the grammatical and phonological rules of m/gAE. Therefore, those students who come to school already knowing and understanding the rules of m/gAE start way ahead of the students who come to school speaking AAE.

So now, back to the “formal = school” versus “informal = home” line of thinking…

The problem with this line of thinking is that it really only gets extended to children who do not speak Mainstream/General American English (m/gAE) at home. If you speak African American English (AAE) at home, that’s to be considered “informal.” When you go to school, you must learn to speak “formally” (aka m/gAE). The same idea gets extended to children whose first language is not English, but I’m only here to focus on those children whose heritage dialect of English is AAE.

In my opinion, there are a few things wrong with this line of thinking:

1) For m/gAE speaking children, their home language IS the school language. Continuing to use this dichotomy of thinking perpetuates the discriminatory nature of how we label the way people speak.

2) To describe the way an entire community of people speaks as “informal” is not only linguistically incorrect, but it is morally and ethically wrong.

3) Using this line of thinking leads us to think that AAE is innately an informal way of communicating – and when we think that a linguistic system/dialect is informal, we are by proxy calling the culture of people who use this dialect informal.

And Black culture is NOT informal.

4) It perpetuates the idea that Blackness is wrong and Whiteness is right (see work by Dr. April Baker-Bell)

5) We misinterpret how language systems are innately set-up and used by communities of people; changing one’s register can happen in ALL linguistic systems

Old thinking: AAE = informal; M/GAE = formal

New thinking: Within AAE there are both formal and informal ways of speaking; within M/GAE there are both formal and informal ways of speaking (this part isn't new, but I'm trying to make a point).

Black girl carrying textbooks in her hands.
AAE-speaking Black student can speak both formally and informally in their own dialect.

Now let’s come full circle with the original clothes analogy.

Every single one of us uses at least one linguistic system/dialect. Within that dialect there are different ways that you can choose to use language. For example, you may speak to an elder person or person of authority, and choose to speak with a more formal register; paying attention to your choice of vocabulary, your use of contractions, or the complexity of your sentences. Or you may speak to a child or a friend and choose to speak with a more informal register.

A dressy shoe on the left and a Converse sneaker on the right.

Some of us have multiple dialects to choose from. If that’s the case, then we may choose to code switch to another dialect because perhaps we feel we may be “heard” more effectively. That’s fine too, but not everyone has multiple codes to use. (See my blog on code switching).

The next time you are listening to someone speak AAE or another heritage dialect, please remember that they are using the dialect that their community speaks. Perhaps they are speaking formally, perhaps they are speaking informally, but in no way are they innately “informal.”

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