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Online Resources: Frequently Asked Questions

What dialect differences exist in English? What role do they play in education?

Dialect differences are one of the most interesting features of language, but also one of the most controversial, particularly in schools. Dialects are varieties of a language that contrast in pronunciation, grammatical patterns, and vocabulary and that are associated with geographic area and social class. Although the term dialect is used popularly to refer to vernacular (i.e., non-standard) language varieties, linguists use the term in a neutral sense to refer to any variety--vernacular or standard. All dialects, whether considered standard or vernacular, are regular. Claims that some varieties are "proper" and others are "broken" or "sloppy" reflect language attitudes rather than linguistic facts. Years of sociolinguistic research have shown that dialects are merely different from each other.

Standard English is a useful construct, especially for education, but it encompasses a range of dialects. A formal standard variety of English, as reflected in dictionaries and grammars, is associated with written language, but it is unlikely that anyone speaks it. Speech communities use an informal standard that is a more flexible variety.

Standard English varies geographically; for example, Standard English in the South shows some pronunciation contrasts with Standard English in the North. Standard English in the United States contrasts with Standard English in Britain, Ireland, Australia, or India. In fact, there is no single standard. Members of a speech community have a generally shared understanding of Standard English for their group. This is the dialect that is associated with educated people and good jobs, the one that schools are expected to foster.

It is important to keep in mind, especially in the context of education, that linguistic features associated with vernacular dialects are not incorrect. They do not represent language deficiency. Speaking a vernacular dialect is not the result of poor or incomplete language learning and its use does not impede cognitive development. Correctness in language is a matter of social acceptability. In schools, students should be encouraged to build competence in speaking and writing a standard variety but their vernacular dialects must be respected as evidence of social identity and linguistic expertise.

In addition to indigenous varieties of American English, a number of World Englishes (e.g., Indian English, Singapore English, Caribbean English, South African English) are increasingly visible in U.S. schools, as are dialects of other languages. Spanish dialects (e.g., Puerto Rican Spanish, Mexican Spanish) are an issue in the context of teaching Spanish to Spanish speakers and bilingual education. As with English, a formal standard Spanish variety is recognized for purposes of reading and writing.

Increasing knowledge about language can reduce misconceptions about dialects. One way to teach students about vernacular dialects is to have them study language variation in their own communities.

Adapted with permission from Wolfram, W., Adger, C.T., & Christian, D. (1999). Dialects in Schools and Communities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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