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Language Policy and Public Knowledge

Carolyn Temple Adger

Much of the national discussion about the Oakland school district's policy on standard English instruction suggests a lack of awareness about how language works. The view that there is one correct, standard English and that variations from that standard are deviant-a view still manifesting itself in the public discussion-is an example. In fact, a large body of carefully conducted linguistic research reveals the details of what people observe casually: that English (like other languages) is quite variable from place to place and group to group. In terms of their linguistic structure, all of the dialects associated with geographic areas and sociocultural groups are equally regular and predictable. This quality of language-its systematicity-is what makes it usable as a means of communication: language users must share a language system in order to get meaning across. People may have some difficulty at first understanding varieties (dialects) of their language that they have not heard before, but eventually they do take dialect contrasts in stride because they occur predictably, not randomly, and because differences between dialects are relatively insignificant in comparison to the vast linguistic resources that dialects share: almost all of their grammar, their sound systems, and their vocabulary. Status differences among dialects are a matter of social evaluation and language prejudice, rather than linguistic adequacy, and these attitudes have been largely unquestioned.

Much of the criticism of Oakland's policy has viewed the students' language as "bad," "ungrammatical," or "malformed," essentially a collection of language mistakes rather than a system that differs in certain features from other dialects. This opinion is not supported by linguistic research, and it misses an important educational point: students' implicit linguistic knowledge of their own dialect can be used for contrasting features of their dialect with features of the standard dialect which the schools want to teach them. The venerable tradition of sociolinguistic research on African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the dialect spoken by many Oakland students, can be applied instructionally. Students can develop more accurate views of how language works by examining data from various dialects, developing hypotheses that describe and predict linguistic phenomena in those dialects, and collecting and analyzing data from their own speech communities. Comparing the facts about language variation from dialect to dialect with social attitudes about dialects both fascinates and outrages students. It also provides a rational basis for dialect learning.

The other pitfall in labeling students' language as inconsequential or wrong concerns the social identity function that language serves. It is unlikely that students will discard the community dialect, since it serves an important social solidarity function, but this seems to be what is asked of them when their dialect is treated as mere "slang." In fact, research has shown that "correcting" students' use of vernacular dialect features at school leads to more, not less, vernacular use. As a prelude to dialect instruction, schools need to open up students' awareness of dialects as sociolinguistic systems and invite them to examine actual dialect appropriateness in social settings as demonstrated by language use, rather than accept claims about the appropriateness of certain dialects for certain functions. Evidence from authentic language use is likely to be more convincing than are schools' arguments about which sort of language ought to be used where. Convincing students to become proficient in standard English because they'll need it to get a good job sets a remote goal. Analyzing dialect in recorded talk, including classroom interaction, may surprise students and their teachers: They are apt to discover ways in which they already use standard English features for their own purposes.

Certainly Oakland students and students everywhere ought to have the opportunity to improve their proficiency in standard English for future and present needs. But teachers, particularly English teachers, have tried to teach standard English for centuries, often with limited effect. Oakland proposes an ambitious professional development goal: ensuring that teachers understand the structural details of AAVE so that they can draw on students' linguistic proficiency. Attitudes toward the vernacular dialect may well have to be overhauled, and some fairly extensive linguistic training will need to occur. Teachers will need to know how to weave dialect instruction into reading, writing, and oral language development in order to connect it to real communicative functions. Grammar drills separated from language use haven't made much of a dent in students' language use in the past, and simply refocusing this approach so that it helps students add a dialect rather than stamp out the one they have is not promising.

The Oakland decision stirs up a dialect controversy that was not resolved during the 1960s and 70s, the last time that dialect studies drew public attention. There is an opportunity here for schools to improve language education for all students, not only speakers of dialects other than standard English, by introducing scientific knowledge about the nature of language. In a diverse society, permitting dialect myths to persist contributes not only to language ignorance but to social factionalism. It's time to separate language fact from attitudinal rhetoric and focus on the critical task: educating all of our students to participate fully in a diverse world.

January, 1997

Carolyn Temple Adger is a Program Associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC. For more information, contact her at 202-362-0700, or at by electronic mail.