African American English and Embracing Linguistic Diversity in the Classroom

Jen Griffin, our featured guest blogger for February, is a doctoral candidate in the Linguistics Department at UNC.

Her research interests include the documentation of dialect variation and evaluating models of variation. Her dissertation project seeks to document the various dialects of Sgaw Karen, which is an understudied language spoken by members of the Karen refugee community here in Chapel Hill.

In recent years, universities and other academic institutions nationwide have sought to promote diversity. In faculty training, course syllabi, and university policies, tolerance of diversity is emphasized in regards to race, gender, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation. However, as sociolinguist Walt Wolfram of North Carolina State University noted at the recent IAAR panel on African American English, one type of diversity that has largely been ignored is linguistic diversity. Little attention has been given to increasing tolerance for or understanding of the many distinct dialects of English that are spoken throughout the nation.

Linguists define dialects as varieties of a language which have their own unique grammars, or sets of rules, that regulate speech. These grammars dictate all the characteristics of language, such as how someone pronounces words, which words one uses, and even sentence structure. Dialects differ when some of the rules of one dialect don’t match the rules of another.

African American English (AAE) is one of many English dialects and has been well-studied by linguists. While AAE shares many of its grammatical rules and vocabulary with Mainstream American English (MAE), it also has several characteristics that distinguish it. For example, the grammar of MAE dictates that third person singular verb forms be marked with a word-final –s, as in “John eats,” while the grammatical rules of AAE dictate that “John eat” is the correct form. Because these dialects are so similar, many non-linguists erroneously classify AAE as a sloppy form of MAE, or “bad grammar.” The differences between these dialects are often small ones, which poses interesting questions for linguists. As part of her research, Professor Lisa Green of the University of Massachusetts is working to pinpoint exactly which rules are distinct between these dialects and which are shared.

In academic settings, these differences between dialects of English present the same complications as any other type of diversity in the classroom. Just as it is important to recognize and respect differences in students’ religions, ethnic backgrounds, and worldviews, it is equally important to recognize and respect students’ dialects because they are just as important to their sense of identity. Among his many projects on dialect variation, Professor Wolfram is currently working to promote awareness and tolerance of non-MAE dialects of English such as AAE (see Wolfram’s presentation below). Here at UNC, Professor Michael Terry is investigating how the use of AAE impacts academic performance in a mostly MAE classroom. Despite current research, many educators are left uninformed or confused about what role linguistic diversity should play in the classroom.

The issue of how to treat AAE in the classroom is nothing new. In the 1990s, the Oakland, California School District began to recognize AAE as a distinct form of English from MAE. The goal of the educators in Oakland was to create an MAE proficiency program so that students who spoke AAE were more easily able to code-switch between the two dialects in an academic setting. This sparked a nationwide controversy, as the opposition to this movement either thought it was classifying AAE as a completely separate language from English or were outraged that “improper grammar” would be supported in the classroom. The controversy shed light on how strong the linguistic attitudes of the public are and how widespread misinformation about dialect variation is.

There is no doubt that the issue of linguistic diversity in the classroom is a complicated one which will require the use of linguistic research to successfully navigate. Just as linguists contributed to the recognition of American Sign Language as a legitimate human language in the 1960s, we hope now to raise awareness of the legitimacy of all dialects of English, including AAE.

Download a powerpoint from Professor Wolfram’s presentation →