Some years back I came across (as one hopes any compositionist would
eventually--though as recent research has shown, that hope is indeed just
that) the 1974 CCCC position statement, "Students' Right to Their
Own Language," a document that, though dated in years, speaks to
the same issues concerning English usage that make up popular and private
debates about the teaching of English today. While the statement was composed
to address how teachers ought to respond to variety in their students'
dialects, and serves that purpose extraordinarily well, I was particularly
struck by section 25, whose heading, "What Sort of Knowledge about
Language Do English Teachers Need?" targeted one of the very issues
that concerns me most.
I think that every writing teacher, whether teaching at the precollegiate
level or above, should be familiar with the concepts articulated below.
For those who are already familiar with these basic tenets of linguistics,
and may regard them as obvious, experience (and, more recently, research
and Villanueva) shows that many graduate students and full time composition
instructors have little awareness or education in them. While those who
browse this page are probably already among the "converted,"
I think that the clarity and directness of the excerpt makes it a useful
tool for englightening our colleagues both within and outside of the discipline,
and for that reason, among others, I have posted it here. Further, as
I have noted elsewhere, this information is not only what teachers need
to know; their students need to know it as well.
(the text below is excerpted from the April, 1974 CCCC
position statement "Students' Right to Their Own Language,"
found at http://www.ncte.org/ccc/12/sub/state1.html,
and also published in CCC 25, Fall, 1974)
XV. What Sort of Knowledge about Language Do English Teachers Need?
All English teachers should, as a minimum, know the principles of modern
linguistics, and something about the history and nature of the English
language in its social and cultural context. This knowledge can be acquired
through reading, through course work, through experience, or through a
combination of these. All teachers should know something about:
A. The Nature of Language as an Oral, Symbolic System by which Human
Beings Interact and Communicate: If teachers understand that the spoken
language is always primary and the written language is a separate and
secondary or derived system, they will be able to recognize that students
inexperienced in the written system may still have great competence and
facility in the spoken language. Because both systems are arbitrary, there
is no necessary connection between the words of a language and the things
those words symbolize (leche, lait, milk, etc.) nor is there any necessary
connection between the sounds of the word "milk" and the alphabetic
symbols we use to represent those sounds. Once a teacher understands the
arbitrary nature of the oral and written forms, the pronunciation or spelling
of a word becomes less important than whether it communicates what the
student wants to say. In speech, POlice communicates as well as poLICE,
and in writing "pollice" is no insurmountable barrier to communication,
although all three variations might momentarily distract a person unfamiliar
with the variant.
B. The History of English and How it Continually Changes in Vocabulary,
in Syntax, and in Pronunciation: Teachers should understand that although
changes in syntax and pronunciation occur more slowly than lexical changes,
they do take place. The language of the King James Bible shows considerable
syntactic variation from modern English, and linguists have demonstrated
that speakers even as recent as the eighteenth century might be nearly
unintelligible to modern ears. Vocabulary changes are easier for both
teachers and students to observe. As we develop new things, we add words
to talk about them-jet, sputnik, television, smog. From its earliest history,
English has borrowed words from the other languages with which it has
come in contact-French, Latin, Spanish, Scandinavian, Yiddish, American
Indian-from sources too numerous to list. Because many of these borrowings
are historical, teachers recognize and respect them as essential parts
of the language. Teachers should be equally as willing to recognize that
English can also increase the richness of its word stock by a free exchange
among its dialects. If teachers had succeeded in preventing students from
using such terms as "jazz," "lariat," and "kosher,"
modern English would be the poorer. Such borrowings enlarge and enrich
the language rather than diminish it.
C. The Nature of Dialects: A dialect shares similarities of pronunciation,
syntax, or vocabulary that differentiates it from other dialects. These
similarities within a dialect and differences between dialects are the
product of geographical, social, cultural, or economic isolation. Our
perception of the difference between an acceptable and unacceptable dialect
depends on the power and prestige of the people who speak it. We tend
to respect and admire the dialect of people who are wealthy or powerful.
The planter's daughter who asks in a pronounced drawl to be "carried"
home from the dance is charming, the field hand who says "That's
shonuff a purty dress" becomes an object of amusement or scorn. The
teacher who realizes that the difference is not in the superiority of
either dialect, but in the connotation we supply, can avoid judging students'
dialects in social or economic terms.
D. Language Acquisition: Although little hard evidence is available
about how an individual acquires language, it is known that in learning
a language, we must filter out those sounds that have no significance
in that language and use only those that do; then we learn to put those
sounds into structures that are meaningful in the language. Babies experiment
with a multitude of possible sounds, but by the time they begin to talk
they have discarded sound combinations that don't appear in the dialects
they hear. If, later on, they learn a second language, they encounter
problems in hearing and producing sounds and sound combinations that do
not exist in their first language. For instance, native speakers of English
who learn Spanish as adults have trouble distinguishing "pero"
and "perro" because the double "r" sound does not
appear in any dialect of English. Although, phonemic differences between
dialects of English are not as great as differences between English and
a foreign language, differences do exist and it is unreasonable for teachers
to insist that students make phonemic shifts which we as adults have difficulty
E. Phonology: Phonology deals with the sound system of a language
and the variations within that system. Teachers who understand phonology
will not try to impose their own sound systems upon their students. They
will not make an issue of whether the student says /hwayt hwel/ or /wayt
weyl/ (white whale), nor will they be disturbed by shair-chair, warsh-wash,
dat-that. They will not "correct" a student who says "merry"
like "Murray" because they themselves may say "hairy"
so that it is indistinguishable from "Harry." They will realize
that even though a student says "ten" and "tin" exactly
alike, nobody will be confused because context makes the meaning clear.
F. Morphology: Morphology deals with the elements of grammatic
meaning in a language-tense, aspect, person, number -and the devices the
language employs for indicating them. Just as context prevents homophones
from confusing the listener, so context prevents morphological variations
from becoming an obstacle to communication. The variations between foot
and feet in "6 foot tall," "6 feet tall," or between
"Mary" and "Mary's" in such phrases as "Mary
hat" and "Mary's hat" make no difference in our ability
to grasp the meaning. Teachers who recognize that morphological forms
vary from dialect to dialect, but that within each dialect the morphology
follows a system, will be less likely to challenge a student whose morphology
is different on the ground that such variations represent "mistakes."
G. Syntax: Syntax refers to the arrangement of words within an
utterance. Syntactic patterns are not the same in all languages (in English,
the red dress; in the Chicano dialect of Spanish, el vestido colorado),
nor are the syntactic patterns always the same in different dialects of
the same language. The syntactic patterns, however, are systematic within
each dialect, and seldom interfere with communication between speakers
of different dialects within a language. "That girl she pretty"
is just as understandable as "That girl is pretty" and "Don't
nobody but God know that" is not only just as clear as "Only
God knows," but in some circumstances its meaning is more emphatic.
H. Grammar and Usage: Teachers often think grammar is a matter
of choosing between lie and lay, who and whom, everybody/his and everybody/their.
Actually these are usage choices, in the same way as deciding whether
to say "I done my work" or "I did my work" is a usage
choice. Grammar, on the other hand, is a description of the system by
which a language conveys meaning beyond the sum of the meanings of the
individual words. It includes phonology, morphology, and syntax. The grammar
of one American dialect may require "he is" in the third person
singular present tense; the grammar of another dialect may require "he
be" in that slot. The confusion between usage and grammar grows out
of the prescriptive attitude taken by most school handbooks since the
18th Century. Modern linguists see grammar not as prescriptive but as
descriptive, and teachers who approach the study of grammar as a fascinating
analysis of an intensely important human activity, rather than as a series
of do's and don'ts, can often rid their students of the fear and guilt
that accompanied their earlier experiences with "grammar." Perhaps
such teachers can even help their students to find the study of grammar
I. Semantics: Teachers should know that semantics is the study
of how people give meaning to words and the way many of those meanings
affect us emotionally rather than rationally. Teachers well grounded in
modern semantics can help their students examine their word choices, not
from the standpoint of right or wrong, proper or improper, but by analyzing
the impact possible choices will have on listeners or readers. In some
areas, for instance, some listeners will be turned off by the word "belly,"
whereas other listeners will find "stomach" affected and feel
more comfortable with "gut." Students can be led to see why
many newspaper readers could support a "protective reaction strike"
but would have been upset by a "bombing attack."
J. Lexicography: Knowing that many words have strong connotative
meanings will help teachers regard dictionaries not as authorities but
as guides. Knowing that words are only arbitrary symbols for the things
they refer to, teachers will realize that dictionaries cannot supply the
"real" meaning of any word. Knowing that language changes, they
will realize that expressions labeled "non-standard" or "colloquial"
by the dictionaries of fifty years ago may be listed without pejorative
labels in an up-to-date dictionary. Knowing that pronunciations vary,
they will use the pronunciation information in a dictionary as a starting
point for class discussion on how most people in the students' own area
pronounce that word. In short, teachers will help their students to realize
that dictionaries describe practice rather than legislate performance.
Dictionaries cannot give rules for using the words of a language; they
can only give information about how words have been used.
K. Experience: Teachers need to ratify their book knowledge of
language by living as minority speakers. They should be wholly immersed
in a dialect group other than their own. Although such an opportunity
may be difficult for some to obtain, less definitive experience may be
obtained by listening to tapes and records as well as interviewing sympathetically
speakers who use minority dialects. Empathy with the difficulties often
faced by such speakers can be appreciated in indirect analogies with other
situations which make one an outsider. But the most vivid sense of the
students' problem is likely to come from direct experience.
L. The Role of Change: The history of language indicates that
change is one of its constant conditions and, furthermore, that attempts
at regulation and the slowing of change have been unsuccessful. Academies
established to regulate language by scholarly authority have little effect
on the dynamic processes of language. Moreover, there is little evidence
that languages "evolve" in the sense that they become more expressive
or more regular; that is, they simply change, but they do not, it seems,
become better or worse. Dialect is merely a symptom of change. Paradoxically,
past change is considered normal, but current change is viewed by some
as degradation. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Faulkner, the language
assuredly changed, and yet no one speaks of the primitive language of
Chaucer or the impoverished language of Shakespeare. Few complain that
French and Spanish developed from camp-Latin. Literary scholars might
dispute endlessly over the absolute merits of neo-classical versus romantic
poetry, but no one would argue that literature would be richer if one
or the other did not exist. In fact, there are positive esthetic reasons
for arguing in favor of diversity. Such is the case with dialects; just
as variety in modes of poetic perception enriches literature, so variety
in dialects enriches the language for those who are not unreasonably biased
in favor of one dialect. Diversity of dialects will not degrade language
nor hasten deleterious changes. Common sense tells us that if people want
to understand one another, they will do so. Experience tells us that we
can understand any dialect of English after a reasonably brief exposure
to it. And humanity tells us that we should allow every man the dignity
of his own way of talking.
Committee on CCCC Language Statement