What Sort of Knowledge about Language Do English Teachers Need?


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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 by Smitherman 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 in making.

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 fun.

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