We all speak a dialect

By Jennifer Carson
@jncar4
Curriculum Coordinator

In English, I sound like I am from New York. That should be no surprise as I was born and raised in New York, even though I have lived most of my life in the south of the U.S. But when I speak my L2 and L3, strangely, I do not have a New York accent or even an American accent. In French, one can hear that I studied in Paris and Avignon, two places with distinct, even competing accents, whereas in Spanish, I sound Puerto Rican. No Castilian th-th when yo hablo! I explain this to my students, so they will understand that they too have an accent. (And often they do not believe me!) The key is that we can understand one another if our accents do not affect comprehensibility. And in a communicative classroom, accuracy is a destination, but comprehensibility is king.

Just as it is important to respect students’ accents, so it is equally important to recognize and demonstrate respect for different dialects, including students’ home dialects. Many Spanish teachers explain differences for example between the dialect of Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay (known as ‘Rioplatense Spanish’), which uses vos for the second person singular, and that of Central America which uses tú. Alvarenga, D. (2016, Nov 2). Vos vs. Tú: 4 Central Americans on Proudly Reclaiming Voseo in the United States. We language nerds enjoy these comparisons, but rarely extend our focus to honor students’ home dialects, which may be dialects of Spanish, or another world language, or even English.

I taught for many years in an urban school district, where many students spoke a dialect of standard English. The point I made to them was that the way they spoke at home was valid and valuable, but in my classroom, they were expected to speak the standard form of French or Spanish. In this way, I reinforced the expectation of their other teachers that they speak standard English in class. Students learned to code switch when entering the classroom after hanging with their peeps in the hallways. And that is not a bad thing. Code switching prepares students for the world of higher education or the workplace where interactions often require formal register for spoken and written communication.

My educational philosophy of respect for the diversity of language variants is supported by a recent article I read in ACTFL’s The Language Educator. Sarah Albrecht recommends that language teachers ensure equitable access to all language learners by teaching dialect awareness. Albrecht, S. (2019). Dialect Awareness in the World Language Classroom. The Language Educator, 14(4), 33-37.

In the article, Albrecht outlines three distinct phases, all of which should be specifically planned and taught, thus leveling the playing field for students of all linguistic backgrounds, be they heritage speakers, or speakers of an English vernacular. Albrecht suggests that students watch videos or read children’s books and keep a language log to reflect on when different language is used and why. Through the process of discovery, students learn that dialects possess their own vocabulary and internally consistent grammatical rules. Once students understand that differences exist between regional varieties and the standard dialect being taught in class, they can extend that to an appreciation for English dialects and their own home dialects.

In phase two, students are ready to identify specific target language dialects. It was at this point that I would introduce students to different accents and dialects, for example, guiding them to compare Guadeloupean Creole with both Québécois and Parisian French. According to Albrecht, the third and final phase promotes mindful code switching. To encourage heritage speakers to use the standard dialect in formal register, students engage in role plays, acting as a newscaster or a job interviewer.

Like Albrecht, I think it is important to teach dialect awareness to enhance self-esteem and to lower students’ affective filter, making them willing to take risks with a new language. I firmly believe students should be proud of all the languages they speak, while knowing “how, when, and why to say what to whom” so they may be successful in the classroom and beyond.

Jen Carson works as a Curriculum Coordinator for Wayside Publishing and resides in Norfolk, Virginia. She is currently President of the Virginia Organization of World Language Supervisors (VOWLS) and Immediate Past President of the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages (NADSFL).

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