A People’s History of the English Language: Dialect Communities

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Matthew Sergi, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2010

While critical reading and thinking skills are fundamental to the Reading and Composition series, composition students tend to approach punctuation, grammar, usage, and spelling standards through unquestioning (and usually futile) rote memorization. Active inquiry is good for analyzing Hamlet, sure, but my students have most often seemed to feel that the rubrics in their style guides, or the red marks in their essay margins, are impenetrable and often divorced entirely from the language they speak or write outside of class. As a result, they had difficulty retaining and applying the lessons that style guides and grammar corrections can teach. Such lessons were particularly frustrating to ESL students, or students who spoke non-standard forms of English in their personal lives.

In my R1B section, I combined Howard Zinn’s People’s History techniques with a traditional History of the English Language syllabus, demonstrating to my students that the rules of good English have always been, and are still, changing and subject to conflict, politics, and urgent debate. In a series of exercises, I continually characterized my students’ multiple Englishes as the growing edge of the History of the English Language, over which they are primary authorities. Here, I will focus on one exercise in particular: dialect communities.

As our class read through ongoing scholarly debates about language, mind, and racial identity debates that state and restate the basic assumption that minor shifts in grammar or lexis can hold great power over human thought (for instance, Haig Bosmajian’s The Language of White Racism) — I paired students together, not quite at random, and taught them some basic techniques from sociological fieldwork. I then assigned them to collect data on, and analyze, the language patterns of each others diverse communities: Zinn’s “history, looked at under the surface, in the streets and on the farms,” re-imagined at Berkeley. A seasoned gamer had to research East Oakland’s hip-hop vernacular, while the Oaklander researched World of Warcraft slang. So too for a social sorority sister and a Spanglish speaker; a track runner and a Baptist churchgoer; a first-generation Chinese-American and a fashion designer; a leader of the campus Multicultural Center and a frat brother; a first-generation Indian-American and a first-generation Filipina-American; a Cal football player and a resident of Lothlorien Hall (the progressive vegetarian co-op). A first-generation Polish-American wrote about a surfer, who wrote about a raver. A student who entered late got paired with me, and researched, chillingly, the language patterns of UC Berkeley graduate students.

The final drafts of the resulting essays demonstrated that these students had indeed internalized, retained, and engaged personally with language standards as a variable function of community rule. And in subsequent class discussions of grammar, or essay workshops, the students treated academic style standards as just one more manifestation of linguistic code-switching, native to one community among many rather than towering inaccessibly over all spoken English. Later on in the semester, the newly empowered students produced surprisingly advanced essays that critiqued authoritative writing on language standards — including Bosmajian, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the class style guide itself. ESL students in particular produced remarkable analyses of the “ESL Challenges” worksheets they had been given in the past, which, as one student put it, presented “a simplicity and a rigidification of the English language” that discouraged “reading and analyzing.” And the essays themselves, as I had hoped they might, showed more pronounced improvement than usual in punctuation, grammar, usage, and spelling. Indeed, in preparation for my upcoming report on this course to the Society for the Study of the History of the English Language, I recently met up with some of my students from last year — and found, even a year later, that they retained a sense of empowerment over language standards.