Perspectives on Language Diversity

Today we march straight into a debate that’s roiling scholars in composition, rhetoric, and literacy right now: the place of, and support for, diverse or non-“standard” uses of language in student writing. What role should tutors play in enforcing “standard” language forms? As we’ll see, this gets to a deeper place than “don’t hate the player, hate the game”: it’s about how we see writing centers working with or against beliefs about the relationship between language and power.

In the first section of our reading for today, the authors take a strong stand:

Like many in our field (Canagarajah; Horner et al.; Perryman-Clark, Kirkland, and Jackson; Smitherman and Villanueva), we believe our students’ linguistic diversity is an asset that can enrich composition courses and curricula. As such, we emphatically disagree with a deficit model of thinking that positions students’ “nonstandard” languages and/or dialects as a disadvantage or barrier that must be “dealt with.”

They go on to talk about labeling, teacher awareness, and valuing difference in writing. But where does this perspective on language come from? Well, in some ways it starts with the SRTOL, a common acronym for a 1972 statement from the NCTE/CCC, a professional group of scholars and teachers of English and writing, called “Students’ Right to Their Own Language”. It starts this way:

We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.

You can read the document online, and you should! It’s fascinating. This post covers its major moves: its dismissal of “Standard English” or “Edited American English” (EAE) as a superior form of written English; its argument that you can “learn to write” and demonstrate that learning in codes or dialects other than EAE; its focus on English teaching methods as too concerned with imparting linguistic etiquette, and the classism/elitism of such efforts.

What was the response? Many and varied. One educational scholar, Lisa Delpit, became in some ways the voice of an alternative perspective: that students must be taught the “codes of power” in order to gain a foothold in society. She ends a really engaging piece called “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children” this way:

To summarize, I suggest that students must be taught the codes needed to participate fully in the mainstream of American life, not by being forced to attend to hollow, inane, decontextualized subskills, but rather within the context of meaningful communicative endeavors; that they must be allowed the resource of the teacher’s expert knowledge, while being helped to acknowledge their own “expertness” as well; and that even while students are assisted in learning the culture of power, they must also be helped to learn about the arbitrariness of those codes and about the power relationships they represent.

But the conversation continues. Just last month at the big conference of our field, the keynote speaker, Asao Inoue, called on participants to answer the question, “How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, Or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy?” The text of the talk is here; the slides are here. And the video of the talk is below:

It’s really worth watching, and builds to a crescendo by the end. And it asks us to take seriously the idea that we’re not doing enough to change the standard in “Standard” English:

The key is changing the structures, cutting the steel bars, altering the ecology, in which your biases function in your classrooms and communities. I’m saying, we must change the way power moves through White racial biases, through standards of English that make White language supremacy. We must stop justifying White standards of writing as a necessary evil. Evil in any form is never necessary. We must stop saying that we have to teach this dominant English because it’s what students need to succeed tomorrow. They only need it because we keep teaching it!

Later in the speech he continues with a parable about a starving person asking for food and a landowner saying he didn’t feel comfortable offering it: “It is meant to be an allegory for how we make decisions as writing and literacy teachers, particularly about classroom grading and assessment practices, about how we use a particular dominant, White standard. It is about our decisions to continue to reinforce White language supremacy in our classrooms that give many of us power over students, while we tell our students how much right they have to their languages, how much we care and embrace the diversity of languages that they bring and use, yet we tacitly contradict these messages by asking them to wait just a bit longer for us to feel comfortable enough to change our classroom practices, to change the way standards work against them, despite the linguistic truths we know about the communicative effectiveness of all languages.” (Emphasis added)

Well, we know where Inoue stands on these questions, and he’s explicitly calling on writing professors and teachers to do more. For another interesting read, full of playfulness and sharp critique, also read Vershawn Ashanti Young’s “Should Writers Use They Own English?”

But where do WE stand on all this? Well, I’m not going to lecture this out and ask you to respond cold. What I will do is ask us to pair up and ask each other some questions about our linguistic backgrounds.

Then, based on our conversations, I’d like us to come to some loose policies for issues related to linguistic variety/diversity in writing. What’s our role as tutors and mentors? What should be our goals when working with diverse students and diverse language practices? Tutors and mentors can’t “do it alone,” but they aren’t powerless, either. What would you say in response to our reading, and the above?

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Hey! I'm a professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the English dept. at Chico State. Also disc golf player, indie music listener, and vanilla Marxist.

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