Over at A Star in the Face of the Sky, novelist David Haynes is having a conversation about language and snobbery and mockery and privacy and teaching and other interesting, difficult things. Today my friend Robin Black kicked off the conversation with these thoughts:
Although I’ve long had questions about how we teachers discuss our students, the post on Facebook that prompted my – perhaps preachy, surely humorless – status was actually not of that nature, but was a photograph of a sign advertising “Tudoring.” The comments below had all the expected conjectures about whether the person who wrote it could turn you into Henry VIII and so on; and all I could think of was how my daughter who has language-related disabilities could very easily put up such a sign. And that’s hardly the first time I’ve had this creepy sense on Facebook, and in other contexts too, that it’s uncool but also just plain weird that people laugh at those who struggle to spell well or speak well or write well. Earlier the same day I had seen a post by a literary agent mocking submission letters many of which had been written by people perhaps of limited education and definitely of poor expressive skills. Their errors, in tone and in grammar, don’t necessarily signal disability, but I think that seeing the ways in which my daughter’s disabilities have caused her to write exactly the things people ridicule (and that we teachers at times ridicule behind the backs of our students) has sensitized me to the fact that disability or not, these missteps are almost always signs of some kind of disadvantage, whether intellectual, educational, economic or otherwise. And I just think it’s bad form to mock people who lack the advantages you may have – and who may well be suffering over that lack.
Some thoughts I left in the comments over there:
I spent my middle and high school years in a small, rural Indiana high school where the local dialect sounded distinctly “ignorant” to my ears. My parents were well-educated and intellectuals, and I was decidedly an outsider among my peers in those years, so some of my disdain for their speech patterns was self-protective, for sure. But I also just had a terrible bias that anyone who said “ain’t” and “we was” and “I seen” and used double negatives — etc etc etc — must just be pretty dumb and uninteresting. Then I grew up and learned a lot about language and dialect and I became a high school English teacher in rural Indiana — and it broke my heart to learn that my very smart students actually agreed with my adolescent self. They believed they didn’t know how to speak English, that their grammar was not just different but “wrong” and that they were, obviously, dumb. Simple as that. I spent most of my three years there trying to impress upon them that the grammar of their dialect was every bit as rule-governed as the grammar of standard English, and that it was every bit as capable of expressing complex, interesting thoughts. That standard English was a dialect they needed to learn, but only for social and political reasons, not because there was anything deficient in their own dialect.
I still see that sort of prejudice all the time. Intellectuals and language professionals mourn the loss of dialect and language diversity, but then mock folks on Facebook who don’t speak or write with standard English. I worry that for many of us, dialect may be “quaint” or “folksy” and we may even be willing to accept a few magical negros (or the poor white trash equivalent) who speak wisdom in those dialects, but for the most part, we don’t really think they can express complex thought.
You should go join in the conversation!