The Reading Quilt: Spreading the WordAug 08, 2021 09:00AM ● By Dr. R.A. Slaughter
It is estimated that by 2050, ethnic minority children will make up a large part of the US public school classrooms. Linguistic diversity is a major component of the multicultural landscape that teachers will face. Is the current teaching population, which is 87 percent White females, prepared for the change? Teacher readiness is paramount since those who lack background knowledge about linguistic diversity or nonstandard dialects may inadvertently reveal a bias in the classroom.
In the effort to normalize and educate teachers about nonstandard dialects, John McWhorter, an American linguist and associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, penned the book Spreading the Word: Language and Dialect in America (Heinemann, 2000). In doing so, “McWhorter helps us to come to view the language palette that exists in our classrooms as an asset rather than a problem.”
Ultimately, Spreading the Word: Language and Dialect in America (Heinemann, 2000) is an intellectual warning urging educators to include languages and vernaculars like Brooklynese, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Western Pennsylvania English with the same enthusiasm you may embrace Standard English. In other words, teachers need to make the concerted effort to decolonize language for a greater opportunity to create a more inclusive, inviting classroom environment. This effort will help to increase the opportunity to celebrate examples of “language migration” and decrease the likelihood of language shaming in the classroom.
We are familiar with language shaming since, most recently, the “Delco” accent was linguistic fodder for comedians across the country when the Delaware County, Pennsylvania accent was featured prominently in the 2021 miniseries drama Mare of Easttown. Their roasting of British actress Kate Winslet’s attempt at the accent with a complicated history brought to light John McWhorter’s (a Philadelphia native) research in language debasing, especially in public which we see often in America.
Nearly forty years ago, many old heads remember 76ers center Moses Malone’s “fo, fo, fo” battle cry that was to be the motto for his entire career. The infamous quote, steeped in Southern vernacular, was his prediction for a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference finals. Although celebrated in the media, Malone took many behind-the-scenes ribbings for what people considered a linguistic gaffe.
There are many stories of public figures who endured finger-pointing and eye-rolling from linguistic purists who do not appreciate language migration.
Each month “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym QUILT, Slaughter offers readers information about the Quality of writing, Universal theme, and Imaginative plot, as well as a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise. This month features a book that explores the “natural phenomenon” of various language alterations like language mixing, code-switching, and colloquial language as part of a rich and interesting language smorgasbord. Smorgasbords are good.
John McWhorter, a Philadelphia native, attended Friends’ Select School until 10th grade. In 11th grade, he was accepted to Bard College at Simon Rock in Massachusetts. When he graduated, John went on to study French at Rutgers University. In 1993, John received a Ph.D. from Stanford University in linguistics.
A prolific writer, John is the author of many articles and books including Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever (Avery, 2021), and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (Gotham, 2994). An accomplished and respected professor, John teaches the development of languages and nonstandard dialects. Well connected to the mainstream and pop culture, John uses social media platforms to weigh in on topics like “the N-word,” “invention of new ways of speaking,” and anti-racism.
Quality - John packs a lot of research in 78 pages. In just four chapters titled “I Hear So Much Bad Grammar These Days,” “It’s Just Slang, Isn’t It?” “They Just Mix Them Up,” and “The Linguistic Rainforest,” John covers a wealth of linguistic research. In “I Hear So Much Bad Grammar These Days,” John details the idea that language is ever-changing. This concept is carried over to a book he will write 16 years later titled Words on the Move: Why English Won't – and Can't – Sit Still (Like, Literally) (Henry Holt, & Co., 2016). It is in this chapter where John reminds us that “dialects of a language are all the result of the exact same kind of gradual change as different languages are; the difference is simply that in dialects, the change has not gone far enough to produce what we would process as different languages (4).”
Universal theme - The central idea in this text is that “speech differences” in English should rarely be described as “good” or “bad” since many of these differences follow patterns and principles that are “commonly accepted by linguistics...and qualitatively equivalent to those heard in other parts of the world where the same differences are not considered ‘bad language.’As thought leaders and message senders, teachers need to celebrate language as a unique form of self-expression.
Imaginative story - There is no imagination needed in the case of this nonfiction book. Instead, the reader needs to be prepared for a rude awakening. School can be a linguistically scary place. It is in school where colleagues will swoon over a teacher with a British accent and roll their eyes at one with a Creole accent. All of the behaviors are in front of students who are watching teachers like the infamous stars of reality TV. John’s book finger wags at this type of linguistic bias.
Lesson plan - There are 195 countries in the world, and over 6,000 languages spoken around the globe. John’s book Spreading the Word: Language and Dialect in America (Heinemann, 2000) is an academic invitation to learn more about the history of the English language and other languages that we encounter. John’s book will help teachers learn various ways to incorporate and celebrate BIPoC writers who incorporate vernaculars and dialects in their books. Some of these authors and books include:
Talking points - While reading the book, the following introspective questions for teachers come to mind:
Are you aware of any language bias that you may have? Consider your reactions to African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Southern Vernacular English, or regional dialects different from your own.
As a teacher, do you accept or reject slang or colloquial language in your classroom?
As a teacher, do you understand the concept of code-switching? In what ways do your students code-switch? In what ways do you code-switch?
As a teacher, are you missing important messages from students because of a language barrier? Do you know the prevalent and up-to-date colloquial expressions your students use to communicate with each other?
Dr. R. A. Slaughter earned her doctoral degree in Cognitive Studies in Reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. Her new book titled Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available for order. To contact her, log onto literacyuniversity.org. For more information, visit literacyuniversity.tv.
Read more from Dr. R.A. Slaughter:
Each month, “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help stude... Read More »