Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sociolinguistics: African-American English

Hello everyone, Elizabeth here.

There are tons of topics you could cover in a sociolinguistics unit, but I find that African-American English can really give you a lot of bang for your buck: it helps you tackle the fact that socioeconomic status and language use don't necessarily break down on the exact same lines as race, it ties into political activism and the opportunity to use what you learn in linguistics class to impact how you think about social policy (especially important for future teachers), and it really gets students engaged in critical thinking. Plus, there are lots of great video resources for teaching about AAE (and sociolinguistics in general).

The PBS special American Tongues is somewhat dated, but that seems to make it all the more amusing to students. Some of the reactions of speakers in the video about different varieties of English (not just AAE) are pretty extreme, so I always caution students that my showing the video is not an endorsement of any speaker's beliefs. However, there is a nice contrast in the video between African-Americans who speak more vernacular varieties and those who don't, and the attitudes that each group holds about the other. This is a nice jumping-off point for discussions of overt and covert prestige.

Another PBS special, Do You Speak American?, offers an even more in-depth study of American regional speech, and also has a companion book and website available. The third installment of the series shows a particularly powerful video of students in a classroom where they are taught about code-switching and the differences between AAE, other local dialects of English, and Standard English. I have found it to be a very productive activity to poll the students on whether they think AAE should be incorporated into school classrooms, discuss the reasons why, and then show this video and discuss whether opinions have changed. Usually students develop more positive attitudes towards the teaching strategy shown in the video once they see how it plays out, but I have also had African-American students who insisted that they learned Standard English without such an approach and believe it is bad for their community to cater too much to AAE, so this can lead to some really eye-opening class discussions if you have a diverse group of students.

Finally, a Hollywood film that I like to show my students is Akeelah and the Bee. The film portrays a brilliant African-American girl from a poor area who overcomes her grief at losing her father by spelling words. As she is encouraged by her school to compete in spelling bees, she is coached by an African-American professor whose attitudes toward her vernacular language are condescending at best, and in a very moving scene she challenges his perceptions of how she talks. The use of standard and vernacular Englishes by different characters throughout the film is a great discussion point, though you may need to go through and create a note-taking guide to help direct students' attention to how characters speak in different situations. The film is not only educational, but inspiring and enjoyable, and if you start showing it two classes before Thanksgiving, you might just hook a few more students into not skipping that last session.

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