- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2000

For generations, English teachers here and elsewhere have halted classes to correct a student's mispronunciation and poor grammar.
Now a linguistics professor at West Virginia University argues that teachers should let students speak the way they want, mispronunciations, bad grammar and all.
Says Kirk Hazen: " 'I ain't got none' means the same thing as 'I haven't got any.' "
Teachers hereabouts are "shocked," but the West Virginian is getting support from George Washington University. "To start judging a people's intelligence by the way they speak is incorrect," says Daniel Moshenberg, an associate English professor at GW.
Mr. Hazen insists there's no standard for spoken English and echoing the "Ebonics" controversy a few years back insists that no one dialect is superior to another. Dialects are legitimate, he argues, naturally evolved differences in language that have nothing to do with education. They are the words and pronunciations that are used in a particular area and differ from what is regarded as standard in language as a whole.
"Teachers shouldn't tell their students how they're saying something is wrong," Mr. Hazen says. "What teachers should tell them is that there are different varieties of the English language. I don't think it's the job of the schools to correct dialect features."
This surprises teachers in Fairfax, Va., and Montgomery, Md., counties, where a large number of their students first language is not English. They say it's the teachers' duty to correct students' speech.
"Teachers have the right to correct and to instruct students," says Debbie Masnik, a vice president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers and former English instructor.
"Let's just say if teachers didn't correct students, the parents would be up in arms," says Bill Welsh, treasurer with the Montgomery County Federation of Teachers. "If you were learning German, Spanish or any other language you would be corrected if you didn't pronounce the words properly.
"We've heard messages [like Mr. Hazen's] before, and it may be fine when you get to West Virginia University… . [But] students will be shortchanged if you don't do your best to assist them."
In Montgomery County, elementary school children who have trouble pronouncing the sounds of the letters "l" or "r" are often urged to work with speech pathologists or speech therapists so they can function in society later on.
But there's no such thing as speaking pure English, argues Mr. Hazen, who runs the university's West Virginia Dialect Project, which examines phrases and pronunciations that are unique to West Virginia and its neighboring states.
"It's all dialects. And who's to say which dialect is the right one? Whose dialect would be considered the norm?"
"You will never keep dialects out of the classroom," agrees Linda Coleman, an associate English professor at the University of Maryland. "Telling students that their dialects are wrong would lower the standards of education. That's educationally indefensible. It's simply not the case that one dialect is better than another."
Like Eliza Doolittle speaking her cockney accent before professor Henry Higgins got hold of her in "My Fair Lady," speakers in the South and Appalachia are perceived as slow, uneducated or backward when in fact their unique ways of speaking aren't meant to be judged, Mr. Hazen says.
"Dialect discrimination is the last open back door to discrimination in the country. You can't be fired from your job as an industrial chemical engineer for being a Southerner, but you can be fired for not sounding intelligent," he says.
Mr. Hazen insists that schools should teach what he's termed "rhetorically correct English" that would provide students with different methods of expressing their message to different types of audiences.
Teachers should teach students how language works and its history, rather than worrying about how students speak.
"So much anxiety is put on correcting children," Mr. Hazen says. "That takes resources and time away from teaching important things like writing and reading, interpretation of literature, public presentations, argument and the basics of rhetoric."
What most people don't understand is that the written and spoken word are different things, he says.
Mr. Moshenberg of George Washington University says English has many dialects. Which dialect to use when depends on the situation and the context in which the speaker speaks. The speaker must decide the point he or she is trying to express and who the audience is to decide which dialect to use.
Ms. Coleman agrees. Teachers will use a more formal dialect while teaching a class, and they will use a more informal dialect when talking one on one with a student. Politicians also will use more formal, or legal, language when trying to pass legislation, rather than when they're speaking to their constituents, she says.
Linguists argue that children should learn what is perceived to be the standard English dialect so they can function in society where, fair or not, they will be judged by how they speak. A command of standard English is necessary to performing well in job interviews or succeeding in chosen trades and professions.
For example, linguists have long argued that black children should be taught to avoid using terms and sentence structures common to "Ebonics," or "black English," because of the dialect's perceived associations with illiteracy and ignorance. In fact, efforts to recognize Ebonics as a language failed in California when parents, many of them black, objected strenuously.
The standard English dialect is language that is commonly heard in newspapers and on television, or in conversations, linguists say.
Unlike other nations, English-speaking countries don't have a nationally recognized academy that sets the standards for spoken English. France, for example, has the L'Academie Francaise, a group of 40 scholars who decide what is grammatically right and wrong in spoken French, and exert public pressure to conform.
"That would be harmful," Mr. Hazen says. "We just can't be the language police."
Such a system could ultimately interfere with communication, Ms. Coleman says. "Prohibiting students from communicating in their dialects can be very limiting. There could be many things a student wants to say and they can best express them by using their dialects."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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