This week in our Politics of Reading course we continued the discussion of dialectal differences within the English languages and how one’s setting can determine when dialects are appropriate and not appropriate. While each of us had our own opinions on when various dialects should be encouraged and when children should be taught to use standard or academic English, we all agreed that it is important to inform children why it is essential to use the standard/academic dialect of English when performing more formal tasks such as writing papers, completing college applications, and so on.
Following this class, I reflected on my own experience with dialects in the classroom environments that I volunteer in and even at our university. This led me to recall an experience that took place a few months ago when I was shadowing a speech-language pathologist in a clinical setting. She was performing an extensive language screening and autism spectrum disorder assessment for a four-year-old little boy. His biological dad was African American and his biological mother was white but due to the circumstances, he has been raised by his two foster parents, both of which are white, middle-aged, and educated professionals. They had noticed that his language was delayed in comparison to his peers and consulted a psychologist who recommended to have him screened for a delay as he was born premature due to complications in the pregnancy.
After an extensive three-hour assessment, the speech-language pathologist spoke with the family and noted that while he was delayed in his speech for his age, this delay likely wouldn’t meet the qualifications of severity necessary for government funded intervention services. Interestingly, there were variations for scoring these assessments based on dialectal differences. Before tallying the scoring, the speech-language pathologist spoke with his foster parents and inquired whether he had spent large sums of time around his biological parents. She asked this because the little boy was using the habitual “be” occasionally in his speech and she wanted to score the assessment as accurately as possible. To place this into context, this is the use of an uninflected “be” and is common in African American Vernacular English. If he had been exposed to this dialect in his language input, the instances where he did use this form of “be” would have been scored as correct on the language assessment.
At the time found this extremely interesting that dialects were taken into such consideration and am glad to recall this experience of shadowing a speech-language pathologist who was understanding and appreciative of dialectal variations. Interestingly, the makers of the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF-5) have recognized the prevalence of dialectal variations and account for this in their assessment tool that is designed to measure expressive and receptive language in a variety of contexts. In 2010 there was a study titled “Test Review: CELF-5” regarding this assessment tool and findings stated that out of the 3,000 participants in the study, 27% spoke a dialect other than Standard American English. This is a significant portion of those who participated in the study! This reflects the differences in the 5th edition of this assessment tool which accounts for dialectal variations, unlike previous editions. Below I have included an example from this report which also references the usage of the habitual “be.”
Speakers of dialects other than SAE (e.g. African American English [AAE], Patois) face a challenge when asked to complete tests such as Word Structure, Formulated Sentences, and Recalling Sentences. The Formulating Sentences test requires students to formulate complete semantically, syntactically and pragmatically appropriate sentences that incorporate a target word and pertain to a specific stimulus picture. For example, on item 1 a correct answer could be “She is washing her hands” or “She is waiting for her sister to finish washing her hands.” However a student who speaks a dialect such as AAE may have difficulty with certain SAE grammatical rules and may create the sentence “She be reading.” On the Recalling Sentences test, the student is required to repeat sentences verbatim. Omitted words, transposing words or extra words count as errors.
It is important that educators and those working on language and literacy are educated on dialectal variations, especially when assessing specific characteristics of language. I appreciate that assessments such as the CELF-5 are creating more of an awareness around dialectal variations and accounting for social and environmental differences that may influence language.
Circling back to my initial question of this post, I would answer “What is the ‘better’ English?” with the response that there is no “better” variation of English. With this knowledge, we should strive to appreciate dialectical diversity and reduce the stigmas associated with dialectal variations other than standard/academic English.