Languages, Dialects, and the Myth of Edited American English

By Staci Perryman-Clark

People like to make judgments about the way others speak and often assume that those who don’t speak correctly or conventionally are not as intelligent. Such judgments permeate the many spaces in which we inhabit, including social media. Just the other week, I observed a picture in my Facebook Newsfeed of a man holding a sign that reads, “Respect are-country speak English.” The irony of the image relies on the significant errors in spelling and punctuation; however, what is important to emphasize here is the fact that many of those who make judgements often do so without the knowledge necessary to make particular judgments.

In this post, I hope to dispel myths about writing in “correct” English and shed some insights on the ways people use language for effective communication.

Photo of a scrabble board

photo by Amaury Henderick

Myth: Speakers Use Broken English

Many speakers of English confuse southern American English, Spanglish, African American English, and other dialects with “broken” or “incorrect” English, when in fact, there is no such thing. For example, in African American English, multiple negation (e.g., “I ain’t got no books to read no more”) is a common grammatical convention. Further, other languages, such as French and Spanish, rely on multiple negation. The use of multiple negation is rule-governed and not an example of broken or incorrect English.

Reality: No Language or Dialect is Better than the Other

From an educational standpoint, it is against the best practices in the teaching of writing to make negative judgments about speakers and writers who use a language or dialect other than edited American English, the dialect that is often taught for school-based writing. In fact, in 1974, members of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), an organization under the umbrella of the NCTE, voted to approve a resolution called the Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL). In a nutshell, the resolution affirms “the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language…The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans.”

Myth: Poor English Leads to Poor Writing

While educators and parents are often well-meaning when they correct speech and writing communicated in a dialect or language other than Edited American English, practices such as these are problematic and go against the scientific nature of how language works in both speech and writing. The use of a language or dialect other than English is not in and of itself indicative of poor writing. While correctness is often touted as a feature of good writing, conflating correctness with good writing is a myth: Good writing can include writing that doesn’t follow the conventions of Edited American English, and poor writing can follow the rules of Edited American English and still fall short of effective communication. Therefore, it’s best to address issues pertaining to correctness last in a draft of a student’s paper, while simply noting patterns of error that distract from the meaning and purpose of a composition.

Reality: We Can Educate Others about how English Really Works

Here are some steps we can take as teachers, parents, and students to move toward a richer understanding of how language works:

  • Step One: Understand that Edited American English carries no superiority from a linguistic or scientific perspective, since it carries no correlation with intelligence.
  • Step Two:  Dispel the myth of Edited American English as the only correct form of English by educating speakers and writers who make negative judgments and assumptions about intelligence based on language.
  • Step Three: Understand and use all languages and dialects effectively and purposefully depending on audience, purpose, and context. Effective communication depends on readers’ abilities to understand the text that is written.

In sum, giving students the right to use their own languages at their discretion gives students the intellectual insight to determine which dialects are most appropriate for certain circumstances and contexts. It also gives students the opportunity to practice proficiency and facility with more than one language or language variety. Therefore, the goal should be to increase knowledge and execution of the most complex and sophisticated linguistic skills, as opposed to forming judgments about who can/cannot speak what language.
Staci Perryman-Clark, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Director of First-Year Writing at Western Michigan University. She is the author of Afrocentric Teacher-Research: Rethinking Appropriateness and Inclusion (Peter Lang, 2013), and the Coeditor of Students’ Right to Their Own Language: A Critical Sourcebook (2014). She has published widely in rhetoric and composition studies.


3 thoughts on “Languages, Dialects, and the Myth of Edited American English

  1. Pingback: Power Dynamics: Writing Up, Writing Down, Writing Across | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

  2. Pingback: A Formula for Failure: The Problem with Formulaic Writing | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

  3. Pingback: The Right to Write – Alicia’s Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s