From a google blog: SRTOL and its relevance

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Dec 1 13:26:54 UTC 2006

Consider three sociolinguists/theorists you've read who would interpret
the issue of Students Rights To Their Own Language (SRTOL) in distinctly
different ways and use these three theorists to decide if SRTOL is
relevant to the language scene of today.

Recently there has been a surge in proposed legislation at various levels
of government (local all the way to federal) to make English the official
language of the United States (Dennis Barons blog  via the WPA  has been
tracking this issue). As a backlash against the perceived threat of the
takeover of America (i.e. jobs, public resources, etc.) by illegal
immigrants from the South (primarily Mexico) many politicians have been
pushing for legislation that would keep non-English speaking residents,
both legal and illegal, from participating in government supported
services and activities. This would include legal, educational and even
voting activities. While opening with this aside doesn't get me to the
point of discussing three theorists from my list and how they interpret
Students Rights to their Own Language (SRTOL), it does demonstrate the
relevance and the importance of the spirit of something like the CCCCs
statement on SRTOL. Attempts at creating and maintaining language policy
statements such as SRTOL are more than apropos at this point in our
history. The question of relevance can hardly be debated. However, the
question of the effectiveness, the usefulness of such a policy statement
(and the distinction I am making between policy and policy statement
should be noted; this is a policy statement  not a policy in and of
itself) offers more fertile grounds on which to consider this issue,
because the issue of language rights and respect is not one of linguistic
FACTS; it is one of social and class realities.

The three theorists I discuss below are Geneva Smitherman, John McWhorter
and Steve Parks. Each of these three scholars approaches the issue of
language statements about linguistic diversity from three totally
different perspectives. Smitherman's work in Talkin and Testifyin is
concerned with establishing Black English (BE) as a creole language based
on African grammars and world-view. She has long been an activist- scholar
working to secure equal educational resources to speakers of Black English
who have suffered discrimination based on their spoken dialect. She has
been a part of the creation of a number of language policies in various
organizations and firmly believes in the affects of initiating change via
legislative forms from the top-down. McWhorter work in Losing the Race is
a piece of public intellectualism. That is, though trained and
(well-)published as a linguist, the text I discuss is not a piece of
linguistics scholarship per se, but is, in part, a statement on the clash
between linguistic facts and social realities of language and racial
contact in the United States. Though his scholarly position is in stark
contrast to Smitherman's (each rejects  sometimes violently  the position
of the other) his interpretation of SRTOL is that, like Smitherman, it is
an important instrument for affecting classroom instruction and public
attitudes towards denigrated dialects. Parks work in Class Politics is an
historical recounting of how the SRTOL statement came to be. It was born,
according to Parks, out of the civil rights and student struggles of the
1960s. Various institutions appropriated the political power of certain
student movements and organizations during this time as a means of
legitimizing their previously little respected position within such
institutions as academe and, in other cases, for the sake of benefiting
materially. Parks position is that the SRTOL policy statement is a relic,
an historical text that documents a time when the ideologies that created
the statement could have moved to action via a collective effort and
impacted tangible changes in resources, training and perception. That
opportunity, argues Parks, has passed.

After reviewing the three scholars I next put forward my position, which
aligns with Parks more so than Smitherman and McWhorter, that while the
SRTOL policy statement is still relevant, it is not a document that is
useful for guaranteeing access and/or economic equality for students. But
first I should briefly review what it is the SRTOL statement actually



As I begin to conclude this response, Id like to return to the distinction
I make in the beginning between the relevance and the usefulness of the
SRTOL (or any other language policy). In a country with a racist past such
as what we have, I think a language policy statement such as the SRTOL
will always be relevant. Race will always be an issue. And, since dialect
is an important part of identity construction and in-group affiliation,
chances are there will always be lower-class dialects (in fact, William
Labov's more recent research demonstrates that instead of Black English
becoming more like standardized English, it is actually diverging) and a
need to remind folks of the legitimacy of these dialects. Without the type
of activism that was attached to the Student Non-Violent Movement such
victories as SRTOL and even Civil Rights legislation and without an
established (institutional) infrastructure to enforce the statements of
such policies (or legislation) as the SRTOL (or Civil Rights legislation)
any victory gained in such a statement becomes short-lived if not
forgotten altogether.

A useful SRTOL statement is one that works to guarantee that ALL students,
regardless of the language of their nurture, have access to the larger US
economy that they seek to benefit from by attending a college or
university. Simply stating that all dialects are legitimate and that a
student has a right to express huself does more, in the eyes of such
scholars as Lisa Delpit, to ensure that students won't succeed in the
market place than it does to equip them for the demands of the
market-economy beyond the walls of academe. While scholars such as
Smitherman and, to a slightly lesser degree, McWhorter are (justifiably)
concerned with addressing issues of racial inequality, the issue isn't one
of racial injustice so much as it is class inequality. University writing
classes should be providing the tools necessary for students to emerge as
competent, effective and versatile communicators. The spirit of the SRTOL
was to address Other in racial terms. A university education is no longer
about racial uplift so much as it is an economic necessity. For a language
policy to be more than relevant it would need to address Other by helping
level the playing field in a different sense  by providing teachers with
the experience and training that will enable them to respect the diversity
of ways of communicating in diverse jobs that students may seek after


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