[lg policy] Britain: Banning Students=?windows-1252?Q?=92_?=Native Dialects

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Tue Dec 10 21:24:14 UTC 2013

 Banning Students’ Native Dialects

The teaching profession in Britain, where I currently reside, has very
largely heard the sociolinguistic music: The facts of linguistic diversity
and language change are generally accepted, teachers acknowledge most of
the elementary facts about language, and dialect differences are not viewed
in the same light as hideously disfiguring skin diseases. I had begun to
think there was little danger of the British teaching profession being
disrupted by an outburst of race or class bias masquerading as dialect
purism comparable to the awful Oakland “Ebonics”
1996 (see my “Language That Dare Not Speak Its Name,”
*Nature* *386*, 27 March 1997, 321-322).

But recently the Colley Lane Primary School in Halesowen, in the West
Midlands, sapped some of my confidence with a campaign to humiliate its own
students by denigrating their native mode of speech. The school issued a
list of 10 phrases that are to be banned from school
banned simply because teachers think they represent features of the local

The dialect in question is that of the Black Country, a region of the West
Midlands to the north and west of Birmingham. You’ll be relieved to learn
that “Black” here has nothing to do with race. The area was for a long time
a center of coal mining and industrial activity, and the associated
griminess gave rise to the sobriquet.

Here is the list of putative local dialect features that the Colley Lane
teachers have banned from their elementary school:

   1. “They was” instead of “they were.”
   2. “I cor do that” instead of “I can’t do that.”
   3. “Ya” instead of “you.”
   4. “Gonna” instead of “going to.”
   5. “Woz” instead of “was.”
   6. “I day” instead of “I didn’t.”
   7. “I ain’t” instead of “I haven’t.”
   8. “Somefink” instead of “something.”
   9. “It wor me” instead of “it wasn’t me.”
   10. “Ay?” instead of “pardon?”

The ignorance of English dialects displayed here is shocking. The majority
of the list covers features that are not local to the Black Country at all.

*Was* for *were* in the paradigm of *be* occurs in many nonstandard
dialects of English, in America as well as Britain, and *ain’t* occurs in
all of them.

The reduced-stress form of *you* that novelists write as
*ya*(International Phonetic Alphabet [jə]) is not even nonstandard,
informal: In a sentence like *You can’t refuse a request like that, even if
you want to*, virtually nobody pronounces the occurrences of *you* as [ju:].

*Gonna* ([ɡənə]), as a verb of near-future temporal aspect, is likewise
found in most varieties of Standard English: Very few speakers say [ɡoʊiŋ]
in the sentence that is formally written *I’m going to do it*.

“Woz” seems to be just a pointless deliberate misspelling of a normal
British pronounciation of *was* ([wɒz]).

“Somefink” for *something* is a nonstandard pronunciation, but is just as
familiar from other dialects such as Cockney as from the Black Country:
Labiodentals like [f] are substituted for interdentals like [θ], and
voiceless stops are inserted adjacent to nasals.

And finally, “ay” seems to be just the usual request for repetition or
confirmation that is spelled “eh” in representations of Canadian English
and pronounced [ei].

So nearly all of the items on the list are simply familiar features of
nonstandard dialects spoken around the world, some of them present also in
informal Standard English (the way the teachers doubtless speak it).

What we are left with is the trivial matter of three pronunciations of
negated auxiliary verbs: In the Black Country, apparently, we find *cor*for
*can’t*, *wor* for *wasn’t*, and *day* for *didn’t*.

So what’s the appropriate reaction to such small but clearly nonstandard
local dialect features? Should they be banned on school premises?

Linguists have been here before. It was established in the 1960s, through
painstaking applied sociolinguistic research in Scandinavia as well as the
United States, that there is a clear outcome difference between two
strategies relating to local dialect speech: (A) strictly banning the local
dialect and insisting on the prestige standard in class from the outset,
and (B) accepting and welcoming local dialect speech at first and then
gradually transitioning students toward the standard language over a year
or two. The bottom line is that B was found to work better than A. Children
improve more, in all subjects, under policy B. (Notice, I’m
*not*advocating that we should pretend nonstandard features are
standard; I’m
talking about what empirical research shows is the most successful way of
inculcating the standard.)

Fifty years later, the Colley Lane Primary School in the English Midlands
shows us that educated people are often pretty clueless about dialects of
their native language, and that it takes a little while for academic
research on educational matters to have any real effect. In fact, when it
comes to language, the time taken for research to change classroom culture
and practices might be better measured in decades or centuries than in



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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