[lg policy] We Must Help Students Master Standard English

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Apr 16 10:42:56 EDT 2018


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We Must Help Students Master Standard English iStock
By Rob Jenkins April 10, 2018

For years, many academics have questioned the importance — even the justice
— of requiring college students to master standard English. The discussion
20 or 30 years ago was about a student’s right to his or her own language —
the implication being that the rest of us have no right to impose "our"
language on those who are not native or proficient speakers. More recently
we’ve heard claims that the English language is itself discriminatory, even

I understand the reasoning and sympathize to a degree — but ultimately
reject those arguments. My experience as a college writing instructor for
32 years, and as a writer, editor, and consultant for nearly 20 years,
suggests that one of the best things we can do for students is to help them
master standard English.

Before I defend that assertion, let me explain what I mean by "standard
English," just as I explain it to my students at the beginning of every
semester. Actually, I should have added the word "American" to that phrase
— "standard American English," or SAE, because, of course, British English
is a little different, and I’ve taught many students from places like
Jamaica and South Africa, where the queen’s English dominates.

The only purpose of language is to communicate, and if the language or
dialect you use in a particular situation allows you to do so, then it is
The word "standard" here is not prescriptive. It does not refer to a flag
we must all salute. Rather, it simply describes accepted norms — in this
case, accepted in the workplace by college-educated professionals. Language
is constantly evolving, and today’s norms are not the norms of 1850, or
even 1950. Nevertheless, norms do exist, and educated people must generally
abide by them if they are to communicate effectively.

That’s why we have a standardized language in the first place. People grow
up in different parts of the country, in different families and
communities, speaking different versions or dialects of English — or not
speaking English at all. The only purpose of language is to communicate,
and if the language or dialect you use in a particular situation allows you
to do so, then it is effective.

As I tell my students, English teachers are fond of using words like
"wrong" and "error," but those words have meaning only in a classroom
context. In students’ personal lives — as they converse, text, or email
with friends and family — there is no "wrong" language.

The problem is that, in their work lives, they will be sharing documents or
exchanging emails with people from other families, other parts of the
country, and other walks of life. Assuming that everyone will understand
your dialect only leads to confusion, misunderstanding, and false
impressions — all of which are bad for business. Standard American English
is no better or worse than any other language or dialect, but it is the one
by which educated Americans (and, increasingly, people in other parts of
the world) communicate in the workplace.

Like any other language, English can be used to express bigotry or hatred,
and certain words may have offensive roots or connotations (like "uppity"
and "hysteria"). But no language is inherently discriminatory. Language
itself is merely a tool — one that students must learn to use well if they
are to be successful in their chosen professions. (To the extent that there
are discriminatory words and phrases in English, the solution is to teach
students more about the language, not less.)

Students, then, have a vested interest in mastering SAE: It literally pays
off for them, as those who are more proficient tend to be more easily hired
and more successful on the job. Think of the retired professional athletes
who go into television: Many of them were indifferent students and perhaps
left college early. Now they sound as if they’d earned master’s degrees.
Clearly, they have figured this out.

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So, I’ve observed, have many of my students, especially those who are not
native speakers. For several years I taught on the Clarkston campus of
Georgia State University’s Perimeter College, located in one of the most
ethnically diverse ZIP codes in the nation. In one class, my 24 students
spoke 17 languages. I can tell you from experience that those students were
eager to master standard American English — once I explained to them what
it is (and isn’t) and how it could benefit them. They saw it as a key that
could unlock the world of higher-paying employment.

And so it is — not just for immigrants, but also for native speakers who
grew up using various local or regional dialects. Their ability to master
our standard dialect — which may differ greatly or only slightly from their
own — will largely determine their level of achievement in college and

To be clear, mastery of standard American English alone does not guarantee
professional success. But lack of proficiency can turn into a major
obstacle. It’s not just a matter of facilitating commerce via a shared
dialect. In American professional life, people tend to judge us based on
how well we use standard English.

In the workplace, we’re communicating with people we don’t know personally
or even have never met. All they know about us is what they can infer from
reading an email or a report we wrote. And on that basis, they will make
inferences — about our competence, our intelligence, our level of
education. Such judgments might not be fair or accurate, but they are a
fact of life.

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A good friend of mine grew up in a very small town in the Deep South. He’s
a sharp guy — smart, well-educated, accomplished — with an impressive
résumé. Unfortunately for him, he used to have a thick Southern drawl. All
too often, other educated professionals assumed that he must be a stupid
redneck, simply because he sounded like their idea of a stupid redneck. His
accent became such a professional handicap that he actually went back to
college and took elocution classes in the drama department to mitigate it
(which helped, by the way).

The people who judged him harshly because of the way he spoke were wrong.
But that didn’t stop them from doing it.

The same thing happens in the workplace when people write or speak using a
nonstandard dialect. That term doesn’t apply just to the dialects of rural
America or large cities. Teenagers communicate on social media via their
own dialect — one that is often inappropriate on the job.

The responsibility for helping students learn to use standard American
English effectively, and insisting that they do so, cannot fall solely on
the English department.
A prime example: Several years ago, as interest rates fell, I began
thinking about refinancing my home. So I went to a popular website that
shares information with lenders, entered my data, and waited for banks to
contact me. By the following day, I’d heard from four, offering different
rates and terms. I picked the one that looked best and asked for more
information. Later that day I received a reply from a young bank employee
offering further details. Actually, I have no idea if she was young — I
just assumed she was because her long e-mail was full of emoticons and
text-messaging abbreviations — including, I kid you not, "LOL."

You can probably imagine what I was thinking at that point: "Why did I get
the 14-year-old loan officer? Can I have one of the 35-year-olds, please?"

I confess that I judged her rather harshly because of the way she
communicated — her use of language. That might not have been fair or
accurate. For all I know, she might have been 42 years old. Or she might
have just graduated summa cum laude from Stanford. But I couldn’t help
being put off. (I didn’t do business with that bank.)

Experiences like that are why it’s folly for colleges and universities not
to require students to master SAE as a minimum requirement for earning a
degree. Allowing students to substitute "their own language" — or worse,
teaching them that our common language is somehow evil — merely sets them
up for failure.

What’s more, we further erode public confidence in our ability to produce
job-ready graduates. (In manysurveys over the past 10 years, employers
consistently identify poor communication skills as one of their chief
complaints about new hires.)

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describe innovative teaching strategies — not just high-tech ones, like
webcast introductory courses, but low-tech ones, like peer instruction,
learning communities, and reconsiderations of the canon.
The responsibility for helping students learn to use standard American
English effectively, and insisting that they do so, cannot fall solely on
the English department. The purpose of first-year composition courses
should be to introduce students to the basics of good professional
communication — grammar, sentence structure, organization, paragraph
development. If subsequent courses do not build upon and reinforce those
fundamentals, then students will conclude that such skills must be not all
that important. That appears to be the case, if those employer surveys are
any indication.

As academics, we rose to positions of privilege and authority based in
large part on our ability to "speak the language." It seems to me the
height of arrogance and hypocrisy, if not outright discrimination, to deny
students access to those same opportunities, whether we do so intentionally
or simply through neglect. Our objective as educators ought to be to help
them attain what we have attained, if not more — and language proficiency
is a necessary prerequisite.

In short, standard American English is not inherently racist. It is not
merely a "tool of the patriarchy." It is a tool for anyone who wishes to
use it, and who is willing to put the time and effort into mastering it,
regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, cultural background, or
socioeconomic status.

Nor will students — once they leave our cushy campuses and enter the
professional world — be able to talk and write any way they choose, any
more than they will be able to dress or behave any way they want. Preparing
them adequately for life beyond college is arguably our greatest
responsibility — and up to this point, perhaps our biggest failure.

*Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State
University’s Perimeter College. He writes monthly for *The Chronicle’*s
community-college column. The opinions expressed here are his own and not
necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter


 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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