With language, people have the ability to communicate an array of complex ideas and emotions. But when our use of language goes beyond the need to express our thoughts, things can get murky. Based on how people speak, others make assumptions about ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and education, and these assumptions can translate into prejudice and oppression. Because of a long history of European colonization and cultural erasure, standardized English is expected and, in some places, demanded. In the United States, some people see a lack of adherence to a certain grammar code as a sign of ignorance or failing intelligence. But the history of language—because of its malleability, the United States’ thriving immigrant populations, and the de facto and de jure practices barring people of color from educational opportunities—is complicated.
One of the amazing things about our students and a strength of our organization is the diversity of languages they bring through our front door. In our one-on-one sessions, we encourage our students to speak their home language. If they were speaking to their mother or grandmother, how would they answer this essay question or explain this mathematical concept? We want our students to know that shame about their home language and how it differs from standardized English is a tool that people with power have used for generations to subjugate and malign others. We educate students to understand why certain languages and dialects are valorized and why others may be seen as lower class.
We strive to teach our students that how they speak is another aspect of their identity they can celebrate and share. We teach them to adapt their writing to the situation but an essay doesn’t mean they don’t bring their own personality, background, and voice to the page. What do we lose when students feel less smart because they don’t know the ins and outs of gerunds or split infinitives? What can we gain when students feel comfortable enough to bring their own approaches to language into the classroom and into their academics?
By Tailored Tutoring’s Writing Team