Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

Halifax, NS

“Standard English” and New Racism

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Below are several responses from senior and/or second (and beyond) tutors at the centre to Laura Greenfield‘s article “The ‘Standard English’ Fairy Tale: A Rhetorical Analysis of Racist Pedagogies and Commonplace Assumptions about Language Diversity” from Writing Centers and the New Racism (2011). Please join in the conversation in the comments section below.

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Vander Taveres, Linguistics, Second year tutor

This is an interesting article in the field of Sociolinguistics. I have to agree with the author that a spoken and a written form of the same language can be quite different. Perhaps English and French are the best examples for this claim if considering Indo-European languages (and it’s ironic that these two languages are the ‘official’ languages in Canada!). I believe it is important to mention that our written form of English is dictated by different groups of institutions. For instance, in universities, we write the X way, while on Facebook, we write the Y way. In the context of universities, which is the one we are working within, we are all required to use proper syntax, spelling and punctuation. Although this can be taken as a good thing for it allows all members of the university community to read one another’s work under the same standards, this type of regulation is what, in most cases, contributes to differentiating, constantly, the written form from the spoken form. In reality, not everybody speaks the same language that they write.

We should remember that verbal communication can be effective without proper syntax. If someone asks me “When you gonna go?”, I know precisely that what this person is saying is “When are you going to go?”, and I’m perfectly capable of understanding that. However, under standards established by institutions, this person may not be seen as an effective communicator for he or she is going against the expected norm. However, I do have to disagree with some of the claims in this reading.

We know that, structure-wise, for example, the third-person singular form of the present tense in English is constructed by adding, normally, an -s to the end of the verb. In the case of the Hawaiian Creole, mentioned by the author, this construction is not necessary in writing or in speech in order to be taken as proper. And that’s why we have varieties. This also goes for singular nouns: daughter is singular; therefore, it is used with singular determiners (a daughter, the daughter, one daughter, some daughter) while daughters is plural and will take everything else. Varieties serve for us to be aware that our way of speaking is not universal when we’re out of the area where our language is spoken. But this doesn’t mean that, under set patterns by institutions, this variety will be considered the local norm (and I mean in writing when speaking of universities).

Unfortunately, English does not have a language body officially established to monitor and deal with these differences (for instance, the Goethe Institute which monitors German or Camões Institute which monitors Portuguese). Another point is the double-negative construction. If you are saying “I don’t have nothing,” syntax-wise this means you then do have something, while in everyday semantics I do know what one would mean by that. However, none of what I have previously mentioned is used to say that racism does not exist in institutions (and not only in language, but in other several forms) because it does exist. I believe that the issue of racism presented in the reading goes beyond only “discourse” and race. It’s language, race, place of birth (ethnicity) and physical appearance all intertwined. As for the academic language we teach at Saint Mary’s, I think we’re far from reaching the “ideal point” that the author presents, especially when I think of all the…assignments and the technical, systematic and standardised form of writing that is expected of all students in order to pass the course and be considered successful in the outside work world.

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Alaa El-Attar, Biology, Second year tutor

Greenfield points out a very interesting topic about racism based on language. She mentions how many people have the assumption that some languages are considered to be “better” than others. Personally, I never thought about this issue, and after reading this article, I realized that I do have some unconscious racist assumptions about language. Back home, I am told that I am ‘more successful’ and ‘more educated’ than most of my relatives just because I speak standard English fluently. This proves that many people who speak different languages have the assumption that standard English is superior, while their own language and accents when speaking in English are inferior. Greenfield mentions how success in life is based on speaking “correctly,” as though there is only one way a person should learn how to speak. Honestly, throughout high school, I was told that standard English is the “best” form of English that must be learned. Furthermore, Greenfield states, “We may, for example, have witnessed a person being ridiculed for what a listener describes as her ‘broken’ English” (35). This statement is convincing because I have witnessed a friend being ridiculed because of her “broken” English, and even worse, she apologized for her “mistake” (assuming that she has done something wrong). Nevertheless, racism has it’s many forms that are not only based on color and ethnicity, but also the accents and languages that are spoken amongst different people from different parts of the world. I really enjoyed reading this article because it addressed a very important topic about racism that we, as tutors, should try to avoid while tutoring students.

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Lindsey Carmichael, PhD, Genetics, Senior tutor

Greenfield’s paper is interesting, and the idea that we judge languages because of inherent racism is very troubling. I found the information on the evolution and relationships of languages fascinating, and I agree with the thesis that all languages are of equivalent validity. The concern I have, though, is that many professors don’t share this view. I would love it if instructors would focus on clarity of expression in any written accent, deducting marks only when grammar and syntax interfere with meaning, but until they do, it seems like it’s part of our obligation to help students cope with the standards they’re going to be graded on, no matter how unfair they may be. Tom Chivers (“Grammar Tribe” article) made that argument as well – that as long as students are being graded on “standard English,” we should support them in learning it (provided we all agree what it is, which clearly we don’t). This argument is one that Greenfield condemns, however, for perpetuating the problem. I also clicked through from Chivers’ article to the Harper’s piece by David Foster Wallace. In addition to supporting many of Greenfield’s points, it reminded me strongly of My Fair Lady’s premise that the dialect we choose to use reflects the group to which we claim ownership (but without the catchy dance tunes). His argument that people who can only speak “standard English” are just as disadvantages as anyone else who can only speak a single dialect is very interesting. His comments on “Academic English” which he distinguishes from “standard English” are also worth reading.

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Greenfield, L. (2011). “The ‘Standard English’ Fairy Tale: A Rhetorical Analysis of Racist Pedagogies and Commonplace Assumptions about Language Diversity” in Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change. Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan, ed. Logan, Utah, Utah State University Press, p. 33-60.

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