Posted on

Dialect-free classrooms justified: A rebuttal.


Tue, Oct 16, 2012

Editor: I am responding to the article ‘Dialect free classrooms justified’ in the October 9, 2012 issue of the Searchlight, in which the author has come out in support of dialect-free classrooms. First, I would like to clarify what appears to be a misunderstood view of my earlier writing on the subject.{{more}} My concerns about dialect-free classrooms do not in any way indicate an endorsement for dialect-filled classrooms, where standard English has no place. It is my view that both languages are necessary if we are to (and until) we achieve the required competence in the standard version, and the shutting out of dialect from the classroom could impact, negatively, the rate at which we get to this goal.

I do agree that there is a time and place for everything and I happen to believe that the time and place for dialect is in the classroom (in contrastive learning and other proven techniques where dialect is incorporated rather than exiled). I cannot agree that our dialect has its place ‘in settings outside of teaching and learning’. My stance is guided by what I discovered from the existing research.

The challenge of getting students from dialect to the standard (official) language proficiency is not unique to our Caribbean region or even to the English language. This has been the concern of linguists and educators for quite some time. In this regard, many independent studies have been carried out. For example, comparative testing of student performances in a Swedish dialect and the standard version, a Norwegian dialect and the standard, several Indian dialects and the standard, the black-American vernacular (Ebonics) and the standard American English (SAE), and closer to home, the respective countries of Trinidad and Guyana versus the standard American English (references can be made available). I am sure I have not exhausted my search. However, the findings from these studies have common threads.

The research demonstrated, invariably, that for the test-groups of students who were deterred from learning in their native language (or taught using strictly the official language) performance improvement was marginal. For test-group students who were allowed to learn in their native language and on whom translation, contrastive and other such techniques were used, there was significant breakthrough progress (measured both quantitatively and qualitatively) in reading scores, writing and grammar depending on the area(s) tested. In one (Chicago) study, the students who were taught using traditional classroom standard English techniques showed an eight per cent increase in the use of the (Ebonics) dialect, while those who were taught using contrastive or translation techniques demonstrated a 60 per cent improvement in their standard English writing ability.

It would be beneficial to carry out some similar-type study in St Vincent, but even without such concrete data, I surmise that with a dialect-free classroom methodology, any such results will show only minimal improvements and this is why:

Our Creole English/dialect is spoken on a continuum. Standard English is standard English—there is no continuum. A dialect-free learning environment could prove effective for those students who might lie at the upper end of the dialect-continuum, and who also demonstrate stronger competence in the standard language (and bilingual proficiency). The concern is that the number of students in this range is likely to be in the minority (using the CSEC data), and with this, only marginal progress can be realised. This means we will have targeted the students who, already, were likely to succeed at the proficiency exams. For the (majority of) students who speak our dialect along the opposite end of the continuum, their path to competency in the standard language will likely not be achieved through this process. Are we seeking genuinely to reach those students who are more at risk because of greater challenges with decoding the standard version of the English language?

In my first article, I asked ‘where does standard English fit?’ The answer really should determine our approach to the treatment plan, that is, how we tackle the achievement of proficiency in this version of the language. Clearly, it is not our native or first language, although the current construction of our teaching and learning models makes this assumption. While it may be taking it too far to suggest it a foreign language, there is some level of estrangement.

The results of other studies seem to suggest that starting off students (in the early primary years) to read in their dialect and then transitioning them out is highly effective when compared with the group(s) who started off in the standard language. Thus, transitions appear to be made more easily with a full dialect foundation. I make this point because the author indicated that most of our students cannot read Creole English. This is unsurprising, given that there are very few (I have never seen any) reading books and other school texts written in Creole English. Perhaps, this is the time and place to start.

In most areas, we are encouraged to use our strengths to build bridges to achievement. We may not want to admit it, but our language strength is, in fact, our dialect and we ought to use it to acquire bilingualism, the mastery of both languages. The personal, social and traditional justifications we hold for moving to establish dialect-free classrooms should not come at the cost of the most successfully demonstrated models to achieving the standard language competence.

Gail Diamond