By Melissa J. Enns
Have you ever noticed how effortlessly you switch registers in your first language? Have you ever wondered why it’s easy for you to identify where a character in a story or movie is from based on the way she speaks? Probably not, because mostly, you just know.
It may be easy for you, but second language learners are often at a disadvantage in picking up on these subtleties, and this can be socially and academically problematic. Van Herk (2012) states that “although teachers are aware of the stylistic range that their students might need, their own language ideologies or limited teaching time lead them to focus on the standard end of language” (183). While I agree with his statement, I dislike the truth of it. As teachers, we (hopefully) strive to meet students’ linguistic needs to the very best of our abilities, but failing to give them the tools of sociolinguistic evaluation leaves them disadvantaged socially and academically. Please allow me to explain.
The school where I worked prior to coming to McGill is an academic prep school with an ESL program aimed at equipping students to succeed in high school and university classes with (ultimately) little or no language help. Unsurprisingly, there is an emphasis on enlarging their academic vocabulary and helping them develop grammatical accuracy and self-correction skills. However, this focus can leave them inadequately prepared in two important ways.
First, ESL students at our school tend to have difficulties integrating socially with their English-speaking Canadian peers. While our ESL students, like, pick up some, like, features very quickly (see what I did there?), most of them largely lack the ability to understand and use the abundant non-standard and “slang” forms or the types of tonal and nonverbal cues that their peers use to index attitudes and guide conversation. Many Intermediate ESL students would not recognize that a peer saying, “Oh my gosh, I hate my hair” is an invitation for them either to express shock because the speaker’s hair is “like, so amazing” or to belittle some aspect of their own appearance.
Second, ESL students at my school generally struggle with the demands of using linguistic clues in literature to determine historical and social contexts. This is a great source of academic difficulty, since such analysis is a key skill in their high school English classes. Few can understand Mark Twain’s approximation of Midland/St. Louis dialects and vernaculars in Huckleberry Finn, much less use these to unlock contextual clues of place, time, and social issues of race and class. Thus, focusing on standard use of language leaves gaps in both students’ social and academic abilities.
I would like to suggest that small activities can be created to help fill in the gaps. As a personal practice, I make a point of exposing students to some of the types of non-standard language use they are likely to encounter, particularly in day-to-day colloquial English. Where appropriate, I will model different registers (especially “teen talk”) and dialects in my teaching. My students always love it, which makes me wonder if it could be taken a step further. Perhaps they could watch movie clips featuring speakers of different varieties of English. Then they could try to identify the ways in which the language they hear is different from the English they learn in grammar classes and consider what we can tell about the person’s background based on the language he uses and the ways he uses it. These activities could be incorporated into grammar or writing lessons and even be used as a launching pad for discussions of social issues. While this kind of activity would have to be undertaken carefully and respectfully, I believe that any amount of exposure to and reflection on language as it is used in literature and outside of the classroom would help to better equip learners for literary analysis and social interaction.
I would love feedback on this. Do you have any strategies for improving learners’ ability to perceive and understand the meaning of sociolinguistic clues?
Van Herk, Gerard (2012). What is sociolinguistics? Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.