Over in Serial today, a fairly long bit of exposition appears in Symphony in a Minor Key. It amounts to an essay (or maybe sermon) on English and Spanish in American schools. It has nothing to do with DACA or contemporary issues of immigration, since it was written in the late eighties. It also doesn’t come down for or against bilingualism. It is a look at the underlying problems faced by both Anglo and Hispanic students. Even if you aren’t following Symphony, this post is still worth a look.
I came to these conclusions by a three step process, beginning with growing up as a smart kid in a tiny, rural Oklahoma school. We were all white, all English speakers, and we all sounded more or less the same. The teachers spoke grammatical English, mostly, but the kids and their parents did not. I wanted to, and I needed to, since I planned to go to college. I read books, and the words on the page did not closely resemble the words I heard from farmers down at the grain elevator.
Eventually, I realized that the language of the books I was reading was not the same dialect that I was hearing from those around me. My English teachers consciously and painfully spoke grammatical English, the other teacher also did, but with many noticeable lapses, and no one else even tried. If I was going to go to college, I needed more, so I memorized Strunk and White.
Now I could write essays that were as good, and as grammatical, as anyone’s, no matter where that person was educated. It got me into college. Michigan State University gave me a scholarship and I was on my way.
Except — when I got off the train in East Lansing, no one could understand a word I said. My words were all correct, and grammatically strung together, but they were all pronounced “wrong”. I had “learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news”, but he had an Okie accent too, and I never knew it.
My roommates learned to understand me, and translated during the first few weeks until I had gotten used to Michigander pronunciations and learned to mimic them. My accent slowly faded, but came back with a vengeance every time I went home. I never did learn the supposed difference between “i” and “e”. Pen and pin are still pronounced exactly the same inside my head. I can fake the difference, but it hurts my mouth.
Personal experience showed me how our American language works, but I did not know why until PBS produced a mini-series called The Story of English in 1986. I recommend it if you can find a copy and a VCR to play it on. I wish PBS would make it available in some modern format.
It turns out that American English is so diverse because British English was a melange of dialects when it arrived in the New World. They found their way to various regions of America and thrived there. Now I came to understand that, when JFK said Cuber instead of Cuba, and all those fine craftsmen on This Old House leave out their “r”s, they aren’t really as goofy as they sound. They are reflecting an Old English dialect that happened to land in their region. I also realize now that “there ain’t no such word as ain’t”, simply because the South lost the Civil War.
When I started teaching in the mid-eighties, I had a clear understanding of the many Englishes, and I quickly came to recognize what that meant for Spanish speaking English learners, which led to today’s post in Serial. I won’t repeat those conclusions here, since you can just go read them there.
One final anecdote, regarding the last sentence in today’s Serial post — One our better English learners graduated from eighth grade and left us. She came back a few years later to visit her middle school teachers. Her parents had moved back to Mexico and had enrolled her in a quality Mexican high school. When we asked her how she liked it, she said, “I thought I was good until I got there, but I found out all those kids speak Spanish and I speak Mexican!”