Symphony 114

English

As spring break approached, Neil decided to reassess his classes’ progress in reading. The results were disheartening. His new teaching method was helping his less able students: it was expanding their horizons, drawing them into conversations they would not have had part in, and giving them a base of shared experiences. It was not teaching them to read independently.

Rosa Alvarez had blossomed. Her reading had improved dramatically and her understanding had kept pace. Sometimes she would be thrown off by English idiom, but Bob and Tim were there to put her back on track. Among the three of them, they managed to make little Delores Perez understand what they were reading, but Delores was only two years out of Mexico. She was just beginning to speak the Kiernan community’s slang-ridden, ungrammatical English. She was essentially a non-reader, and standard English was a mystery to her.

Neil often heard people say that it was hard for Mexican children because they had to learn two languages. Not true; his Anglo children had to learn two languages: their own version of English, and so-called standard English. The Mexican children were expected to learn both of these in addition to their own Spanish, and no one even bothered to let them know that the language of the classroom and the language of the playground were essentially two different dialects.

It was not a matter of current slang. When David Breshears had said to Neil that he could not keep up with his daughter’s language, he was only referring to one or two dozen words. David Breshears and his daughter spoke the same language, and it was not “standard” English.   

What they spoke was a genuine dialect, with very specific rules. The reversal of objective and subjective, the free use of double negatives, and the collapse of tense were its hallmarks.  One might say: “I come to school without my lunch this morning;” or “Me and my friends are going out to play;” or “I don’t have no money.” Those statements were all within the boundaries of “correct” usage in their dialect. But to say “I don’t got no money,” was a solecism. It was recognizably baby-talk. Anna Breshears might use it, but her father never would.

It was not a regional dialect. It was not the speech of California, nor a hold-over from the speech of the Okie immigrants of the dust bowl days. It was the true, common, standard speech of America. From Alaska to Florida, and California to Maine, it was the speech of field and factory. It reached artistic heights on the ten thousand country-western radio stations where it was the only accepted dialect. It was the true sound of America.

Eighty percent of Americans speak this dialect in their everyday lives. It is the language American children drink in with their mother’s milk, learn at their fathers’ knees, and hone to a fine edge in play. Then, the day they arrive at school, they are told to forget it and learn a new language with different and foreign rules; a language which most of them cannot share with their own families.

“Standard” English is by no means standard. It is the consciously cultivated language of an elite.

Even those who do not speak standard English, recognize its utility. Bob McDill, in a country-western song, wrote:

But I was smarter than most, and I could choose —
Learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news.

Children coming into the school system have to learn a new and foreign dialect before they can begin to succeed. And these are the Anglos!

For the Hispanics it is far worse. They come in speaking a version of Spanish that has the same relationship to Castilian Spanish as the English of the factory holds to the English of the university. Anglos learning new grammatical forms at least have the same base of vocabulary as “standard” English. The Hispanics lack this, and when they begin to learn “English”, they are taught one “English” in the classroom while they are learning another “English” on the playground.

To succeed in America, a Hispanic must be tri-lingual. And if such a student does succeed, he will still lack the “proper” Spanish which would be a passport to a job of status in Mexico. more tomorrow, and also check out today’s post in A Writing Life for more on this subject

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