Expert comment on the Black Country Dialect

By Josiane Boutonnet, Senior Lecturer in English Language at the University of Wolverhampton.

Josianne's main research interests relate to the study of language and humour, in particular Discourse Analysis and Conversation Analysis, Pragmatics, and Gender Differences.

This expert comment is in relation to Colley Lane School, Halesowen, banning their pupils from writing or talking in a Black Country dialect (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-24941692)

 

Black Country Dialects

The head teacher of Colley Lane Primary School in Halesowen has banned the Black Country Dialect (BCD) from lessons in order to encourage pupils at his school to use Standard English.

He is arguing that children’s futures will be greatly enhanced by avoiding the use of certain grammatical constructions like ‘cor, day’ and appears to have also identified some pronunciations which he sees as impeding the acquisition of literacy skills: e.g. ‘somfink’ (Guardian, November 14th).

Earlier on this year, it was the Teesside dialect which did not meet with one head mistress’ approval (see newspaper articles reporting the case of Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesborough early February 2013). 

Attitudes towards varieties of English and the speakers of those varieties are revisited on a regular basis in media and educational discourses reflecting deeply held beliefs about language. Values associated with a standard language - and stigma attached to non-standard varieties - are inherited from a long tradition of prescriptivism.

Most academic books on the history of the English language can trace the history of how those attitudes developed and changed, pointing to the 19th century as the time when ‘Standard English’ begins to refer to ‘socially acceptable speech’ (Crowley, 1989). A survey of language reports from Newbolt (1921) through to Cox (1989) to the more recent Ofsted report (2012) would also reflect tensions between prescriptive and more descriptive approaches to language study.

There is no denying that linguistic discrimination is still rife, and that speakers of English are judged by the way they speak, from the moment they open their mouth. There is no denying either that speakers who learn to use Standard English (preferably with a modified version of Received Pronunciation) are likely to be perceived as more competent language users, regardless of other abilities.

It is therefore not surprising that those responsible for students’ educational achievement and future employability would focus on one of the key skills identified in the school curriculum, that of promoting language awareness and skills both in speech and writing.

It follows therefore that teachers see it as their role to ensure children become competent users of Standard English in speech and writing. The question remains of how best to do this. It is most unlikely that banning regional dialects will have much of an effect. The fact that dialects are still thriving today demonstrates the strong link between language and identity, and language and culture.

To publicly decry the language children use at home is to further distance the school staff from the community with whom they ought to liaise. Judging by the parents’ response in the press, the headmaster’s decision to instruct parents about how to use language at home is perceived as an attack on their family and cultural values, and their sense of history.

It may sound like something of an educational cliché to argue that the best way to help children become bi-dialectal or bilingual in the primary classroom is to value the language(s) they bring with them. Classrooms are often rich in linguistic diversity, and the language(s)/dialect(s) children bring with them ought to be considered a resource rather than a hindrance to learning.

Language awareness is key to learning about how languages and varieties of a language have a socio-historical context, represent different communities of speakers and serve different functions. Language awareness can enhance learning about language in a more general sense, help pupils value their own linguistic resources as well as those of their peers, and promote tolerance and understanding of others’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

By the way, there is a good pragmatic argument for doing this: it has been shown to yield better results when teaching Standard English. This approach is not new, but it requires knowledge about language, starting with learning the difference between terms like dialect, accent, slang and jargon.

Josiane Boutonnet

ENDS

This piece is taken from the University of Wolverhampton's Academic Blog: www.wlv.ac.uk/academicblog

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