PBS has a great resource on different dialects in American English. There are a lot of different entry points into the material, but one way to break it up and share it with students is to assign the section on “American Varieties” as reading. Students could then choose two or three of the different dialects to explore in more detail: Appalachian English, AAVE, Californian, Cajun, Chicano, Lumbee, Midwest, New York City, Pacific Northwest, Pittsburghese, Smoky Mountains, Spanglish, Southern, and Texan.
Since many of these individual sections are written by sociolinguists, some of the language and discussion of dialectical variations can be rather technical and dense. In order to help students discuss their readings in more detail, there are a variety of sources that could be brought into the classroom to help illustrate the way dialects work.
1. “35 Accents in the English Language”
One man imitates 35 different English accents. This brings up an interesting discussion of how we use accents to identify people and how we can use them to imitate, stereotype, or make assumptions about them. It is also a fun, light-hearted start to the discussion.
2. “Appalachian English”
This is a short clip that features people from the Appalachian region explaining, in their own words, what “mountain talk” is like.
3. “Origins of African American English”
This video explores the Gullah language and the roots of African American English as a mixture of multiple African languages with English. The clip from 1:50 to 2:37 in particular demonstrate the grammatical structures present in the speech. This clip also demonstrates a great example of code-switching as the woman speaking changes her dialect multiple times. In some moments she is demonstrating how she speaks with the other people on the islands, and in other places she is consciously speaking in a way that is more likely to be understood easily by the viewers of the video.
4. “Lumbee English 1”
This video sets up some speculations on how the Lumbee dialect came to be (as it is a potential mix of the English spoken by the vanished Roanoke villagers and Native American languages). Starting at 2:05, several speakers of Lumbee explain why their language is so key to their identity and why they are willing to fight to preserve it.
5. “Northern Cities Vowel Shift”
This video gives a great demonstration of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and helps students understand some of the more complicated linguistic terms with a more concrete example.
A discussion of dialects helps to set up a number of important discussion points in the developmental writing classroom:
- It helps show students that the way we talk is influenced by a variety of factors.
- It demonstrates that all speakers of English use a dialect.
- It opens up discussions about why some dialects are more accepted as “standard” than others and puts into question what is the “right” or “proper” way to speak.
- It allows instructors to explain that Standard Academic English (our typical standard for their writing) is an artificially constructed dialect that no one speaks. This helps to demonstrate that all writers shift their language to meet academic standards and that there is nothing “wrong” with speaking or writing a different way for other situations.
Some possible discussion or reading response questions could be pulled from these pieces:
- Do you think that you speak a dialect of English? Has anyone ever told you that you speak with an accent?
- Have you ever made an assumption about someone based on how h/she talked?
- Who determines the “right” or “proper” way to talk?
- Do we write how we talk? Does this change for different audiences?
- How does language develop? Why do we see differences in the way people speak English