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Reading: English Varieties and Intelligence

dialects, language, readings, teaching

Slate has an article this week titled “Which English You Speak Has Nothing to Do with How Smart You Are.” This article takes an intelligent and straightforward look at the problem of stereotype and language:

So why do people think of speakers of standardized English as being smarter, of a higher status, and as having more positive personality traits than speakers of nonstandardized English varieties? These values have more to do with who is in power: If people are devalued for some reason or another—race, gender, socioeconomic class, and so on—their language gets the same association.

Perhaps most interesting is the way that it traces the more subtle effects that language use has on how we perceive people who speak a certain way:

It’s even in our media: As the linguist Rosina Lippi-Green points out, the way that cartoon characters speak, like the Lion King’s hyenas or Shrek’s donkey, reinforces our racial and linguistic stereotypes, encouraging kids to think of their classmates who sound like Simba or Shrek as “good guys,” people who sound like the hyenas as “bad guys,” and people who sound like Donkey as buffoons.

It ends by discussing the strategies that teachers use to navigate the tensions between wanting to respect that language standards are arbitrary and bound in social power while still recognizing the very real social impact of not meeting those language standards. By discussing code switching and exploring the way that famous authors (like Mark Twain) have used different dialects in writing, teachers and students alike are finding some in-roads into the field of landmines that language can be.
This reading could be paired with this excellent video from Jamila Lyiscott who gives a spoken word performance about her “trilingual” abilities to code switch:
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