The skin that we speak

July 31, 2007

Questions about dialect, pronunciation, and ‘standard’ speech and grammar keep bubbling up among tutors on the Yahoo! listserv, at tutor workshops, and in casual conversations:

“Is it OK for my student to pronounce words differently if they are consistent about it and if I can tell what they mean?”

“Am I supposed to teach my student how to pronounce certain words?”

“Is it OK to use books that use non-standard grammar and spelling as our leisure reading at the end of lessons?”

While ‘technical’ on one level, such questions also raise important cultural and political issues of identity and power. I wanted to share what I’ve found to be an invaluable resource on these matters – it’s a volume of essays edited by Lisa Delpit titled The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. Here is an excerpt of book review by Jill Davidson:

Exploring the connections between language, race, identity, and school success, The Skin That We Speak’s thirteen essays delve into how speakers of “nonstandard” English . . . view themselves, how schools have often perpetuated the educational inequities of African American and other children, and how educators can create the best frameworks to honor students’ language and identity.

The collection starts with personal stories from Joanne Kilgour Dowdy and Ernie Smith, who examine how one’s dialect leads peers, teachers, and others to make negative assumptions about one’s academic abilities and desire to be a part of one’s community—and how “code switching,” or learning and using a different dialect, can affect those perceptions. Delpit’s “No Kinda Sense” offers a parental and pedagogical perspective on code switching’s effects. Delpit describes her daughter’s transfer from a majority-White to majority-African American elementary school and how she rapidly moved from using standard English to using Ebonics. Delpit’s inquiry into why the reverse rarely happens—why children with African American speech patterns don’t generally code switch into academic English with equal ease —illuminates what schools can do to embrace culture, and how the resulting acceptance helps students to move into new realms of language…

Judith Baker’s “Trilingualism” offers a practical perspective on helping students move among the languages of the community, school, and the workplace. Herb Kohl and Shuaib Meacham’s concluding pieces look at teacher talk, examining how teachers’ language influences their abilities in the classroom…

The DLC library at LWB will have a copy of this book soon. Until then, you can also check out another book by Delpit, Other People’s Children, which will be in the DLC library within a week. (A chapter on language diversity (pg. 48) gives a concise summary of many of her ideas on this topic.) You can also check out an essay that Delpit wrote on ebonics at the Rethinking Schools web site, “Ebonics and Culturally Responsive Instruction: What Should Teachers Do?” (While it focuses on the ebonics debate, I think it has much to say to educators working with all types of language diversity.) Hope these readings are helpful! And if anyone wants to have a conversation about them, I’d be happy to set up a meeting at Francesca’s or elsewhere . . .

peace and joy,



One Response to “The skin that we speak”

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