This week I read a very interesting article called “Do you speak Texan?” by Jessica Sinn. This article discusses research by professors at The University of Texas at Austin studying changes in the Texan accent and dialect and questioning whether the local dialect is dying out, observing that the dialect is “becoming more of a choice rather than a function of place”. This is happening – not just in Texas – with accents, dialects and even whole languages used in many parts of the world. Sociolinguists have been studying this type of language change for many years and I believe it is a very interesting area to consider in light of this article, especially because Austin International School is both situated in the heart of Texas and is also a multilingual community with many languages, accents and dialects used daily. Austin itself is a multicultural, multilingual city with people moving in and out for work and business. More than 25 languages are spoken within the Austin International School community alone.
Sinn discusses how the switching of accents and dialects can express a person’s identity and is also a reflection of language change over time. Code-switching as this is sometimes known, is the use of more than one language or variety of a language when talking. Multilingual people sometimes use elements of multiple languages when conversing with each other. Therefore being bilingual or multilingual not only means speaking two languages, but also an increased ability to manipulate two or more codes or ways of speaking proficiently. When children learn multiple languages simultaneously, they learn to process them in such a way that they are able to use the appropriate form of language with whomever they talk to. In multilingualism, one language might be a person’s native language, a reflection of their family history and culture, another might be the language of their education and another might be their language of business communication. Therefore as children grow up, they are able to use different languages appropriately in different contexts and for different purposes.
Although many people are often not aware of it, during the day, the chances are the students are using two or three varieties, or codes, when speaking. Our choices in which code we use when we speak relate to certain social factors such as who you are talking to, the social context of the talk as well as the function and topic of discussion. For example, at home a child may often discuss what happens at school using a code choice which is associated with the participants of the conversation, the setting and the topic. In school, when talking with the teacher or other adults, a different code choice may be used which reflects an increase in formality and standard forms of a particular language. People sometimes switch code in certain social situations such as the arrival of a new person, or to signal group membership and shared ethnicity with a particular group of speakers. An example of this is the co-teaching of science in 4th and 5th Grade with one French teacher and one English teacher. When the students are working they answer in both French and English depending on which teacher is asking the questions. They would always answer the English teacher in English and the French teacher in French but amongst themselves they may speak both English and French depending on the situation and the students who needs help. Being able to switch in this way could produce an increase in cultural self-awareness and confidence. Even speakers who are not very proficient speakers of a particular language may use brief words and phrases for this purpose. I see this often at school – groups of students and adults using different words and phrases from each other’s languages. The switches are often short and are sometimes for social reasons to signal the speaker’s identity and solidarity with the addressee. In multilingual communities, the attitudes to code-switching are generally much more positive. A person’s status could be enhanced by the ability to manipulate two or more languages proficiently.
In her article Sinn says that “different groups of people have different linguistic patterns and it is important to accept that one is not better than the other”. Language is an entry point to understanding different cultures. People speak the way they do partly because of social conditions in their individual lives. Therefore individual identification is important for speakers of any language. People often use a language to signal their membership of particular groups. Social status, gender, ethnicity and the kinds of social networks people belong to turn out to be important dimensions in identity in many communities. Therefore bidialectalism – the idea that it is acceptable to use various forms of non-standard language in certain situations as long as it is understood that in certain situations, more formal, standard forms are required is a very important part of teaching language and teaching in a multilingual, culturally diverse environment. Being aware of the more non-standard, colloquial forms of a child’s speech and language are very important, especially in a school with so many diverse linguistic backgrounds. To each child, these forms of their speech are a very important part of their identity and culture so it is important that each child’s linguistic repertoire is respected so that they can maintain or construct their own identity and relationship with others as well as maintaining their cultural values. During one of my 2nd grade classes, a student once wrote “The children were ridin’ on the bus” as part of a non-ficton report. I talked to her about the spelling of the word “riding”. She listened and said “but I speak country, that’s how my family speak and it’s how I speak too”. Instead of telling her what she had written was “wrong”, we talked about how the pronunciation of the word “riding” without the “g” was perfectly acceptable in spoken language but when we write using a formal style, we need to use more standard forms of language. This student was then able to learn about the standard spelling of words she was writing but at the same time still felt that her linguistic background was being respected. This is just one example but it is such a crucial part of effective teaching at Austin International School.