Honoring All Dialects and Regionalisms in Languages
In a recent conversation I had with a Tamil-language school, I was asked, “Which Tamil is tested for the Seal of Biliteracy?” The question certainly came from a good place as the school officials wanted to ensure that after completing the series of courses, students would be able to receive the coveted award for their hard work to maintain and grow their linguistic repertoire in their home language. However, the fact that this could even be a question should give pause to any of us who believe in the intersection of language and equity. After all, no dialect of a language should be held at a higher esteem than another.
Although the distinction between language and dialect is often fraught with political and cultural implications, for the purposes of this discussion, we will define language as a form of communication where one’s output can be easily understood by another group and exchanged for relatively easy, comprehensible input. Hence, when the output from one group of people ceases to be easily understood by another group of people, we will consider them to speak different languages. However, when the language continues to be easily comprehensible for both parties but certain vocabulary, grammatical patterns, and accents change, we will define the differences as dialectical variation. The dialect of the language changes even though both groups of people continue to speak the same language.
Language and culture are ever evolving. When groups of people who speak the same language become isolated or uniquely interact with people who speak other languages, their own language tends to morph, creating distinct dialects. For example, although in the United States, Australia, and England, English is largely spoken, the vocabulary, spelling, and accent vary due to a variety of reasons, including geographical isolation. Thus, the word color in England is spelled with a ‘u’ to make colour, and a period at the end of a sentence uttered by an American becomes a fullstop when spoken in London.
As human beings, we seem to have an innate need to determine which of these dialects is superior. The British often joke that we Americans have not spoken English in years. We, as Americans, however, are certain that our English is better. But what makes one dialect superior to another? And who gets to decide?
In the case of the Tamil school with which I interacted, they, due to a need to help their students achieve a certain award, left to the test companies the onus of determining which Tamil dialect would be the superior dialect. Yet what does that make of the myriad of other dialects spoken at students’ homes? Tamil from different parts of Tamil Nadu (the Indian state where the language is from), the neighboring Indian states where Tamil has mixed with regional languages, Singapore, and Sri Lanka can vary dramatically. Therefore, if the Seal of Biliteracy is meant to reward students for keeping their home languages alive, how can we use a test that measures students’ knowledge of a standardized version of a language rather than the ones they speak at home?
The Seal of Biliteracy is not the only venue through which some dialects are favored over others. Many school districts teach in their Dual Language and World Language programs Spanish from Spain and French from France, requiring native speakers who trace their lineage to other parts of the world to learn grammatical structures and vocabulary not used in their heritage countries. While we should, of course, introduce and teach students linguistic variations from around the world, when we consistently teach one country’s dialect to our students over others, we are sending a clear message that one dialect is superior to another. For example, when teaching predominantly Spanish from Spain, we are letting students know that we value the European dialect over that of the Americas. And with that message comes a message that there is a racial hegemony to which we still subscribe. To be fair, many argue that teaching the European dialect of languages is imperative because Europe is where these languages originated, an excuse I would gladly accept if we were to add that elusive ‘u’ to our elementary school spelling tests when testing the word color.
Overall, Dual Language programs and the Seal of Biliteracy are powerful tools to encourage language minority students to maintain their home languages, tools that demonstrate our desire and willingness to honor and celebrate students’ whose languages have been minoritized in our country. However, we must be careful not to allow these tools to become venues that reinvent linguistic oppression. By being intentional about language inclusivity and the elevation of minority languages as spoken by our students’ families, we can in fact celebrate and honor the multilingual tapestry of the United States.