“We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language–the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.”
–CCCC, 1972

The CCCC’s “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” sets out to explore then-common (and sadly still often prevalent) assumptions about the realities of “standard” English, particularly the belief that this “correct” use of English is somehow superior to other forms. The statement proceeds to explain the nature of dialect and acknowledge the privileged status of some dialects–those usually called “Standard English.” Further, it identifies the cultural connections that often accompany dialects, often linked to specific ages, localities, or ethnic groups. Also key to the discussion is the notion that most dialects of, in this case, American English are highly compatible and may be understood even by those who are accustomed to another dialect.

Debunking Myths

One task the statement sets itself is debunking myths about language, such as the following:

  • “We need to know whether ‘standard English’ is or is not in some sense a myth. We have ignored, many of us, the distinction between speech and writing and have taught the language as though the talk in any region, even the talk of speakers with prestige and power, were identical to edited written English” (CCCC 3).
  • “We have also taught, many of us, as though the ‘English of educated speakers,’ the language used by those in power in the community, had an inherent advantage over other dialects as a means of expressing thought or emotion, conveying information, or analyzing concepts” (CCCC 3).
  • “We need to ask ourselves whether our rejection of students who do not adopt the dialect most familiar to us is based on any real merit in our dialect or whether we are actually rejecting the students themselves, rejecting them because of their racial, social, and cultural origins” (CCCC 3).
  • “That is to say, when speakers of a dialect of American English claim not to understand speakers of another dialect of the same language, the impediments are likely to be attitudinal. What is really the hearer’s resistance to any unfamiliar form may be interpreted as the speaker’s fault” (CCCC 6).

Thus established are the ideas that Standard English is largely a myth, that Standard English holds no inherent superiority over other dialects (despite its privileged status), that rejection of “non-standard” dialects is in many ways a rejection of students and their identities, and that the complaint that non-standard dialects are “difficult to understand” is more likely to be rooted in the biased attitude of the listener than any failing of clarity on the part of the speaker. As the statement puts it, “The initial difficulties of perception can be overcome and should not be confused with those psychological barriers to communication which may be generated by racial, cultural, and social differences and attitudes” (CCCC 6).

The statement also pointedly confronts claims about standard language superiority: “In a specific setting, because of historical and other factors, certain dialects may be endowed with more prestige than others. Such dialects are sometimes called ‘standard’ or ‘consensus’ dialects. These designations of prestige are not inherent in the dialect itself, but are externally imposed, and the prestige of a dialect shifts as the power relationships of the speakers shift” (CCCC 7). It goes on to note the varied origins and history of English dialects, indicating that neither historically nor in a measurable contemporary way does a “single, homogenous American ‘standard'” exist (CCCC 7). The statement characterizes what is often called “Standard English” as Edited American English (EAE), which often comes from use in various media, yet it also points out that these “standardized” dialects are varied and also subject to change (CCCC 8). Thus, there is no real standardized American English, and even privileged dialects only carry prestige due to externally imposed factors–and even these dialects remain inconstant.

Teaching and Consequences

Here the statement moves to another key question: What are we asking students to really do if we ask them to change their dialect? It states, “Since dialect is not separate from culture, but an intrinsic part of it, accepting a new dialect means accepting a new culture; rejecting one’s native dialect is to some extent a rejection of one’s culture” (CCCC 8). This becomes a central issue in considering approaches to language and composition instruction: What exactly should we be teaching?

Addressing the issue of reading skills, the statement argues that difficulty in reading is not likely linked to students’ dialects. Instead of focusing on this aspect, the statement argues: “Carefully chosen materials will certainly expose students to new horizons and should increase their awareness and heighten their perceptions of the social reality. Classroom reading materials can be employed to further our students’ reading ability and, at the same time, can familiarize them with other varieties of English” (CCCC 10).

Here comes a renewed assertion that dialects are all equally valid, even if not equally privileged:

“If we name the essential functions of writing as expressing oneself, communicating
information and attitudes, and discovering meaning through both logic and metaphor,
then we view variety of dialects as an advantage. In self-expression, not only one’s
dialect but one’s idiolect is basic. In communication one may choose roles which imply
certain dialects, but the decision is a social one, for the dialect itself does not limit the
information which can be carried, and the attitudes may be most clearly conveyed in the
dialect the writer finds most congenial. Dialects are all equally serviceable in logic and
metaphor.” (CCCC 11)

From here the statement argues for the importance of content over mechanics and dialect, indicating that the most pressing issues in composition instruction have to do with expression of ideas rather than correctness of stylistic conventions. Mechanics are perhaps easier to quantify, but they are less important aspects of language (CCCC 12). Importantly, it goes on, “When students want to play roles in dialects other than their own, they should be encouraged to experiment, but they can acquire the fundamental skills of writing in their own dialect” (12). So, acquiring skills in additional dialects may be useful, but this does not mean that students cannot learn all the “essential functions of writing” in dialects other than EAE: “Comparing the writing allows the students to see for themselves that dialect seldom obscures clear, forceful writing” (12). Moreover, dialects change and evolve–so a new idea expressed in one dialect can be carried over to additional dialects as needed (13).

Class Distinctions

The statement references the historical methods of class separation, noting that as economic mobility began to blur class lines, other ways were found to distinguish the privileged classes:

“Rules regulating social behavior were compiled in books of etiquette; rules regulating linguistic behavior were compiled in dictionaries and grammar books. Traditional grammar books were unapologetically designed to instill linguistic habits which, though often inconsistent with actual language practice and sometimes in violation of common sense, were intended to separate those who had “made it” from those who had not, the powerful from the poor.” (CCCC 13)

This elitism led to many forms of discrimination against those who did not fit the privileged cultural model, and in turn educators began to attempt to homogenize language use. However well intentioned this “melting pot” model might have been, it came within the context of what the statement calls “that history of social climbing and homogenizing” (13). The statement then elaborates on the challenges of explaining context to students when standardized rules must be taught, such as the various contradictions between spoken language (even in the classroom) and SAE. The statement calls for teachers to discuss with students when and how use of “handbook correctness” might be useful, as well as working with students to develop extant skills to “make shifts in tone, style, sentence structure and length, vocabulary, diction, and order; in short, to do what they are already doing, better” (CCCC 15). A key caution is to understand that “Linguistic versatility includes more than handbook conformity”; that is, effective writing has more to do with orienting to audience and occasion than to whether it is “correct” or not (16).

The statement discusses various limitations of standardized tests, the problem of teachers of other courses who treat English as a sort of fix-it subject or basic mechanical skills course, and the need to produce certain expected results in students. In particular, it addresses the issue that: “Students rightly want marketable skills that will facilitate
their entry into the world of work. Unfortunately, many employers have narrowly conceived notions of the relationship between linguistic performance and job competence. Many employers expect a person whom they consider for employment to speak whatever variety of American English the employers speak, or believe they speak” (22). With all of this set forth, it ends by reaffirming the importance of choice:

“Students who want to write EAE will have to learn the forms identified with that dialect as additional options to the forms they already control. We should begin our work in composition with them by making them feel confident that their writing, in whatever dialect, makes sense and is important to us, that we read it and are interested in the ideas and person that the writing reveals. Then students will be in a much stronger position to consider the rhetorical choices that lead to statements written in EAE.” (CCCC 23)

Citation

CCCC. “Students’ Right to Their Own Language.” College Composition and Communication 25.3 (1974, 2003). PDF File.

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