by Joan M. Thomas
At college, your student will meet all kinds of people who are very different from those she's already known—from different regions, cultures, and backgrounds. Because of that, some of them will sound different, too. This can be both exhilarating and unsettling.
Especially for high school students who will soon be leaving their sheltered surroundings and mingling with people from divergent backgrounds, understanding the dynamics of language in this country will help them not only to weather some puzzling situations, but to better appreciate the value of each person and culture they encounter throughout the rest of their life.
Even when your own parenting styles have discouraged stereotyping, you may not have thought of the impact that the sound of different dialects and accents may have on a young person encountering them for the first time. My own experiences have led to some uncomfortable run-ins, yet each one ultimately helped me realize the importance of embracing our differences.
For example, during my earlier career as an office worker, I spoke daily on the telephone with a representative of one of my employer’s vendors. One day while conversing with my supervisor, I referred to the rep as “that guy with the speech impediment.” Fortunately for me, my superior was a forgiving person. She laughed and said, “Oh, Joan, that’s just his Louisiana Cajun accent. That’s how everyone talks down there!”
Years later, while experiencing my maiden excursion on the New York City subway system, I observed a petite young woman sitting directly across the aisle from me. Myself awkward and “big-boned,” a manifest Midwesterner and tourist identified by the camera dangling from my neck, my St. Louis Cardinals sweatshirt, and a death grip on my brand-new subway map, I envied this poised and refined little lady wearing dainty white socks embroidered with delicate pink roses and trimmed in fine lace.
Then she looked directly into my eyes and her words shattered my perception. “Kin a see ya mepp?” she asked abruptly in a manner suggestive of a female counterpart of Bugs Bunny.
It took me a minute to realize that she wanted to look at my map. Then, I realized that she probably was after all a perfectly well-bred person, but just native to Brooklyn or the Bronx.
It’s experiences such as this that awaken Americans to the fact that although English is our primary language, innumerable accents and dialects peppered with regional and local idiosyncrasies can be found throughout the country—and you cannot make assumptions about people based solely on their diction.
Do you speak American?
Regardless of exposure to the mass media, most of us unwittingly adopt the speech pattern and colloquialisms prevalent in the community where we live. Many of us believe that only people in other parts of the country speak with a distinguishable accent. When I first moved to St. Louis, I detected a lot of unusual—to me—expressions and inflections in the vernacular. Now, miraculously, everyone seems to talk like me!
The PBS series Do You Speak American? showcased the vastly divergent and ever-changing patterns of spoken English in this country. In the musical My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins, professor of phonetics, remarks of the English language, “Why, in America, they haven’t spoken it for years!”
Learn the linguistics
Considering that most Americans speak only one language, it’s interesting to realize that we use so many variations. An overview of our wide array of dialects can be found when searching the Linguistic Geography of the United States. This can also aid high-schoolers in determining the dialect indigenous to wherever they are heading for college.
With our propensity for mutating the English language, there are three salient points high-schoolers should keep in mind:
1. Regardless of local dialect or slang, one should be able to use standard grammar. Although “ain’t” is in the dictionary, college professors and prospective employers most likely will see it as incorrect. Students should make every attempt to speak clearly in order to sound smart and to be understood.
A successful instructor in speech improvement and speaking skills since 1989, Steve Whiteford of Whiteford Resources writes in an article on accents, “…speaking English with the flavor of one’s original language may become a respected, even stylish way to maintain cultural identity. However, achieving consistent UNDERSTANDABILITY is crucial to communication and job effectiveness.”
2. Don’t use insider jargon when speaking with those not in the know. Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writes in an article about language and society, “Language can separate insiders from outsiders, those in the know from those who didn’t get the memo, the cool from the pathetically unhip…”
That may be briefly satisfying, but it is neither kind nor ultimately an effective strategy for success. Someone unfamiliar with certain terms or acronyms is not necessarily stupid, and it’s rude to try to make them feel that way.
For instance, a telephone industry person might refer to the “LEC,” pronounced “Leck.” How would an 80-year-old grandmother who never worked outside the home know that LEC stands for Local Exchange Company? Or for that matter, anyone else outside the telecommunications industry? Such behavior only reveals a small mind.
3. Remember that although accent or dialect is not an indicator of intelligence, ability, or moral character, society often views it as such. Linguistics scholar Peter Trudgill, in his book Accent, Dialect and the School, writes, “Judgments which appear to be (about) language are in fact judgments based on social and cultural values.” He goes to explain that language associated with high-prestige social groups tends to be more favorably evaluated.
A perfect example of this is the My Fair Lady character Eliza Doolittle, whom Professor Higgins transforms from a guttersnipe into a princess by teaching her to speak “proper” English. Of course, she also learns etiquette, how to dress like a lady, and what are (and are not) considered appropriate topics for society small talk.
But phonetics is the determining factor in her seeming metamorphosis. Whether she drops her initial “aitches” or not, she is still the same person—same intellect, same moral fiber. But how differently she is perceived.
These simple pointers should give young persons heading off to college at least a few ideas on how to cope with different linguistic cultures. And after being away for a while, they’ll discover that their own parents speak with an accent!
The author of three books, freelance writer and historian Joan M. Thomas also enjoys writing feature stories and essays on current topics. Born in Carroll, Iowa, she now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, Bob, and canine pal, Sasha.© Photo by Suprijono Suharjoto | Dreamstime.com