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Myths that make monsters — Part I

few years ago, I experienced something completely unexpected in a college classroom that continues to trouble me. I had been asked by a colleague to talk to her students about non-standard language, specifically Black English.

She was concerned by some derogatory and dismissive comments some of her students had made about Black English. She wanted them to understand that there is a vast amount of linguistic research that shows beyond all doubt that there are no primitive languages and that any dialect or variety of any language possesses an internal structure or grammar.

In order to help the class see that Black English, like all dialects of English, is a linguistically legitimate system, I planned to briefly describe its grammatical structure and specifically address the myth that Black English is linguistically inferior to standard English.

My goal was to help the students see that any inferiority is social in origin and perception and cannot be linguistic. In order to work towards a discussion of this one particular myth, I had prepared a hand out with some common language myths that distort many students’ understanding of how language works.

I thought that as students of higher education my colleague’s class might be ready for a lively discussion on this topic, but it never occurred to me that my presentation on Black English would erupt into a disturbing display of anger, racism, disrespect and open hostility that manifested itself almost as soon as I began to speak.

Several times I was shouted down by more than one student. Some students openly mocked Black English. My knowledge of the topic and credentials as a linguist were repeatedly called into question by some of these undergraduates.

I will never forget the face of the one African-American student in the class that day. He was sitting in the back in the corner. He quietly pulled his baseball cap down over his eyes and shrank down in his chair as if he were trying to make himself as small as possible. The atmosphere in the room became so tense and unstable that I finally ended the class. 

Many times since, I have re-played that ugly scene individually and in conversations with the colleague who invited me to speak to her class, reviewing the class in a play-by-play analysis, as if a slow motion re-play would hold clues to explain how quickly the discussion and class unraveled into anger and hostility.

I have come to the unsettling conclusion that the myths about language that long ago were identified and exposed in the field of linguistics remain much more entrenched in our society than I ,as a linguist, would have liked to believe. These myths are so deeply rooted in part because they are implicitly and explicitly taught to our students from the time they enter the classroom until the day they graduate and carry those ideas into their adult lives. They are dangerous because they are subtly but powerfully racist.

These same myths turned the students in the class that afternoon into modern-day monsters when they thought I was threatening to eradicate principles that lay close to their hearts, principles that they felt justified in believing. 

By attempting to expose the falsehood behind these myths, I threatened deeply held beliefs that roused an urge to fight and defend. The fact that the students sensed a great deal of justification for their angry, racist and abusive behavior caught my attention. Wherever this was coming from, they fiercely believed in the validity of their arguments and felt that their fears about what could happen if they didn’t protect “the language” were well founded.

My experience that day led me to write this column. First, to draw attention to the incident by identifying the powerful myths about language that students have been taught to believe in order to sound an alarm about the very real danger these myths represent, and second to present a solution.

Teachers are uniquely positioned in our culture to expose these myths, but unfortunately some teachers are not aware of them and in some cases, whether they intend to or not, are actually teaching students to value them by reinforcing the underlying messages. The good news is that teachers are just as uniquely positioned to expose and eradicate these myths and teach students to approach and think about language as it really is. In doing so they will be fighting an effective and good fight against the formation of racist attitudes and ideas.

Although patently false, there are at least four myths about language that students in the classroom that day had learned implicitly or explicitly that encouraged them to see Black English as inferior to standard English as a dialect and as a communication system.

The first myth concerns what students are taught to believe about not only English but language in general. We say “English” or “language” as if there is just one form or variety. But the singular form of these labels is unfortunate and misleading. There is not one form of English. Language always exists in variation and English is no exception.

In the United States, we have southern English, Appalachian English, Hispanic English and Black English (also known as Ebonics or African American Vernacular English). Students, however, are rarely taught how to think accurately about these varieties. They often know they exist but there is never really a space or place for any accurate discussion or locating of these varieties within the big picture of English. When our educational system does not help, our students understand variation in language, the way language naturally exists, students develop an expectation that English should and does exist in one form only and all other ways are by definition inferior, not good enough or less than.

This column will be continued.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.