Friday, November 5, 2004

Speech modes not right or wrong, just different

By Cindy Kranz
Enquirer staff writer

Graduate student Julie Sweetland (center) has returned to school in Mount Healthy to work with students in examining the different ways people speak. Here, she observes Antonio Crews (left) and Johnnaisha Dewberry in a fifth-grade class at Hoop Elementary.
Photos by CRAIG RUTTLE/The Enquirer
Kianna Walker shows a "Homie" to a classmate. The miniature figures represent urban characters who speak in their own dialect. The children are asked to write from the character's perspective.

MOUNT HEALTHY - It's a water fountain in Cincinnati. It's a bubbler in Wisconsin.

You say, "She gone.'' They say, "She's gone."

For the last 10 weeks, students at Hoop and Frost elementaries in Mount Healthy have been learning about diversity in regional and cultural dialects.

Six classrooms of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders have used an experimental curriculum to teach students about how and why people speak differently in different regions and situations.

The curriculum was developed by Julie Sweetland, a 1993 Mount Healthy High School graduate who is working toward her Ph.D. in linguistics at Stanford University.

Sweetland's goal is to improve students' writing by making them more aware of language and dialect. "An introduction to sociolinguistics might seem like a stretch for your average elementary student," she said.

"But the program packages complex concepts in kid-friendly ways, using picture books and hands-on activities to teach regional dialect patterns and respect for linguistic diversity," Sweetland said.

A Harvard University survey of 10,000 people nationwide studied how they talked. Here's a sample of how different words are used for items in different parts of the country:

• What do you call the thing from which you might drink water in a school? Bubbler, water bubbler, drinking fountain, water fountain.

• What is your generic term for a sweetened carbonated beverage? Soda, pop, coke, tonic, soft drink, lemonade, cocola, fizzy drink, dope, throat burner.

• When you are cold, and little points of skin begin to show up on your arms and legs, you have: Goose bumps, goose flesh, goose pimples, chill bumps, chill bugs, chilly bugs, cold-chill bumps.

"If you teach kids and teachers to think more like linguists, then that can improve the teaching of writing," she said. "By thinking like a linguist, I mean starting from the assumption that all styles of language are valid and have their own system. One is not better than the other, although they can be better suited for different purposes."

Students have learned about code switching or style shifting between styles of languages, such as Standard English and African-American English, depending on the situation.

"You can't change the way people speak, but you can create conditions where they're conscious of their choices, they're conscious of the effects they have, they can choose to make that switch, if and when they see fit," Sweetland said.

Teachers used children's books to introduce students to language styles, such as Cajun, African-American and Appalachian.

"It's helping them learn the difference between how they speak to their friends and how they should do standard writing," said Justin Petelle, a fifth-grade teacher at Hoop.

"We never mention the words right or wrong. There's no right way. There's no wrong way. It's every day, and it's standard. There are two different environments where you might use the two different languages. Just because you use it doesn't mean it's wrong."

Rebecca Henry, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Hoop, caught on quickly.

"If you're talking to the president or something, you don't want to talk everyday," she said. "If you're just talking to your buddies, you can talk everyday. You don't have to talk standard, like you're rich or something."

One lesson that engaged students involved Homies, which are small figurines of urban characters. Students drew a Homie from a bag and then wrote about a day in his or her life, using everyday language.

"We don't want the switching to always go everyday to standard, because that way, even if you're telling the kids you're not correcting them, you are. That's the message that gets sent," Sweetland said. "That kind of puts more meat on the words 'We respect all language.' ''

Students also learned about dialect prejudice. Teachers played a version of Jack and the Beanstalk told by an Appalachian storyteller. While some may have considered it backwards talk, teachers sent students a different message: Judging people on how they speak is like judging them by the color of their skin or how they dress.

"I've learned that some people do different things, and that's OK because that's what they're used to and some people talk differently because that's how they were brought up," said Ashleigh Neal, 10, a fifth-grader at Hoop. "People speak differently and I might say things differently than they do, but that doesn't mean that they're not doing it right."

Suzanna Gutshall's mother was an English teacher and was strict about using Standard English.

"That was how I was brought up," said Gutshall, a fourth-grade teacher at Hoop. "Before I started working with Julie, and before we started talking about this, I really noticed that I emphasized standard language a lot."

Now, she's learned to be more conscious about code switching.

"It's all about time and place is what it really boils down to. When they're writing in their journals, it's free write for their own pleasure. Then, there's the time you need to use Standard English."

It's important that the concept of code switching be reinforced at home, Sweetland said.

"I had a girl talk about how her mom says, 'You've got a certain kind of clothes for church, and you have a certain kind of clothes that are appropriate for bed. It's the same way. You need to think about how you talk, because you don't wear your pajamas to church.' "


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