We Do Language: English Language Variation in the Secondary English Classroom

reviewed by Ad Backus - August 11, 2014

coverTitle: We Do Language: English Language Variation in the Secondary English Classroom
Author(s): Anne H. Charity Hudley & Christine Mallinson
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807754986, Pages: 176, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

This handsome little book tackles the problem of how to help students become sociolinguistically aware citizens. Chapters are interspersed with vignettes (for example, a teacher describes a particularly successful way of addressing a classroom problem) that appeal to the target audience—anyone who has a private or professional interest in best practices for teaching children. The book is the result of many years of fieldwork and workshops conducted with educators throughout the US, and is supplemented by a website with additional materials for teachers.

Chapter Two provides a background on language variation that will be familiar to those with a knowledge of basic sociolinguistics; ideas such as: all communication takes place in a social context, the reason we have different ways of speaking is due to specific contextual needs, languages are forever changing, and all varieties are equal from a linguistic perspective. Chapter Three then discusses culture, with the specific aim of helping educators understand the cultural and linguistic diversity of their student population and guide those students. Perhaps inevitably, this entails that quite a large section of the chapter is devoted to informal language and slurs. It quotes some interesting experiences from classrooms in which teachers and students try to manage the devastating impact that labels have. Chapter Four discusses how language variation is exploited in literary works. The chapter argues against strictly separating the teaching of language and the teaching of literature; whatever one wants to teach regarding variation and change is greatly enhanced by using literary texts that exemplify variation and bring it to life. Finally, Chapter Five looks at the transition from high school to college and the sociolinguistic challenges this final educational step entails.

The focus throughout is on the US and the linguistic and cultural diversity in American classrooms. While many of the issues will be of relevance anywhere in the world, the incarnations in which we encounter them here are mostly related to the relationship between Standard English and regional accents, dialects, and vocabularies. In that sense, We Do Language takes its place in the American sociolinguistic tradition of marrying good scholarship with attempts to provide empowering tools to the underprivileged. Getting the message across that there are no good and bad language varieties has been an important goal in this tradition. Students who speak nonstandard English at home and who don’t have the academic family background of the educated middle class start their school career with a disadvantage that they might never be able to overcome.

The authors powerfully assert that things don’t have to be this way. The take home message is that things will start looking up once people are more aware of variation in the way we speak, and how variation naturally relates to geographic and social background of the speaker and to stylistic characteristics of the communicative situation. The pitfall of sociolinguistics is that it may seem to be characterized by a lack of realism: standard languages may indeed be a source of inequality because not everyone has equal access to them, but it is clear that they are here to stay, so it’s not enough to just point out the inequality. As long as the situation is the way it is, students better learn to communicate in the standard and to learn when they need to do so, rather than wait for a future in which we all understand that we should be a little more relaxed about linguistic norms. Yet, students are certainly encouraged to also find their voice, to understand they do not always have to slavishly follow all the norms that are imposed on them. A more sociolinguistically just world is likely to come into being once more people are sociolinguistically aware, and this may come to be if sociolinguistics is made part of the standard curriculum in language teaching, at all levels.

Sociolinguistics is about language and about social reality, and in keeping with its overall goal, the focus of this book is not only on language. Language exists as a means of communication in a cultural context, and understanding how it is used in context requires knowledge of culture rather than just of language. Culture itself is conceptualized as a huge set of overlapping ‘micro-cultures’ that together form what we tend to think of as ‘national culture’ or even ‘human culture’, but it’s the micro-cultures that are most immediately relevant in any given communicative setting. The crucial aspect for the perspective taken by the authors, of course, is that some students come to school better equipped with the knowledge of the particular micro-culture of mainstream schools than others. Rules of conduct in school are closer to those of mainstream middle class culture than to those of working class or ethnic minority cultures. Simplifying somewhat, it is clear that students who speak ‘standardized’ English at home have less of a transition to make when they enter school than students who don’t, and who basically have to first learn this form of English as a new dialect. It is for this reason that We Do Language attempts to show how ‘doing language’ implies that we engage with language, culture, and literature all at the same time.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 11, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17640, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:34:28 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review