ELL Teaching Tip of the Week: Know and appreciate the different dialects of English
As English speakers, we often see whatever dialect we speak as “Proper English”. In turn, we often teach our students the words we know, and the rules we follow, as the one and only way to speak English. However, in truth, there are many different dialects of English. Sometimes we think of dialects are country dialects, such as a British, South African, Australian or American dialect. However, there are also regional within a country such as the Suffolk dialect within Great Britain and the Southern dialect with the United States. Dialects impact a lot about how we teach English and students who are English language learners will generally develop the dialect of their teachers. If their teacher from year to the next does not have the same dialect, this can cause confusion for English language learners (and their teachers!) Here are some ways that dialect affects the language we teach our students:
1. Phonetic sounds. Vowels and vowel diagraphs have particularly different sounds from one dialect to the other. Check out the website SoundComparisons.com to hear just how differently a word like “daughter” or “sit” can sound between one dialect and another. Sometimes these sound differences can make a huge difference for language learners. Last year, while watching a Planet Earth video, I had a student ask why David Attenborough was pronouncing earth “aarth” because my student wasn’t used to the dialect of the narrator. Since then, I have made it a point to show students videos of people speaking in many different dialects. This is made easier with a flipped classroom model, where I share 4 – 10 videos with my students a week, giving me the opportunity to expose them to many different dialects.
2. Multiple words for one item. Sneaker – Tennis Shoe – Athletic Shoe – Running Shoe – Trainer – Runners – Tennis – Kicks – All of these words describe the shoe that students should wear in physical education class or on a school field trip to the forest. Which word would you tell your students? Would your neighbor use the same word? Shopping Cart – Buggy – Basket – Lorry – Trunder – Wagon – Shopping Trolley – Barrae – Shopping Carriage - All of these words can be used to describe the vehicle you use at the supermarket to carry your groceries around in. These are just two items which can have vastly different names depending on your location and background. I can think of many, many other, including clothing and food names. Being aware of different vocabularies is helpful, but it is hard to know every word from every dialect, so I often just ask – “Can you describe that for me?” if I’m not sure what the student means by a word.
3. Taboo words or phrases. Just as each dialect has different words or phrases to describe objects, they also have words or phrases that are taboo. For example, in the United States, ass is a taboo word. Although we know it can also mean a donkey, it so rarely is used to speak about the animal that is now not used in that way at all and would never be heard in a classroom. In Great Britain, however ass is the word to describe a donkey and used regularly in children’s stories like The Ass, The Table and The Stick, a story bought by one of my students at a local library here in Morocco last year. In fact, the word is so un-taboo that it appears in my math book as the (historically accurate) name of Ancient Roman coins, which the kids are to count and round. (See the picture of the page.) This is just one example of a word that is taboo in one area while perfectly harmless in another. While these taboo words don’t seem like a big deal to us, and can provide some funny moments, to an English Language Learner, they can put them into situations where they are saying a taboo word without knowing it. For this reason, I try hard to education myself and my students on these cultural linguistic differences.
The key lessons that I have learned, and that I try to pass on to my students are: 1. There is no one “correct” English. 2. By learning about the different dialects of English, I expand my ability to understand and appreciate others. 3. I need to teach my students that there is more than one type of English.
What dialect do you speak? How does it impact how you teach?
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