Donna Christian

DONNA CHRISTIAN,C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N.  Center for Applied Linguistics.

Applied linguistics is a relatively new field although I would expect that the actual application of linguistics has been going on as long as people have been studying language. Um, most people think that applied linguistics began in the ‘40s, uh, with people who were looking at the science of linguistics and how that could be applied specifically to language teaching, both teaching of  other languages to English speakers, and then more recently, even more importantly, the teaching of English to speakers of other languages.  In more recent years, applied linguistics has broadened to include the application of linguistics to--basically to problems outside linguistics.  One good way to define applied linguistics is to think of it as looking to answer questions that are outside linguistics rather than as in the field of linguistics looking to answer questions within language and linguistics.  So, when we do apply linguistics we look at a situation like, um, education or the courts and say, ‘What can the findings of the linguistic sciences say that will help answer questions of law, of education, of medicine and in other fields like that?’ 

Again, this is something probably that has happened more recently and that is broadening the concerns about language in education as opposed to the teaching of languages.  Uh, probably dating from the ‘60s and ‘70s when there began to be a much broader awareness of questions of diversity in the classroom.  Prior to the ‘60s I think there was a generally received notion that education--one of the purposes of education was to provide students with the ability to speak the standard language, however, that was phrased.  Um, if there were speakers of a language other than English then one of the goals of education was for them to learn English.  If there were speakers of other dialects, those tended not to be recognized as, uh, legitimate forms of expression in themselves and rather the purpose of school was to teach standard English.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s people began to realize that language diversity in the classroom, whether it’s different languages or different dialects, presents issues for teachers and for schools both related to the teaching of language and dialect, but also beyond that, that is the interactions between teachers and students where teachers’ attitudes and, uh, school structures might affect the opportunities to learn that students have.  And people began to research those issues, that is the issues of language diversity within the classroom.   Naturally, of course, there’s also the question of the teaching of the native language.  The teaching of English to English speakers and that is a linguistic question and that also became of more interest to applied linguists. 

Asking where applied linguistics would go in the future is kind of like asking to predict where the social issues are going to be.  It--it really depends on where the world and the global society go.  Since the purpose of applied linguistics is to look at issues in society and the world and then take the insides of linguistics to them, the future of applied linguistics is wherever the future issues of the world will be.  That said, um, I think we can think about areas like questions of global communication.  Applied linguistics, the, um, applying linguistics to the teaching of English around the world or the development of Englishes around the world and looking at the impact of how English is developing in various countries.  How English is used for communication, that’s going to be a very important area.  Um, I think also the movement of peoples, which is bound to increase, it’s gotten much more extensive in the last 50 years and is bound to increase with greater communication, transportation and so on.  And therefore, people from different languages and cultures are going to be in contact a lot more intensively and so issues of cross-cultural communication and cross-cultural understanding are going to be much more important in the future, uh, and continue to gain an importance because of the movement of peoples. 

In ‘93 we were part of  a movement issuing a plea to education reformers to consider diverse students.  I think at that point, when the educational reform, the standards and assessment movement was beginning the emphasis was on the prototypical student in American schools.  And at that point any consideration for students who were not that average student were add-ons.  And our point then was, students who come from diverse language backgrounds are a very large portion and a very important segment of our student population and they should be in at the beginning of consideration of standards or educational reform and not add-ons.  Unfortunately, I don’t think we made a lot of progress in that regard since then.  I think that students from other language backgrounds are more readily considered in standards and assessments in the educational reform movement, however, I don’t think it’s the case that they’re still--that they’re centrally considered.  I think, um, what we see are schools, even when they are largely language minority, they still seem to approach educational reform from the same perspective that is not thinking about the diversity among the students rather than putting that diversity at the center of the educational reform.  Uh, and I--and so I--I’m not sure that we’ve made a lot of progress.  We’ve made some progress in awareness, but I’m not sure that we’ve made a lot of progress in implementation because I think that the needs of diverse students are still more afterthoughts than in at the beginning of the consideration of reform.

I think the really important question is ‘How can we build on the strength and resources that the students bring with them?’  And from my perspective, the linguistic abilities and--and strengths that the students bring, but obviously there are a lot more from a lot other--of other perspectives that should be considered.  But I think that really needs to be at the beginning.  How can we add to what the students bring rather than taking away and replacing things that they bring with them?  I think if--if that were more readily addressed, then I think a lot of other unfortunate developments might not occur.  Um, if we look at standards as adding to what students bring, um, I think then standards be--can become more reasonable, uh, rather than being some goal that replaces whatever students bring with them.

Well, I think we can be very simplistic and simply say, ‘Whatever.  Two is better than one.’  Um, now that is, of course, a little bit too flip, but I think, um, in--in many ways that’s true.  If a student has access to another way of expressing themselves, particularly--I--I think that the key is, particularly if it’s their native language, if it’s their mother tongue, that they continue to develop and then they add English, then they are doubly rich.  They’ve added a--a good variety of English that will, um, help them succeed in the US society and give them access to a major world language.  But, if at the same time at relatively low cost, they have kept their native language and continued to develop it, then they have another language system that they can use in circumstances where that language system is appropriate and very often, we can think about them having two ways of looking at the world and expressing themselves.  Um, and I can’t think of any circumstance  in which knowing only one language would be better than knowing two languages.  Um, it just seems so obvious. (laughing)

No, you don’t quit learning languages at 12th grade.  Um, everyone develops their language throughout their lives, you’re always learning.  You’re always learning new words, you’re learning new ways of saying things and probably, those are the processes that are above the level of consciousness.  But there’s a whole lot happening in language development that’s below the level of consciousness because as speakers of the language, we’re constantly adapting to the people we’re talking to, we’re constantly learning ways of saying things, ways of acting from the people around us.  So, as we get older, we accumulate all those ways of speaking and--and ways of adapting to people who are speaking to us and enrich our repertoire of language varieties and means of expression.  Um, as we get older we learn about the way we speak to young children.  We learn about speaking to people who have greater power than us, people who have less power than us.  Uh, we learn about the appropriateness of speaking certain ways in a formal situation and speaking in different ways in the home.  Um, we learn all these ways of changing the way we use language that continue to multiply as we get older.   In addition, something that’s very interesting is a phenomenon called ‘age grading’ where you actually change the way you talk as you get older.  So things that are appropriate for a teen-ager to say are not appropriate for a 30-year-old professional and are not the same kinds of things that a 60-year-old might say.  You--you change your language depending on your, uh, age group and those are things that we can look at in language, we can observe, but people are doing it all the time.  An older person speaks differently than a younger person not only because they’ve had more experience and so on, but because of the development over time of one person’s language. 

Well, we do find that, for instance, ‘cool’ is coming back in and--and that’s another thing about language change is that people, uh, speak one way as teen-agers and some way as an older person, but at another point in time, say 30 years later as now, a word that used to be something or a way of speaking that used to be confined to young people is now more generalized.  And so now it’s OK for a middle-aged person to say ‘cool’ when in the past it would’ve been much more restricted to teen-agers.

A dialect is a variety of language that can be characterized in some way as different from other varieties of that same language.  Very often one of the most useful ways to think about a dialect is to think about it as being something that speakers of that language would identify.  It’s not the only way, but there isn’t a real scientific method for saying one dialect and then another dialect and then another dialect because there’re so many varying perceptions by the speakers involved, um, as well as by the community at large in terms of thinking about what is a dialect, where one dialect begins and another one ends and so on. So we--we tend to define it fairly generally as a variety of a language that can be characterized on pronunciation, grammar and other kinds of usage, uh, dimensions. 

No, it’s not the case that only other people speak dialects.  In fact, everyone who speaks a language speaks a dialect of that language.  Um, it--uh, you can’t--you cannot speak a language without adopting one of the varieties of the language.  What we can talk about are those varieties that are more socially noticeable than those that aren’t.  So, in, um,--in the United States, for instance, people understand that there are varieties of English in the South that one might call a Southern dialect because they notice them, but they may  not think of a--a typical Midwesterner as having a dialect, but in fact they have the Midwestern dialect.  So everyone has a dialect of the language that they speak.

The, uh, difference between standard and nonstandard dialects is a social decision.  The speakers of a language share a set of attitudes about language and they, in some--in some way, it’s not, uh, a collective decision, but in some way the group has agreed on what the standard features of the language are.  Most languages have multiple standards so that in--for instance in a North American English we will, uh, have a southern regional standard, a northern regional standard that differs primarily in pronunciation, but not entirely.  There are some grammatical features that, uh, can differ across standards, but for the most part, standard varieties of a language share the standard, what are considered at that point in time, the standard grammatical features of a language.  And what may differ from one standard variety to another tend to be primarily pronunciation features.  The reason I say ‘at that point in time,’ of course, is that language changes.  So what is standard in Elizabethan English, is not standard today.  And anyone who’s read Shakespeare knows that, uh, the ways in which the grammatical features appear in Shakespeare are very different from the grammatical features of today.   And they should bear that in mind in thinking about how language might be changing at this very time. 

If I might give, actually, there’s a new, um, a very interesting feature of language that I’ve been hearing about recently, um, that I think people--many people will find familiar, but depending on their age, they may or may not have ever used it.  And this is something that’s called ‘a quotative verb’ that is used particularly when you’re telling narratives, um,  and is used to report the speech of someone else and in some unmarked standard you might report ‘He said I’m going to the store, and then she said, ‘ Oh, no you’re not.’  In a development from that, one very familiar feature that we hear now is ‘He goes, ‘I’m going to the store,’ and she goes ‘No, you’re not.’  What we’re--we’re hearing now in younger people, and it seems to be spreading in varieties of English around the world, is ‘I’m like, I’m going to the store’ and he’s like ‘Oh, no, you’re not.’  And the use of ‘be like’ in place of ‘say’ is a very interesting development that seems to be happening in Englishes around the world and it’s, uh, starting and so far, largely confined to younger people, but, um, I think that--that people kind of get that now as a stereotype of some young people’s speech.  I’m like, he’s like, she’s like to report speech, but it seems to be a change that’s in progress in--in the language right now and it may take over.

The wonderful thing about language is there’s a laboratory all around us.  So if you listen to what people are saying around you, you can actually hear changes in progress.  You can hear new forms of language coming in and paying attention to them can be one of the most fascinating things to do. 

Dialect differences come from a variety of sources.  One major source of dialect difference is contact.  So when a group of people who speak a language come in contact with another group of people who speak either a different language or a different version of the same language, the contact between those two groups will lead to changes often in both, uh, language--both groups of--of speakers.  So, for instance, in the Southwest the English spoken among, uh, Southwestern English speakers is influenced by Spanish and you’ll hear various kinds of examples of language use, for instance, the--um, the use of a tag question at the end, uh, ‘No?’  So, you know there’s--um, let me think of a good example.  ‘There’s a lot of violence on TV these days, no?’  And that can be thought of as something coming from Spanish because that characterizes the--those kinds of questions in Spanish and it’s not shared widely  in the United States, but it--we do find it in places where Spanish and English have come in to contact.   Um, so, contact with other languages or dialects is one major source of dialect difference.  Another, of course, is the movement of people so that the dialects in the United States, to some extent, are related to the dialects in England, spoken by the people who then came and settled in the United States.  So, we see influence of Scots--um, Scots, Irish, uh, various forms of--of English in different areas of the United States and we can trace some features back to the dialect differences in another country.  Um, other sources  include some general linguistic processes of, uh, nonstandard features, for instance, will sometimes be simplifications, while other times not be simplifications.  But we can hear in, uh, subject-verb agreement, uh, we was, you was, uh, in a sense levels the paradigm from I am, you are, um, you were, to you was, I was,  you was, he was, makes all the features the same and that’s another kind of inside the language process that can account for dialect differences. 

You’ve touched on something that I feel very strongly about.  I think that the study of variation in the language that one speaks in school is a very, very important topic that is virtually ignored.  Um, I think that it can benefit students on so many different levels.  First of all, on the scientific level.  The study of language is a science as I--as I mentioned before, um, in fact, the--the language around us is a laboratory full of data.  Students can learn about doing science by studying the language that’s spoken by--by their peers, by those in the community and in the broader society.  There’re all kinds of data collection, data analysis, data synthesis reporting, uh, following scientific method that students can do using language as the data.  So, I think at the very beginning this is an excellent source of scientific exploration for students.  Beyond that, students can learn about diversity and come to appreciate the richness of diversity and the value of those who are different from the students themselves.  They can come to appreciate the richness of the language of another person and see then the differences between themselves and the other people as differences, not a--and not evaluate the other people negatively because they’re different.  So, I think an appreciation of diversity can come from the study of language and dialect in schools.  And lastly, I think students can learn a lot about language which I think will help them in understanding and being able broaden their own language use so that once students perceive that there are different styles of language, that there are different dialects, that there are different rules of appropriateness in language, that they shouldn’t speak the same way, probably, or they won’t be looked at the same way if they speak to a student, a fellow student, or an employer or their minister that once they begin to look at how people speak differently to other people they can make some conscious decisions about how they want to appear themselves and speak differently to their professor or their minister of their future employer and do better in the world.

I would like, uh, teachers to know that diversity exists and more than knowing something, I would like them to know how to explore it.  I would like teachers to have the tools and better understanding of language than they currently develop as a result of their own schooling so that they can approach a situation of diversity  whether it’s diverse students or whether it’s just looking at the difference between written language and spoken language and then helping a student develop a better style of written language.  Um, if teachers know how to analyze that, then they can come up with the strategies based on all their rich experience in all the other areas to help students develop the styles that they need.   To help them develop a broader vocabulary.  But teachers really know--need to know and understand more about language in order to do that and unfortunately, our school systems are not providing them with the foundation on which to build and be able to help their own students. 

I think one of the biggest challenges for teacher education is once there is a recognition that dialects are important to understand that--that language diversity within a language as well as cross--a cross-languages is important to address.  I think the challenge is to help teachers develop the tools to approach it themselves rather than approaching it as a catalog of information.  I think that very often in teacher education the teachers themselves say, ‘Well, if I need to know about dialect then give me the list of dialect features. I want to know how African-American vernacular English is different from standard English if I need to understand the speech of some African-American children.’  And I think what the challenge really is is giving the teachers the tools to approach that question themselves and to look at wherever--whatever community they find themselves teaching in to be able to assess for themselves what are the relevant differences here.  What are my students doing, uh, because the new problems, new issues related to language will constantly confront them and if what they have is a list of features, it’s not going to match what they find in a school when they go to teach.  What they need is a way of approaching the study of language variation, in a sense, so that they can then do it themselves in the community that they find themselves in.

I think that, uh, the tools that teachers need include a good understanding of the language they’re teaching in.  And so for most teachers in the United States that will be English, although in other circumstances it--it would well--could well be other languages.  They need a good understanding of the standard varieties.   In addition, they need an understanding of language.  They need to understand about pronunciation features, grammar features, semantic features, meaning features.  They need to understand the levels of language so that when they confront an area that they’re not sure about they can figure out what they need to look for.  Are they looking at pronunciation?  Do they need to consider aspects of a sentence that are around a particular word?  Um, if a student is producing language and they don’t understand where it’s coming from, can they look at the language the student is producing and decide whether it’s a grammatical feature or whether the student has some different kind of vocabulary or meaning of a word that they’re just not used to.  Um, so I think they need to understand how language works.  Then they just--following that need to develop the powers of observation and ways of recording data so that they can look for patterns.  In addition, they need to understand and respect the language diversity involved so that they come at the problem with an understanding that difference is not deficit and that when they’re looking at differences, they’re looking at them so they can understand the full picture, but they’re not looking for a problem that needs to be fixed.

Every, uh, language and variety of language that is spoken by a normally developed human is a system for communication purposes.  It serves the purposes of communication that that individual engages in.  Um, and the--there are systematic rules and principles governing the use of any variety of language.  We have many examples of features of so-called ‘nonstandard varieties.’  Um, in--my preference is to talk about vernacular varieties.  I--I make a distinction between vernacular varieties which are those used by various groups of people within a language and then the standard varieties, uh, because in many ways it’s the features themselves that are evaluated as standard or nonstandard, but not a whole variety.  Um, but those features, whether they’re standard or nonstandard, are very regular, very rule governed and it’s possible to discover the rules just like we have a rule of subject-verb agreement in standard English which says, uh, ‘I am, you are, he is,’ there may be simply a different rule in another variety that calls for the subject-verb agreement to opu--operate differently.  For example, in our work in Appalachian speech, um, I looked at that subject-verb agreement in Appalachian and found out that for certain kinds of nouns, which could be identified as collective, nouns like people, where in standard varieties of English ‘people are’ is the subject-verb agreement that’s called for.  In many areas of Appalachian English the--the appropriate form is ‘people is’ and there’s no reason, in terms of logic or any ki--any sense of something being better, that ‘people are’ or ‘people is’ one is better than the other, but the way we socially evaluate it, we consider ‘people are’ to be standard, ‘people is’ to be nonstandard.  But both are entirely rule governed and--and participate in a fully functioning system of language for the speakers.

I often use dialect and variety interchangeably.  Um, I think that those two terms probably have both a technical and a nontechnical meaning and in a technical sense I would simply talk about varieties of language being those systems within a broader language umbrella that differ in a number of ways from another system within that same broad umbrella of language.  Uh, so I think of varieties of language as being those--those types of language spoken by a group of speakers that share certain characteristics that distinguish them from other varieties of the same language.  Within, um, the social evaluation of varieties then I see both standard and vernacular varieties.  Standard varieties being those which are positively evaluated  by the speakers of the language and vernacular varieties being those that are characterized as not standard.  They may be more or less stigmatized because certainly some varieties, some vernacular varieties of English, for instance, are not terribly stigmatized.  Um, certain southern varieties that are not considered to be standard, but on the other hand may be cons--considered to be quite charming would be vernacular, uh, but still, uh, not one of the standard varieties.

The differences between standard and vernacular varieties should be considered as differences and not evaluated in any better or worse way.  Teachers should understand that students who speak vernacular varieties, students who have non-stated features in their language have a fully functioning language system.  And they should understand that not only is it a fully functioning language system that can be built on and should be built on just as the language system that any child brings to school gets built on as a result of going to school, as a result of living and interacting with different kinds of people.  But they need to also understand that a person’s language is an important part of their identity and people are very emotionally attached to the language they use, in addition to the fact that they express themselves through that language, and if a student is told whether overtly or not that the language system they’re using is not good, then that becomes a reflection on them and both can affect their sense of their--positive sense of identity, but also can lead them to stop expressing their identity and ho--get them to shut down.  Um, so I think that the attitudes communicated are--can be as damaging as any actions that are done to actually replace language with--language forms with some other form of language.

I think, you can edit this out, but it’s--it’s the thing I’ve been saying over and over again.  (laughs)  I think I’ve--I’ve managed to say it quite a bit.  To me, the most important thing is for people to appreciate the, um, richness of diversity and not to evaluate negatively things that are different whether it’s a language system, whether it’s, um, an appearance, whatever.  Um, I think people need to enjoy diversity and not be afraid of it.  And I think that in school settings students need to be viewed as individuals who are bringing resources and that the goal of education is to build on those resources, but also to value those resources so that students who come to school speaking another language get valued as speakers of another language, get encouraged to develop that resource further while they learn English and add that to their repertoire so that they can come out speaking more than one language.  And the same with, uh, speakers of vernacular dialects, that this is a fully functioning language system and has many uses that a standard variety will never be able to accomplish.  And so students need to be encouraged to maintain that while they add other varieties of  English that will be useful in other settings.

Two-way immersion embodies what I believe about language and that is students from two different language backgrounds come together in a classroom where they both have access to developing two languages.  In our study of two-way bilingual the--we’ve been looking at schools around the country and have documented the rise in number of programs and also the results that those programs have been obtaining. And what we find are, um, in programs where students come from two language backgrounds the--both sets of students are orally proficient in both languages by second or third grade.  It takes a little bit longer for students to develop high levels of literacy in both languages, but we’re finding--(clears throat)--excuse me--(coughs)--take a little break?  Um, the students in two-way immersion programs are showing us that they can develop both high levels of oral language proficiency and high levels of literacy in two languages.  In most cases people are looking at these programs as bilingual education programs for non-native English speakers.  When we look at that population we find that they have the opportunity to develop their native language to high levels, which is something that isn’t always allowed in other programs. Um, but in addition they quickly develop strong English language skills.  Their English oral proficiency is very high by second or third grade and their English literacy skills, depending on the--the model of program of two-way immersion that they are following, their English literacy skills can be very strong by the upper elementary grades.  Um, we’re also finding--there are some studies of cross-cultural attitudes--two-way immersion programs tend to have three main objectives that all the students, both those from a language background other than English and those from an English language background, both sets of students will develop high levels of proficiency in their native language. Both sets of students will develop high proficiency in their second language and both sets of students will develop strong academic knowledge across languages and strong cross-cultural understanding.  Those are the key features that we’re aiming toward in two-way immersion programs.  And our research is showing that by and large those goals are being met in programs around the country. 

My soapbox was the same.  Uh, I consider--in--in my own career I started out researching dialects and then moved more into ESL and bilingual education.  And I see that as totally related.  I see that all as questions of diversity and, um, the--the--pointing to the fact that we really just need to have a positive view toward what people have and, um, build on it whether it’s another language or another dialect of the same language that we speak.  It’s--it’s all valuable and should be valued and not negatively evaluated.