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Speech in the Schools

Describing Dialect

Published September 25, 2015 9:58 AM by Teresa Roberts

“Do you think that the student’s responses are affected by dialect?” I asked my colleague. We were discussing a student’s performance on a subtest that required generating original sentences given a picture and a stimulus word.

“What dialect?” she countered, “Trailer Park?”

After a momentary pause, I said, “I was thinking rural or mountain dialect.”

Linguist Max Weinreich stated that, “A language is a dialect that has an army and a navy.” Geopolitical forces, land, resources, and military, may determine what we consider to be a distinct language, and what we consider to be a dialect.

All dialects are valid systems of communication with sophisticated linguistic complexity equal to that of any language. No language or dialect is intrinsically better than another. Ranking and social standing of languages and dialects are societally constructed reflecting the speaking patterns and status of groups within a culture.

We all speak a dialect. There is no dialect-free speech. If we think that we don’t have a dialect, it is because our dialect closely resembles the established dialect of “General American English” (Midwestern dialect/newscaster dialect).

In linguistics, descriptive analysis is non-judgmental. It is a focused observation of speech and language describing observed usage. In contrast, prescriptive analysis is codifying and enforcing “correct” or “proper” ways of speaking based on pre-determined rules from the dialect with the current highest societal status.

As Speech-Language Pathologists, we are evaluative. We analyze and evaluate the communicative effectiveness of our clients. We often begin descriptively by recording, transcribing, coding, and analyzing client productions. These preliminary stages are followed by a swift shift to prescriptive, where we make comparisons between client productions and expected norms. We decide what is correct/incorrect, based on standardized testing guidelines, language sample methodologies, developmental norms, clinical judgment (experience with similar clients and demographic groups), etc.

Speaking the dominant dialect has privileges, such as access to opportunities and group inclusion. Communication goals are often based on the dominant dialect. It may be challenging to maintain the objectivity of descriptivism while engaged in prescriptive acts of conducting assessments and providing intervention.

•    Analyze your own dialect and your feelings about its status in society.
•    Compare your dialect to your clients’ dialects: notice similarities and differences.
•    Think about your initial/instantaneous emotional responses and perceptions when you hear common dialects and accents.

o    Do some dialects seem “better” than others?
•    Ask yourself about the origin of these feelings.
•    Discuss dialectal differences and social register with clients and families in neutral terms:

o    “We have different ways of talking depending on where we are and who we are talking to.”
o     “Your teacher might say it this way”, “Kids on the playground might way it this way”, “At home you might say it this way”, etc.
•    Ask families about home dialects and how they relate to communication goals.

We bring our societal framework into our work. We can question how our own cultural factors affect interactions with our clients.

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About this Blog


    Speech in the Schools
    Occupation: School-based speech-language pathologists
    Setting: Traditional and specialized K-12 classrooms
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