Monday, May 09, 2005

West African English in the US

Here's an interesting story from the Washington Post (registration required). Speaking an English with no 3rd person agreement and different rules for narrative tensing causes problems for immigrant kids from West Africa in American high schools. It's generally ok language reporting. In particular, I appreciate the acknowledgment towards the second half of the story that the English of these kids is not just a 'form' of 'English' (as it's referred to early in the story) but is actually (often) Standard West African English. I also am happy about the use of scare quotes around 'mistakes' in that same paragraph and later in the story:

"De Kleine observed that their most common "mistakes" have their roots in Creole or standard West African English."

Both are clearly the contribution of the linguist they are interviewing for the story, Christa de Kleine, "an associate professor of linguistics at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore [who] has been studying writing samples from 100 West African students in middle and high schools in Fairfax County.... She joined the World English Speakers Team and has been telling Fairfax teachers about the way English is spoken in Africa." She has clearly been doing her best at getting the message across to the English teachers (and journalists):

"To break those patterns, de Kleine said, teachers and students need to understand that they are speaking different languages. "

Besides the fact that De Kleine's discussion doesn't show up until the second page of the article, I only find a few things to complain about in the story, mostly to do with the reference to the creoles also spoken in the relevant countries:

"Socially, many of them speak Creole, a mix of English and regional dialects."

'Regional dialects' seems like a pretty sad way to refer to the languages of West Africa.

In a couple of places elsewhere in the story, the journalist uses the phrase 'slip into Creole' to describe a code-switch from English to Creole, implying, I think, that the switch is a step backward.

In discussing the grammatical differences between West African and American English, the reporter writes:

"De Kleine observed that their most common "mistakes" have their roots in Creole or standard West African English. The students often use a past-tense verb only at the beginning and end of a written story, using present-tense verbs for everything in between. They leave out articles and neglect to tack an "s" on verbs in the third-person singular.

One ninth-grader wrote: "I will want to be like Nelly because I like the way he look, talk, walk, sing, dance, dress, smile. . . . "

It seems to me that this example could be confusing to readers because the tense switch here seems to be from future to present, not from past to present. I guess it's really only meant to illustrate the lack of 3rd person agreement, but it does also illustrate a difference in the usage of 'will' in the two Englishes; seems like it might be being used as a kind of modal element (='would'?) here, rather than as a future. (Any creolists out there know?)

The last paragraph of the story is meant to end it on a hopeful note—it is possible for these kids to learn to speak American!—but instead is unintentionally sad:

"But change is possible, [Alexei Finoguenov, an ESOL teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools] said. A student recently told him that his father and uncle have taken to slipping into the Creole they had used in their native country when the conversation isn't meant for young ears."

Is first-stage language death for the imported creole a necessary step to becoming fluent in American English? Surely not...but it's probably hard for both the students and teachers to place value on a language whose grammatical rules are treated as mistakes in normative English classes. De Klein's message clearly hasn't really penetrated yet; let's hope it does. It is fantastic to see linguistic expertise being called upon to inform a tricky language-contact situation like this, though.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a feeling that you are one of the West African students , and that clearly illustrates your frustration with the article. As I have learned that some speakers of other varieties of English may feel ashmaed or stigmatized for using such a variety of a language that is not Standard! It is true that some of the West African students have some of the syntactical and grammtical problems that are unique to speakers of certain West African English. I myself has done a case study about a student from Liberia. Research done in this area confirms my findings that what this student has is a typical of WAE speakers as the article has shown that.
I do not know exactly what are your objections about the article and the analysis done in this regard!

9:44 AM  
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7:16 PM  

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