“The Value of Admitting What We Don’t Know”

Susan J. Behrens

“One day in class, I proposed a scenario in which we all wake up one day and find that the academy accepts both nonstandard and standard English dialects equally. Carla got very agitated and countered with, ‘It’s easy for you to say! You’ve already mastered the right type of English.’ I could have reflexively repeated the linguistic tenet that all dialects are equally communicative, but there was so much emotion in Carla’s voice that I could do nothing but stop and consider. After a few moments (quiet in the classroom is like radio silence), I told Carla that she made a very good point and that I had to digest it.

“All dialects are equal linguistically, in that they are regular, rule-governed, and just as effective at communicating as is standard English. They are not, however, all equal socially. Coming from a position of privilege, it was indeed easy for me to toss off such a scenario of equal acceptance. Carla reminded me of the other side of the argument, that the field of linguistics was not going to change the ‘privileging’ of the standard, and that those who choose to fight that fight without standard English as the medium, or at least as backup, are at risk, educationally and economically.”


Have you ever had a breakthrough or threshold moment after a student led you to realize something you didn’t know? What happened?

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