In preparation for a workshop this fall, the Collaborative for Multilingual Writing and Research (CMWR) has been doing a lot of research on American accents and dialects. Since English Language Learners (ELLs) are usually only really exposed to a standard version of American English, we thought it might be a good idea to introduce some of the nonstandard, colloquial versions of English spoken throughout the United States. One of our goals is to give them a sort of “Spotter’s Guide to the Accents of American English,” to show them how to recognize a certain type of accent when they find it. But the most important goal for us is to tear down the popular notion that English (or any language for that matter) is a monolithic entity with one right way of being spoken.
Technically speaking, no version of any language is any better as a means of communication than any other. Even the most stigmatized modes of speech are perfectly useful channels to discuss everything from the weather to quantum physics. However, not all dialects are equally valued by all members of society, and so the question of which version is the right one can get rather…contentious, to say the least. There is a constant push and pull between what is correct and what should be correct.
Compared to other languages, English (especially American English) is relatively homogenous. An English speaking child can generally understand English written and spoken thousands of miles away without extensive instruction, which for languages such as German and Chinese is most certainly not the case. So, if the particular way in which newscasters speak and the rest are expected to was not handed down from on high, where did it come from? Literally speaking, nowhere in particular. The current variety of English known as “General American” is considered desirable simply because it communicates virtually no information about where the speaker is from to listeners, and thus contains less “baggage” than another accent might have. Hence, the idea of promoting it as a superior form of language is ludicrous at best.