An EC student recently asked, “How can I talk like black guys?” At first, I bristled at the sheer political incorrectness of the question; however, it was an honest request from an enthusiastic student, so I decided to not avoid this interesting and important topic.
When international students are first exposed to the United States, it’s likely through music and film. The language they hear from these examples will not always sound “Oxford educated.” In fact, one only need flip-through the channels on television, or eavesdrop-in on conversations happening on the street to hear what has become commonly known as “the urban dialect” (i.e., African American Vernacular English) in action. Of course, every place has a local dialect (something teachers should frequently remind students of as they struggle to understand the people they encounter when speaking.) I often use myself as an example in discussing the uniqueness of my “New England accent” as well as my own usage of certain unfortunate interjections (e.g., “right?…” “like…,” “wicked…”) Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, just because someone speaks “African American Vernacular” does not mean they’re black, thus it is important not to generalize or assume anything about how to communicate with someone based on the way they look (e.g., Eminem is a white man who speaks in an urban dialect, whereas astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, does not.)
In class, students are taught grammar, useful vocabulary, and how to practice correct American English pronunciation. However, American English is as diverse and eclectic as the people constituting this great and complex nation. As teachers we must encourage students to use comprehensible pronunciation, but we must also at least introduce students to the varieties of dialects and vernaculars students will encounter when communicating with Americans (and their many, many dialects.)
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