Stigmatized Speech Behaviour in the Classroom

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconPeople love a good bitch session about their pet peeves of speech. I’m constantly coming across articles in the mainstream media about different stigmatized speech behaviour, be it vocal fry, uptalk, nasal tones, “whisper-talkers”, overuse of “like”, or misuse of “literally”. (these are examples from North American English; different pet peeves are prevalent in each region.) Many of the forms most snarked about in mainstream media are associated with young people, and young women in particular.

I teach young people English. Teaching EAP in a university context means many of our students are aged 18-25, and learning English is not only a necessity to fulfill their academic and career goals, but also will be the medium through which they relate socially to their peers on campus and in their lives here in Canada. At this age many are in full identity exploration and creation mode, as they start a new life at a university far from home, and their identities as English learners and speakers are an important part of that process.

So what happens when your students want to learn and use stigmatized speech behaviour? On one hand, they hear their peers using uptalk (or “high rise terminals”), quotative “like”, and the “erroneous” (yet widespread) use of “literally”, and want to speak like they do. Language is, after all, one of our most important tools used to show solidarity with others, show social group membership and fit in. You can’t blame them for wanting to speak like their friends.

But bringing these features of speech into the classroom ups the ante. Inasmuch as an English teacher can, I have a descriptivist take on language, and therefore don’t mind explaining not only the structure and social context of use of any bit of language my students observe and bring to class (as opposed to “That’s bad English, never say it!) With any of the speech features mentioned above, I feel obliged to underline that even though lots and lots of people speak that way, there are many people out there who will judge you negatively for using that form, rightly or wrongly. (Vocal fry will hurt your career prospsects! Or not.) Many learners understand that to mean that the form is something “bad” that should be avoided; many learners I’ve encountered are accustomed to language being presented to them in a black and white prescriptivist way. And admittedly, I often leave it at that and move on with the class.

But my student just wants to fit in with the girls in residence. Is it really a big deal if one of my students uses extreme uptalk when she’s with her friends, as long as she tones it down when she’s doing a presentation for one of her classes? Should I take it one step farther and get into uptalk in my pronunciation lessons focusing on intonation? Would I be setting my students up to be judged as ditzy or dumb? Or would it be my contribution to us, as a society, just getting over uptalk and realizing it’s quite widespread and is no representation of any speaker’s intellectual ability whatsoever?

How do you deal with stigmatized speech in the classroom?



3 thoughts on “Stigmatized Speech Behaviour in the Classroom

  1. Hi Jen,
    What an interesting question! It’s not something I’ve really thought about before, and I’d never even heard of ‘vocal fry’ until this post. Being very much of the generation that uses ‘be like’ as my standard way of introducing speech, I definitely believe that should be include in coursebooks. As for other aspects, I’m not really sure. I guess it would depend on whether I thought the learner(s) in question would benefit more in the long-term from me dealing with it in class or not, on a case-by-case basis. I often find that things like that are picked up naturally by the students, whether you/they like it or not, if they’re receptive, open and spend time with their peers, in a way that no amount of teaching can make them adopt.

  2. I have had the same observation as you had, that students tend to pick up and adopt some forms naturally. What can sometimes happen, though, is that they pick up the form, but not the social patterns of use. I teach mainly EAP, so this becomes really apparent when students bring out informal terms, slang, or swear words in academic presentations, etc. So then I, like you, try to evaluate if I’m doing them a favour in the long term by addressing it with the whole class, or on a case-by-case basis.
    Cheers, Jennifer

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