So, I learned an interesting thing today. It’s about the regional differences—or dialects—and the way people pronounce words and the impact this has on learning to read. You have to hear the sounds or phonemes that are used to “make up” words in order to read them. Now, don’t confuse that with the letters in the alphabet. For instance, there are 26 letters but 40 phonemes in English out of approximately 70 or so phonemes in all the alphabetic languages in the world. For instance, /th/ is a phoneme—a combination of the letters /t/ and /h/ that forms one sound—not two.
Phonemes belong to alphabetic languages which are those in which there’s a letter shape-sound relationship unlike a language like Chinese that’s predominantly character-based. For what it’s worth—the majority of the languages in the world are alphabetic. Character (or analytical) languages you just have to “learn“—you have to memorize the shape and then what that particular shape means. In contrast, in an alphabetic language you learn rules of phonics that help you “sound out” letters to make words–you blend, segment sounds, then do the same with syllables. You learn onset and rime–a whole mess of rules that aid you in making sense out of print..
BUT, don’t confuse sounding out those words with reading all the same. Reading means you understand what you’re sounding out. If that word you’ve just decoded is not in your working vocabulary—it don’t make a bit of difference—you ain’t gonna know what it says so it’s unlikely you’re really reading with understanding!! And that folks, is what it’s all about: understanding. Making meaning out of text (and not just written words but illustrations, tables, graphs–you know all that sweet stuff you find in reading material).
But, back to regional dialects. So, if there’s a “certain” way to pronounce a sound—does that mean that someone who uses a non-standard way of pronouncing sounds is going to have a problem learning to read? The answer to this is maybe.
I grew up in the SE corner of Michigan. There was a strong influence where I lived from families who had moved from the hills of Appalachia to work in the automobile factories of Detroit. Locally, they were referred to in a somewhat derogatory way as “ridge runners”. One of the things they brought with them and freely shared with other folks (thank you very much) was the way they pronounced sounds—particularly the vowels. And there were some pretty remarkable phonics-defying differences too. For instance, in my area we said “crick” for c-r-e-e-k. Someone asked me once, “When you see the word “creek” in a book—how you recognize it? How do you “see” it?’”
What a silly question! Of course, I saw a stream that flowed through a meadow—bubbling and sparkling along the way. What else would I conceptualize in my mind? But, I must humbly confess, that the way I said that word based on the rules of phonics was all wrong. I also had (and still do to this day) difficulties delineating the difference in the vowel sounds. For instance, the words “sail, sell, and sale” I pronounce in the same way unless I’m really paying attention. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can even make the distinct sounds in isolation for those vowels.
So, my interesting factoid? People who accommodate the differences in regional dialects ToggleTalk. And even though I pronounce the words in the same way–particularly if I’m not paying attention–I mentally recognize that they are distinctly different. This means I ToggleTalk. The technical term for Toggletalk is called code (or dialect) switching. But I suspect you’ll agree that’s not nearly as catchy as ToggleTalk.
Historically, this ToggleTalk thing has been a hot issue in education in the US in the battle over Black English Vernacular (BEV) and standard American English (SAE). A landmark Supreme Court case many years ago decided that BEV was a legitimate dialect—if not language—that followed many of the linguistic structures of African Bantu languages. And in terms of starting kids who used BEV when they came to school—they were entitled to a teacher who could navigate their home language and could start them off in a language that made sense to them just like other ESL students.
It’s not a point to be taken lightly because the way you perceive of yourself is hugely impacted by your language. It’s part of your “cultural capital”—and like real capital has some pretty impressive buying power when it comes to going to good schools or getting good jobs. Being able to ToggleTalk is a really important skill to have if you belong to that group that doesn’t do it the “correct” way.
More recent research on this in the US and in other countries shows that over time it’s better to transition to a more standardized way of saying things than forcing a different pronunciation on young children when they start school. So, teach the sounds to the kids the way they talk at home–slowly transitioning them to the pronunciation and syntax that’s considered “standard.” Failure to do that raises the stakes the kids themselves will fail. And given what we know about the need to mastering reading by grade three and graduating from high school—ToggleTalk is not only cool–it’s essential.
I was given speech classes when I was in elementary school. They really wanted to change the way I talked I guess. I think my two sisters had speech classes too. Not only did we have this regional thing to deal with (the same as all the kids in our area), but we also had home issues that impacted the way we spoke.
Our father wasn’t a native English speaker and our mom came from New Jersey–a place where they have this very strong and rather strange TWANG. So, I was doomed for pronunciation issues given my families on both sides had “weird” ways of communicating—at least from my perspective anyway. I well remember listening to my relatives who lived in NYC and the way they talked. Everything about being there was like being in Mars. Like who says “wader,” you know that stuff you drink and flows in a crick?