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Stigmatized and Standardized Varieties in the Classroom: Interference or Separation?

by Jeff Siegel


The “standard” is the variety of language used in writing and the mass media - the variety you need if you want to get a college education or a high-paying job. It is the variety of the powerful, unmarked by any features associated with a particular powerless group. But people have come to believe the standard variety is inherently better than other varieties - more logical, more precise, even more beautiful. The result is that these other, nonstandard varieties have become stigmatized by society at large.

Stigmatized varieties include social dialects, such as “working class English”; regional dialects, such as Appalachian in the USA, and ethnic or minority dialects such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Australian Aboriginal English. Pidgins and creoles, such as Melanesian Pidgin and Hawai'i Creole English, are also stigmatized, as they are often considered to be degenerate varieties of the particular standards to which they are lexically related.

Of course, linguists have shown that these varieties are legitimate, rule-governed forms of language and in no way intrinsically inferior (e.g., Labov, 1969). But as Mackey (1978, p. 7) has noted, “Only before God and linguists are all languages equal”, and because of continuing negative attitudes, the usual educational policy is to keep stigmatized varieties out of the classroom. This is in spite of the large amount of research showing that children learn better in a variety of language that they are familiar with (e.g., Thomas & Collier, 1997).

Besides the belief that stigmatized varieties are illegitimate languages, there are two general justifications for such policies. First, there is the notion that you shouldn't take time away from learning the standard, which is after all, the language of education and the key to success (the “time-on-task” argument). But the main justification is that using a stigmatized variety in education will actually interfere with students' acquisition of the standard (the “interference” argument).

Several scholars (e.g. Snow, 1990; Cummins, 1993) have already examined the time-on-task argument and show that it is not justified. The purpose of this article is to critically assess the interference argument. It starts off by presenting some views on interference and the justification for them. Then it describes the results of research on educational programs using stigmatized varieties. The rest of the article discusses some possible explanations for these results, drawing on research from psycholinguistics and from second language acquisition theory and practice.


Introduction Interference Relevant Research Table 1 Table 2
Table 3 Separation Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3
Figure 4 SLA Teaching Approaches Conclusion Acknowledgements
Notes References