Giving Students Rights to their Own Language

By Nicole Decoteau

I teach at a small private liberal arts college in rural NH that welcomes a diverse population of students. Initially, I came to the school as an instructor in their very small ESOL program, but overtime, transitioned to directing the first year composition program. Why did I make that transition? Because as an ESOL-trained instructor, I was asked to help our diverse population of students, who bring with them a variety of language experiences, to better write at the college level. In order to meet this demand, I had to first seek out what we as a college wanted to call “college level” writing. 

Over the last few years, professors across campus had been lamenting on how much college-level writing had slipped, but when asked to elaborate, it became clear that those same professors couldn’t articulate their concerns. So, I decided to investigate by asking professors to share writing samples that included their feedback. What I found was that for a lot of the professors, grammar and mechanics perfection was more important than the content of a piece of writing; I found essays full of lovely standard academic English (SAE) that lacked substance and purpose, but were given high marks for ease of readability. On the flip side, I saw grammatically raw writing that conveyed newly acquired information and complex ideas, but were marked low because a student used “ain’t” and didn’t conjugate the be verb here and there. Personally, I’d rather receive writing that conveyed information, over writing that said nothing but did so within the limits of SAE. I realized that I needed to get my colleagues to see the value of translanguaging in written work, which would hopefully lead to professors relaxing their hold on SAE and focusing more on content.

The first thing I decided to do was share the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s (CCCC) Students’ Right to Their Own Language statement written in 1974. If you’ve never read it, I recommend you do so, but for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll offer a short summary. This statement calls for students to have the right to write in whatever dialect best aligns with their identity. There is also a recognition that SAE is typically aligned with the hegemonic white majority, and that a nation which claims to celebrate diversity should also display this diversity within the written language of its citizens. Using this framework, I explained to colleagues that telling a student who is writing in a non-standard variety of English, such as vernacular, that they are “wrong” for utilizing the syntactic rules of their own language stifles their development as learners. This new idea was met with a great deal of resistance. I received comments such as, “That type of writing would never appear in scholarly publications” or “There’s no debate; that’s just not grammatically correct.” According to whose grammar? Varieties of English are only listed as incorrect because they come from the grammar of minority populations. And why can’t language that resides outside of SAE be accepted as scholarly language? It seems as though the only answer to that question is because it just never has. 

But why not? If a student can use their full repertoire of language experiences and knowledge to create meaning in their writing, why not allow for that? In this sense, all of our classrooms are multilingual classrooms because every student has a variety of discourses they move through on a daily basis. Some of my best moments in class have been allowing non-native speakers of English to create novel productions of language that are interesting and dynamic in their own ways. For example, a student once told me he had a great time “playing on the rampage cattle” which meant he enjoyed the mechanical bull that was available for students on a school-wide skip day. He communicated his idea well, and the class was able to understand, so what’s the problem? Why can’t the same leniency be offered to students who consider themselves native-English speakers, but who may more comfortably use a dialect not standardized for academia? 

After reading the CCCC’s statement, some of my colleagues have started to come around to my way of thinking and are allowing students to write within their identity. They have reported that students seem more willing to complete assignments when feedback puts less emphasis on how things are said and more emphasis on what is being said. And truly, when we assign papers, it’s not to test a student’s ability to write in SAE, but more to assess what they have learned and their critical thinking skills. Colleagues have also reported students’ willingness to seek tutoring assistance when the message they send students is, “Your thoughts and ideas are right on track, but your grammar choices make it difficult for me to read.” Tutors are now framing their sessions in terms of “translating to SAE” and not conforming to it. Overall, it seems as though bringing in a discussion of CCCC’s Students’ Rights to their Own Language has helped to positively define what college-level writing at my institution should look like. 

However, I know that society as a whole would likely view these students as uneducated if they were to use a non-standardized dialectic of English in their professional lives. So, what does this mean for my students? For this, I return to the use of CCCC’s Students’ Rights to their Own Language initiative.

Since it had brought awareness and productive discussion to the faculty, I offered this initiative as a required reading and discussion topic in my composition classroom. Students were taken aback when I offered them the opportunity to write in the dialect that best suits their identity; they didn’t think they were “allowed” to do that, especially not in college. I then offered them additional readings by scholars like Geneva Smitherman, Vershawn Ashanti Young, Suresh Canagarajah, and Asao B. Inoue, some of which had been written in vernacular and used translanguaging. We then discussed readers’ perception. This led to a discussion of audience awareness and purpose, which ultimately led to students determining that they will need to vary their language choices dependent upon intended audience, purpose, and the way they want their readers to perceive them. Students came to this conclusion on their own without first being told that their language was incorrect; this seemed to give them ownership over their writing choices.

Seeing a variety of languages being accepted as academic has profoundly affected my students’ confidence and authorial identity. When students were given the “freedom” to use their own voice in their writing, they focused more on communicating thoughts and ideas than on grammar and mechanics. In their end of semester reflections, many students referenced the CCCC’s initiative as one of the reasons they felt like confident writers. They wrote about how they felt their thoughts mattered more than their choice of words. And how they appreciated not being judged on their “bad grammar” as they had in the past. Using the CCCC’s Students’ Right to their Own Language as a basis for discussion among colleagues and students has positively affected change across my campus. Colleagues that were previously unwilling to read essays from non-native and dialectic speakers of English, find themselves more willing to read for content assessment. This has enhanced the depth of discussions in their classrooms and their students’ willingness to complete written assignments. Students report being more confident writers who feel ownership over their authorial choices. I encourage you to read through the initiative and use it as a catalyst for conversations about what academic writing looks like in your own context.