is it more important to allow students to write freely in a way that | ENGL 1304 | University of Houston

Anzaldua says:
“So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex, and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.
I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue–my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence” (40).

In his chapter “Chameleon,” Trevor Noah says,
“…They were ready to do me violent harm until they felt we were apart of the same tribe. And then we were cool. That and so many other smaller incidents in my life made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change the perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”

Both of these writers are describing the complexities of an identity that could yield to various identities–they both speak of instances when their perceived identity harmed them and when they altered the perception to protect themselves or gain favor in someone’s mind. 

Their experiences illuminate the power dynamic in our world: there is always a dominant power and a submissive power. In the English speaking western world, standard English is considered the variation of English we should all be measured by–whether that is in our speech or in our writing. College classrooms also are a space where that standard English can be reinforced–as the professor, I have the power to grade students on their ability to use English “correctly.”

But what if we pushed back against that idea? What if we allow someone to use the variation of English that feels comfortable for them? What if we allow students to express themselves in a way that feels natural to them? By forcing a standard of English, the university (the powers at be) devalue the legitimacy of your language skills–much like Anzaldua describes from her experience (“Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex, and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself.”). Trevor Noah uses his ability to speak multiple languages as a survival tool and he navigates prejudices by appealing to a commonality amongst humans–language likeness.

After reading/listening to these two experiences, describe your own thoughts about the expectation to use standard American English, not only in college classes, but in the world at large. What are some of the reasons you believe creates this expectation? What are some of the problems with this expectation? Should college classes allow/accept/encourage different variations of English if it feels natural for the student?

Does writing in your natural voice feel more comfortable? Last week, we discussed writing at the “academic” level or “inventing the university.” Many of you explained that you were familiar with that style of writing because it was taught and expected in high school. Is it more important to allow students to write freely in a way that is comfortable or should there be a standard English we all are critiqued by?

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