“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7, KJV)
Genesis tells the story of the Tower of Babel, which ends with the Lord scattering the people across the world and giving them different languages. Maybe that’s where it began, but the process of creating new languages is ongoing.
The lifeblood of human society is communication. It is what holds us together. It is what enables us to move forward together. It gives us the power to name the things in the world in which we live, to define the roles we play in life, to share traditions as well as newly conceived ideas, to express devotion and fear, and attempt to capture the mystic.
Communication is not limited to speech, or writing. People can communicate through non-verbal sounds, through gestures, through music, through dance. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. We have developed a universal language for saying “no,” by using a circle with a diagonal line through it. We have devised a language that is capable of describing with precision quantities, volume, shapes, movement through space, and degrees of force – the language of mathematics.
The languages we use are in a constant state of change. New words appear, old words change their meaning. “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” Juliet asked, as Romeo hid beneath her balcony. Modern readers assume she was inquiring as to his location, but none of them actually use the word “wherefore” in their daily speech as people in Shakespeare’s time did. It meant why, not where, and Juliet is asking why the boy she just developed a crush on had to turn out to be a member of a rival family. Her next line is “Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or if thou wilt not … I’ll no longer be a Capulet.” She is questioning fate, not her GPS.
Within each language, dialects appear with words that may or may not ever enter the standard version of the language. At any given time there might be a multitude of these variants from the standard, which may be perfectly suitable for communication for their users, but which could be confusing and seem “incorrect” to non-users.
Dialects can arise in ethnic communities and be nurtured in relatively closed environments. Dialects can sweep across the land borne by mass media targeted at specific audiences. Specialized versions of the language can develop along with technology – a whole vocabulary that is transparent to the tech-savvy, but opaque to most others. And there can be a specialized language that develops for use in a particular medium – KWIM?
Recently, a school administrator shared with me an insight that he seemed to find particularly encouraging. He told me that kids are actually writing more today than they did 10 years ago – because of all the texting they are doing. I had to fight the urge to LOL. Could he really be suggesting equivalence between texting and, say, writing a persuasive essay? Is the quantity of writing the relevant measure here?
The fact is that we all communicate, all the time. Many of us are fluent in more than one language. Most of us are fluent in more than one dialect. Almost all of us, whether we are conscious of it or not, practice code-switching – alternating between two languages or dialects – on a regular basis. The key is to use the appropriate language for the setting in which it is used.
Schools should not deny the validity of dialects, especially those that are in vibrant use by students. In fact, they should embrace and even celebrate the fact that students can communicate effectively in different modes.
But schools should not ignore their responsibility to teach effective means of communicating that the students may not be picking up on their own. Students should leave high school able to use standard English in verbal discourse. They should be comfortable with the conventions of public speaking. They should be able to write a business letter, a persuasive essay, a research paper with proper citations. Students should be cognizant of their own code-switching, understand its utility, and should not be trained to think that one form of communication is per se inferior to another.
The lifeblood of human society is communication. We can’t allow ourselves to be confounded by the many forms it takes, or distracted by the mistaken idea that there is only one style of communication that is always appropriate and correct. Form is dictated by content, by audience, and by purpose. It is only incorrect when the intended message does not get through. We need to be able to communicate effectively in all of the many languages that are spoken in the different areas of our lives.