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Student language beliefs are a reflection of parents more than class or race

July 30, 2018

Story Contact(s):
Cailin Riley, rileyci@umsystem.edu, 573-882-4870

COLUMBIA, Mo. – In the United States alone, there are more than eight different cultural dialects of the English language. How a person speaks and understands language can have a significant impact on how they learn English in school. Now, a researcher at the University of Missouri has found that the most accurate predictor of a student’s beliefs about what dialects of English are valuable isn’t race or class but the language choices of his or her parents.

Mike Metz, an assistant professor in the MU College of Education, studied a diverse group of high school students in the San Francisco area with the goal of identifying the root of students’ language beliefs. He found that a student’s belief about the value of Standardized American English, the most dominant variation of English in the U.S., was best predicted by their parents’ own preferences.

For example, a student whose parents believe that students should only use Standardized American English is more likely to adopt that view. On the other hand, students with parents who believe that many dialects of English are valuable are more likely to believe in the value of the dialects they speak at home, even under a teacher that promotes only Standardized American English.

“Language and identity go hand in hand,” Metz said. “If students who speak alternate forms of English at home with their parents are faced with a different set of language ideologies at school, that can challenge their core beliefs about what form of English is acceptable.”

Metz says English teachers can support students by considering teaching strategies that encourage students to explore how language works in the real world, not just in grammar books. Metz suggests that teachers be encouraged not to make assumptions based on race or class and that they work with parents to develop more expansive understandings of different dialects of English. One idea is to send students home with materials that explain the systematic grammar rules of different dialects.

“Ideally, English teachers would become language detectives,” Metz said. “We want to engage with students and explore their language choices. It can be a real game changer for their school experience.”

“Exploring the complexity of high school students’ beliefs about language variation,” was published in Linguistics and Education. Funding was provided by a Stanford University Diversity Dissertation Opportunity Grant. The opinions of the researcher do not reflect the beliefs of the funding agency.

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