As Appalachian dialects continue to change in the 21st century, West Virginia teens are altering their speech patterns to build their own identities.
A new West Virginia University study examines differences in students’ dialects across the state and how perceptions of dialect differences shape their educational experiences.
Through their interdisciplinary research, linguistics professor Kirk Hazen and English education professor Audra Slocum seek to improve student success in the classroom by reducing stereotype threats generated by dialect and, in turn, fostering positive learning environments for students.
“We know, empirically and informally in our own lives, that language matters. How, when you open your mouth, people are making judgments of you. When you experience people’s judgements, that’s going to shape how you relate to them and how you learn,” said Slocum, co-director of the National Writing Project at WVU. “We know that teachers and students can also come to be persuaded by other discourses that judge Appalachian speech patterns. Even though many of the teachers and students are from the same communities, they may have developed negative perceptions of their more rural students or peers who use more stigmatized ‘country’ dialect features. Those (perceptions) have consequences for kids.”
Funded by a $275,000 National Science Foundation grant, this new study uses findings from two previous NSF to document emerging trends in language variation.
To better understand these trends, Hazen and Slocum will conduct interviews with Appalachian students in eighth grade to compare their dialect patterns and perceptions of language.
From 2017 through 2021, they plan to visit four West Virginia middle schools. While the schools have not yet been identified, they intend to visit one rural and one non-rural school in both northern and southern West Virginia.
“We don’t want to be throwing terms on students to label them,” said Hazen, director of the West Virginia Dialect Project. “We want to figure out how students categorize themselves and how they label their language varieties. We want to know how they talk about it.”
To further understand teens’ local recognition of sociolinguistic patterns, they also plan to conduct classroom observations and focus group discussions as well as interviews with teachers.
“(Hazen) will look at the interviews analytically from a linguistic lens,” Slocum said. “I will look at the interviews qualitatively in regards to how students are talking about their identities and the socio-linguistic decisions they are making. For example, how they’ve been intentionally changing or not changing their language to fit certain contexts of their lives.”
Through the project, they hope to provide teachers across Appalachia with the content and pedagogical knowledge needed for addressing linguistic diversity in a culturally sustainable manner.
“One of our long-term goals with professional development and teacher preparation is to provide teachers with a new way of thinking about language and culturally sustaining pedagogy to use with their students and to help fortify their kids against what they are inevitably going to experience. We hope you can have four years of high school where you are being affirmed as a speaker in West Virginia,” Slocum said. “And when you come to (college) and you face linguistic prejudice, you’ll bring with you the knowledge that you are an important person there and fully capable of overcoming that prejudice.”
Slocum has experienced first-hand what it is like to be considered an outsider teaching in an Appalachian classroom and how different speaking patterns impact teaching and learning.
“I taught in southeastern Kentucky, across from Williamson (W.Va.). But I am not from Appalachia,” Slocum said. “My students and I were both keenly aware of our linguistic differences and our cultural differences, and that had a profound shaping in our English classroom where language is the center of what we are studying.”
Since World War II, rural America has changed dramatically in terms of its economy and population. As a result, sociolinguistic patterns in these communities have morphed over the last three generations. With these changes, English in Appalachia will be markedly different by the middle of the 21st century.
These sociolinguistic changes set the stage for examining why Appalachian teens use certain dialect features at the expense of others, and how they view particular language patterns in academic contexts.
“The research is really about the process of language change. Most people think of language change as large-scale, and it is, but large-scale between Latin and modern French or Spanish or Italian. But that also involves teenagers in every generation making choices about dialect features,” Hazen said. “We are going to look at what motivates those students to choose certain dialect features over others and how the language variation impacts them in terms of perceptions—perceptions of other students, perceptions of teachers, perceptions from teachers, perceptions of themselves. Along the way, we are all shooting for enhancing and improving educational success.”
If you are a teacher or administrator at a West Virginia middle school and would be interested in participating in this study, please contact the researchers at Kirk.Hazen@mail.wvu.edu or Audra.Slocum@mail.wvu.edu .