We tend to think of Canada as a classless society, one without the divisions created by dialect, as is the case in Britain. It isn’t true. Our class system is subtler, but where there is discrimination against foreigners, there will be a belief that to speak with another accent or a foreign accent is to be lower class. This attitude may be changing in Canada, at least to the extent that accented speech which is clear to the native and accurate in grammar is less likely to mark the speaker as a member of the lower class.
What does mark people as lower class is the dropping of ‘g’s, ‘r’s and ‘t’s as well as the over use of contractions such as would’ve and could’ve instead of would have and could have. Poor vocabulary and grammar is also a marker. Most people are not conscious of these things happening in someone’s speech, but people do sense that the person lacks something.
Is this a problem? It is because someone who sounds lower class is less likely to be given credit for the real value of his or her abilities or education. This is especially a problem for a student who arrives in Canada early enough to acquire a native like accent but too late to acquire the necessary vocabulary or grammar to match a native speaker with a good education. It is also a problem for students whose environment is rich with the markers of less prestigious speech. If those students deliberately use more prestigious speech patterns, they may isolate themselves among their peers and families. They may need to become bilingual, aware of which form is most acceptable in different environments.
As teachers it means that we need to teach students to speak with a more prestigious dialect. This is not difficult, as it does not require teaching different structures or accents. All we need to do is insist on those three letters being pronounced and that students use the full forms of phrases such as “would have” instead of contractions. Encouraging students to use the more formal words instead of vocabulary such as “wanna”, “info” or “quote” when they mean quotation is also important and not always easy for a teacher to model. The advantage is that students’ spelling may improve as a result of the emphasis on “correct” speech. I can’t tell you how many times I have marked otherwise excellent work marred by the use of “could of” or “should of”.
Teachers are already expected to teach speech, grammar, vocabulary, spelling and; awareness that weaknesses in these area will be a disadvantage to their students’ prestige in the community makes teaching good English habits even more compelling. It does mean that teachers need to be conscious of themselves as models and monitor themselves for pronunciation.
Give your students a chance to thrive in Canada; teach them to speak as educated people.
- An Interview with E.D. Hirsch: The Vocabulary Size of Students is the Best Single Index to their Life Chances and to School Quality (educationviews.org)
- 16 Websites to Teach and Learn Vocabulary (educatorstechnology.com)
- DARE, the Definitive Record of American Dialect, Is Done (dailywritingtips.com)