You Ain’t Speakin’ English Right

Unbeknownst to us, we often judge people by how they speak. Certain accents or ways of speaking slap a label of ignorance or intelligence on the speaker. Foreign accents are interpreted as less proficient in English. These beliefs have been used to remove non-native teachers from English instruction classrooms. These beliefs have forced students who speak a different language at home or who speak a different form of English that is not “mainstream” to assimilate or remain marginalized—to get with it or get lost. These beliefs have too much strength.

Indeed, how we speak does matter, but we need to recognize there are different ways to speak. Traces of the superficial demands for the appropriate way of speaking are evident in the coming of sound. Norma Talmadge’s Brooklyn accent forced her into early retirement because it did not match up with her classy image. Other actors and actresses were given vocal lessons, not for singing, but for speaking! Conversely, foreign silent stars were embraced as exotic.

The silent film actor Adolphe Menjou put it best, “I knew that unless I proved I could talk before my contract expired, I would be a dead pigeon.” Get with it or get lost (Juddery). Today popular culture often reiterates the mainstream style of English and therefore the aforementioned beliefs are further reinforced. It was too readily forgotten that even American icons once dealt with the same language issues average Americans are facing everywhere. The links here have been lost either because of disconnect between cinema studies and the classroom, or a lack of connection between literacy and mass media. Regardless, further investigation should be done to reinterpret the far reaching misconception of English and its relationship with Hollywood so that it can be used in schools, public policy and civil society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.