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“Language Varieties and Composition” Jenefer Giannasi (1987)

In this chapter, Giannasi reviews literature pertaining to the paradigm shift in composition and rhetoric studies toward sociolinguistics.. Effective composition pedagogy during this time aimed to improve students’ sociolinguistic competence in order to develop rhetorical competence in oral and written communication. A shift toward language varieties as the subject matter of composition pedagogy and research indicates a shifting awareness of how language is used by certain communities as well as language is used by individuals in specific situations. Drawing on a number of disciplines outside our field, teachers and researchers began studying different dialects practiced by certain communities, the nature of dialect itself, inter-varietal dialects (standard vs. non-standard, middle class vs. “lower” class, Black English vs. standard English) and intra-varietal dialects (spoken vs. written, formal vs. informal, style differentiation). Teachers also emphasized communicative competence—the ability to determine the rhetorical situation of specific communicative acts and the ability to make rhetorical choices needed to negotiate the sociocultural and linguistic demands for particular rhetorical situations.

In order to teach communicative competence in the classroom, researchers and teachers needed to develop understanding the wide scope, influence, and uses of the various languages. Of particular concern were developing understanding about variety status, code switching, mutual intelligibility, and social attitudes about language use. “International” problems of teaching communicative competence in English speaking classrooms also came into focus. (231-232)

In the early 1970s, sociolinguistic studies were prolific. Five major research areas were determined by Pride and Labov to be of use to this work: field studies of linguistic diversity in urban communities; investigations of social implications of dialectology; identification of coexistent systems and bilingualism; attitudinal studies of the social evaluation of language; and reconsideration of the relation of language and thought (233).

Also in need was ability for teachers to know how to respond appropriately to, assess and evaluate language varieties in written composition. Focus turned toward how to help students who spoke non-standard English develop communicative competence. Bidialectal research was key here. Previous assumptions about writing differences between white students and students of color were challenged. Focus on grammar shifted from attention to error to attention to appropriate use/rhetorical effectiveness. As attention turned to helping minority students, contrastive analysis between speech and writing also became necessary. All in all the research indicated that composition teachers in pluralistic society needed greater understanding of language varieties and all its complexities. This work stimulated the dialectal-diatypic shift in perspectives prominent in the 1980s.

Dialectal varieties—the linguistic reflection of reasonably permanent characteristics of the USER in language situations.

Diatypic varieties– the linguistic reflection of recurrent characteristics of the user’s USE in language situations.

This shift was important because it shifted attention away from the way users are governed by temporal, geographic, and social provenance and dialects to the various uses which are governed by role, relationship, and discourse requirements (238).

The shift away from how communities communicate to how individuals communicate in certain situations emphasized the use of sound, syntax, context, register, functions, and stylisitics in various communicative acts.

When studying dialectics, focus attended to distinctions of pronunciation, vocabulary and syntax in various communicative habits; the primacy of speech; and differences between spoken and written language. In attempting to define, identify, and differentiate dialects, the definition of dialects was dependent on a number of various perspectives. One perspective treated dialect as nonjudgmental linguistic term and focused on regional, social, and literary varieties. However, another judgmental perspective focused on defining standards of various dialects instigating the ongoing standard/non-standard English debate. Not only were temporal and regional dialects researched, so were social dialects, determined the socio-economic and linguistic variables that affect social interaction. With this change, “non-standard English is now considered within the context of the nature of language, sociolinguistic principles, educational implications, and needed in school research. The connections between language behavior and social class became popular as did studies of the ramifications of Black English, its historical significance, and its cultural validity and the implications of these studies on teaching and training (247). Bidialectal teaching approaches were researched. So too did the uniqueness of grammar. As mentioned before, teachers attitudes, beliefs, and values also became focus of research.

Evolving out of this research and pedogical concerns came the “Students Right to their Own Language” in CCC in 1974. “This statement attempts to help teachers of composition and communication review then-current attitudinal problems and linguistic knowledge so they may more effectively respond to the variety of dialects they face in the English classroom” (249).

The study of diatypic varieties focuses attention on intentionality of speaker and the rhetorical negotiations he/she makes when communicating for specific audience in specific context. Speech events, cohesive procedures, stylistic variations, and stylistic considerations of written rhetorical competence became major concerns of composition.

Made popular were Martin Joos level of functional styles: frozen, formal, consultative, casual, and intimate. Gleason’s adaption of these styles turned attention to written keys: formal, informal, and semiformal. Cautionary studies became popular in which teachers were challenged to become aware of their own prejudices toward non-standard communication habits. Comparative linguistic analysis of different genres composed in specific situations became a popular teaching activity. Register studies grew as did attention to the coherence and cohesion of texts. Usage handbooks grew which first were determined by linguistic norms of authority to usage in situation and thus the rhetorical role of usage. Error was thus redefined as was usage error.

Data-gathering methodologies changed as well. Ethnography of communication became popular as language variety became a matter of literacy, dialectal and diatypic differentiation became important and usage and acceptability became an issue of assessment (258). Communicative competence arose from ethnography studies which seek to determine the social significance of competence and performance in speech and writing events (258).

Most important here to realize is that the study of rhetorical competence became firmly established in the field of composition, as it clearly influenced comp pedagogy and research.


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