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Nuance and Context

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

So, one of the first teachers I learned the importance of student relationships from posted this image on the book of faces, tagged me and a few other language teachers, and asked what we thought about it. It has taken me too long to respond; social media moves at the speed of first thoughts and finger taps. But here's what I think...

Nuance is the vitality of language. Language is subject to context. We use nuance, language, and context to communicate meaning. How I receive communication heavily influences how I understand it and whether or not standard spelling and grammar become part of my response or feedback.

"If someone's meaning is clear, don't correct their spelling or grammar."

Context dictates whether this is an appropriate idea. This seems to imply that somewhere there are rules, and if a person breaks them, but you understand meaning, no correction should take place. Is the someone an adult on the job? A kindergartener still acquiring language skills and learning to read and write? Your friend of 20 years? Your new friend? Is the message written or spoken? And "who all ova there" when it's spoken if it's spoken? These things all matter.

"If their meaning isn't clear, ask for clarification without correcting their spelling or grammar?

Again, easier in speech. We tend to be more relaxed in speech. Add regional pronunciations ("Washington" vs. "WERSHINGTON"), preferred words ("soda" vs. "pop"), and accents (like how in the 305 that beautiful Black southern accent makes "back" sound like "bike" and spelled "byke"), and clarification without correction may be expected because "you ain't from round here."

More difficult in writing. How often is nonstandard (I don't use the term proper) spelling and grammar received well in writing unless it is supposed to or "allowed" to be that way? And even then, some rules apply. AAVE has rules and standards. Regional dialects are the same, with flexibility allowed ("mumbo" vs. "mambo" sauce), especially if it sometimes leads to rich debate.

Whenever standard spelling and grammar rules are expected in writing, the stakes are higher than extracting meaning from what someone wrote. If you don't meet the standard, assumptions are made and decisions follow.

Then this part...

"Start to decondition yourself from the colonial grammar rules that were forcibly ingrained upon you."

Who are you talking to? (in my momma's voice) Who is the intended audience? In America, it matters. The fabric of this country is stitched together with white supremacy. Are you talking to the creators of said grammar rules? Telling the colonized to decolonize themselves when colony is still in play is strange? So, as long as we're still switching codes between school, home, work, and hobby to ensure we get paid to finance our pursuit of happiness, this sounds good. But the stakes are higher for us who don't make the rules. We brilliantly find ways to thrive within and regardless of them.

If the intended audience is the colonizer, I'm going to mind my business and wait for the impact of this conversation to concern me.

"Those systems exist to invisibly reinforce hierarchy."

Duh. But language is the convenient one to draw attention to and attack. There are bigger targets that no one aims for and that commanding standard communication can help to topple. As long as politicians are still speaking, movements are still online, guilt leads the global minority to seek allyship, protest signs make global news, and eloquence from "unexpected places" upsets ignorance, the historically marginalized must be at least "bicodal."

"Unlearn the need to police those rules, especially when the rules do nothing to enhance comprehension."

Again, who are you talking to? If it isn't me, I have no dog in the fight. If it is me, this statement is misdirection.

(The personal part...)

I don't police the rules. From my experience of growing up in overpoliced, underserved communities, policing isn't the same as protecting and serving. I studied English and considered my time in college reconnaissance. I wanted to bring back what was intentionally kept from my community ‐ verbal strategy. I considered that protecting and serving. In the classroom, I tried not to interrogate my students' ignorance. I tried not to ridicule them, and I corrected them when they ridiculed each other. I wanted them to understand the fullness of their native tongue (if you will) and power of translating their thoughts for those who consider themselves powerful. If I failed and made any of them feel unworthy, they never told me, but I apologize, just in case.

And in the wake of continued injustice, my need to protect and serve is stronger. As more people dawn AAVE to sound "cool" while protected from Black skin, it gives me anxiety to think we don't see this as the real policing. That we think things are so different while predominantly Black educational spaces still struggle to perform. And our intelligent future revolutionaries still can't or are afraid to express themselves adequately in writing.

The gag is that while the rules don't do anything to enhance comprehension, comprehension and meaning aren't the same thing. Meaning is first constructed by the initial communicator; comprehension by the receiver. Because one person has meaning doesn't mean the other will comprehend. Some people strain communication through the rules to comprehend because the rules are what they know. These people may or may not look like the sender. This matters. These people may hold admission power to institutions who uphold the standard. This matters.

And it also matters that if I have ever corrected someone, it's because I cared, not because I wanted to feel superior. Not even when the correction was in my personal life. I didn't mean to embarrass. It was the only way I felt I could arm them for the "invisible" fight. I was tired of seeing them shrink in the presence of others who knew "big ol' words" and ways to put them together, but who still weren't as smart as my family and friends.


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