The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom

Exploring the connections between language, race, identity, and school success, The Skin That We Speak’s thirteen essays delve into how speakers of “nonstandard” English —mostly varieties of African-American dialects, or Ebonics —view themselves, how schools have often perpetuated the educational inequities of African American and other children, and how educators can create the best frameworks to honor students’ language and identity.

The collection starts with personal stories from Joanne Kilgour Dowdy and Ernie Smith, who examine how one’s dialect leads peers, teachers, and others to make negative assumptions about one’s academic abilities and desire to be a part of one’s community—and how “code switching,” or learning and using a different dialect, can affect those perceptions. Delpit’s “No Kinda Sense” offers a parental and pedagogical perspective on code switching’s effects. Delpit describes her daughter’s transfer from a majority-White to majority-African American elementary school and how she rapidly moved from using standard English to using Ebonics. Delpit’s inquiry into why the reverse rarely happens—why children with African American speech patterns don’t generally code switch into academic English with equal ease —illuminates what schools can do to embrace culture, and how the resulting acceptance helps students to move into new realms of language.

The subsequent essays examine various sociolinguistic concepts relevant to speakers of Ebonics and other English dialects. Judith Baker’s “Trilingualism” offers a practical perspective on helping students move among the languages of the community, school, and the workplace. Victoria Purcell-Gates’ ” ‘…As Soon As She Opened Her Mouth!’ ” describes how a school puts a kindergartener and his nonliterate family at a steep disadvantage due to misconceptions sparked by the child’s mother’s Appalachian English dialect. This case study compels us to consider the best (and worst) ways to work with non-literate students and families.

Herb Kohl and Shuaib Meacham’s concluding pieces look at teacher talk, examining how teachers’ language influences their abilities in the classroom. Meacham’s study of two African American women’s progress toward becoming teachers lucidly demonstrates the complex interaction between race, language, and assumptions on the part of parents, students, and other teachers.

The Skin That We Speak provocatively challenges readers to reflect on the varieties of English and the effect of combined biases about race and language.

Reviewed by Jill Davidson