Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chapter One "Ovuh Dyuh"

The first chapter/essay is by Joanne Kilgour Dowdy.  In this essay she recounts what it was like growing up in Trinidad and her mother insisting she "curse in white", which meant that she always had to be aware that she was playing to a white audience.  She states that "there was a white way and a right way."   As a middle class child from an influential family, her mother made sure that young Joanne learned to speak the "colonial" tongue.

Dowdy describes a time when she realized the difference between the fantasy of her language and the reality.  She was playing cricket with her friends when she hit a ball over a fence.  As the other children looked for the ball, she announced "Over there."  Her enunciation was perfect.  The others just giggled and laughed.  Any of the other children would have said "Ovuh dyuh"--sensible, given the language of the island.  This incident left an indelible mark on young Joanne.

She goes on to describe how the society in which she grew up taught that if you were to be successful, you were to embrace the "language that was used to enslave you and your forebears.  It is a painful strategy for survival, but maybe it is just another facet of the kind of transcendence to which the descendants of kidnapped Africans had to aspire in order to survive the very memory of slavery." (Dowdy, 2002, p. 7)

Dowdy also describes how proud her family, especially her mother and her grandmother, were of her perfect diction and use of the Queen's English.  She pleased her teachers as well and saw her role as a way to survive.  She was appointed "Head Girl' in high school and found that she and the other "Head Girls" could use their positions to begin to assert their "Afrocentric" identities and reclaim a part of who they were and are.

During high school, she became an actress on TV and worked to produce short skits for a local show where she could use her Trinidadian language. The result was not quite what she expected.  She found that in the realm of a television show, she could be who she was and speak Trinidadian but in her "real life", she still  had to use the "colonizer's language."  She states that "as a result of my acting life, I came to understand that the colonizer only valued the native language of the colonized in the realm of entertainment." (p. 11)

Dowdy discusses how there is a mental conflict between the mother tongue and the master discourse.  In public life, "the value given to the patriarch's tongue, the master discourse, always supersedes that given to the matriarch.  The 'language of intimacy,' as Richard Rodriguez calls it, has no place in the public arena." (p. 12). She goes on to describe how a confident individual can go on to function in the dominate culture, but begin to develop doubt and disappointment.  What she hears in her head conflicts with what is produced in her throat.  Dowdy suggested that the confident individual must find a way to reclaim who she is and suggests that one day, "mothers will no longer have to force their children to act like strangers among their elders." (p. 13)  That children will be a part of reclaiming community and the language of that community.

As a monolingual speaker of my culture's dominate language, I appreciate the perspective that is given by Dowdy.  I really don't have anything to compare her struggle to.  I am finding that I agree with her statements more out of logic than out of passion--again because I don't have a reflection in the mirror that is being held up to me.  I want to understand and work to help the children reclaim who they are through their language and their voice. I do want to be passionate and be an advocate for first language speakers. Is that my role or do I just step aside and let it happen?  I don't really know what I should do.


  1. Erin, I completely understand your feelings about trying to help language learners embrace, or reclaim, who they are. As another monolingual speaker, I struggle with trying to relate to the complexities of trying to adapt to another language environment. T

    he closest thing I have to trying to understand is when traveling in Germany, and not understanding a word that was being said. While trying to ask where the bathroom was, I found myself resorting to the only other language I somewhat knew...Spanish! (And let me say...I don;t know Spanish!) "Donde es el bano?" Yeah, they looked at me like I was an idiot. Thankfully, it was only for a few days, but I remember the frustration of that week, and how I vowed to never go to another place that didn't speak English. I can't imagine being surrounding daily by a language that I can't understand.

    This probably didn't help at all, but at least you know that you are not the only person who struggles with what to do.

  2. Thanks Misty. I know I'm not the only one trying to navigate through this situation. I guess that's what I'm supposed to do at UNM--try and find a way to figure things out!

  3. Erin: Your summarization of each essay is rich and heartfelt. It is apparent that you also see a role in the lives of your students who struggle with their mother tongue and identity in a dominant culture that is not native to them. I believe the first step to reaching out is your compassion. So many teachers are arrogant in their perspective as an academic as well as holding the power of their classroom. You have the opportunity to bring out the the voices of your students and empower them. And, it sounds like you are already doing this. Laurie

  4. Erin it sounds like an interesting book. In answer to your question, I do not know. I know there are limitations in the classroom, but if you can O think allowing first language speakers to find their voice is a good idea. Especially in light of some of the readings we've had. From my own experience with Hmong youth, I allow them to write in English with all the gramatical errors, but I ask them to focus on the story they want to tell. I do not want to limit them by thinking about grammar. Afterwards we spend several sessions on editing. I think it is less intimidating for them this way.

  5. Erin: I wonder if there are any paralells between the acceptance of Trinidadian English in Trinidadian entertainment, but not in Dowdy's private life, and the acceptance of Black entertainers and athletes in America, but not in white people's private lives. Millions of white Americans do not know a single African American, and many don't care to, yet they enjoy watching and listening to Black entertainers and athletes. This chapter sounds very interesting not only because of her discussion of speech registers but also because most of us don't know anything about Trinidad and Tobago. They play cricket?!?!

  6. Hi Erin,
    Do as I see you do, in our Monday night class, with your students - continue to be real, honest, and unpretentious for that is being transparent and they'll easily know where your coming from and that is your heart! It's okay to tell your students that there is a difference in their way of life and that of the American mainstream. It's helpful to their lives to learn both ways because they have to maneuver through the American way when they live in that society, but that they return to their people's way when they are in that environment. They need to be comfortable in both. This is what I tell my NA students. As far as writing is concerned, I tell my students that it's very difficult to write in English because it is not our mother tongue and our own language is not written. Writing in English is what we all must learn in order to answer questions on paper when we search for jobs, etc. We do not write as we speak - writing has grammar rules which prepare us for the next level of learning. Whatever grammar is being taught, ask students to offer a sentence to work from. Tell them not to worry about making mistakes because even teachers make mistakes. Mistakes are our teachers, we learn from them, so don't be embarrassed. To the whole class, I would "help each other. Do NOT criticize or make negative comments about mistakes being made. Remember that some of us know more and some of us know less, but we're all here to learn together, help each other, and support each other." Those who may know more does not mean they are smarter or better. There are still things they may not know that a struggling person may have more experience at. Those "knowing less" just missed a lesson somewhere along the line because maybe they wee absent or the lesson was not demonstrated in a way that they could understand. We are all at some stage of development and learning.
    Speaking correct English, slang, or Indian-English depends on the "present environment" they are in. Using any of those ways is acceptable so it's just a matter of adjusting to the environment, situation, or circumstance.
    Did I get off track?
    Erin, it is easy to see you care. Thank you for that!

  7. Hi Erin …. whenever I read or listen to such stories in which learning English as a second language becomes a source of struggle and difficulty rather than of happiness to some people, I sympathize with them and appreciate more the way in which I become bilingual simply because I have not gone through such difficulties.
    It is clear that Dowdy struggles because she was encouraged to acquire English on the expenses of losing the language of her elder's people and heritage. I think if she had been given the feeling that English is not superior in any way to her mother tongue, her feelings toward acquiring English would be completely different.
    So Erin, connecting this to your students' situation, I think it would be better if they could see English as a different and important language for them to learn, but not superior in any way to their native tongues. Also, as Loretta and Angelina have said, I think ignoring their minor mistakes and allowing them to use their native languages freely at class would serve them better in terms of English language learning and appreciation, especially at beginning levels.
    I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your interesting book review... Abdullah