Dialect variation in school settings among African -American children of low -socioeconomic status

Anne Harper Charity, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation examines individual, contextual, and regional variation in the usage of phonological, grammatical, and prosodic features of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by young (4 to 8 year old), urban, African-American students of low socioeconomic status. To examine usage of AAVE and standard American English (SAE) features in the speech of young children during the years in which they are first exposed to schooling and becoming literate, sentence imitation and story retelling samples were collected in schools for 217 kindergarten through second grade students. I studied children in four different cities: Cleveland, OH, New Orleans, LA, Washington, DC, and Richmond, VA. Wide individual differences were observed, the children used approximately the same degree of AAVE across tasks, and individual children who produced more AAVE features when imitating tended to do so in the story-retelling task. Moreover, usage rates for both phonological and grammatical forms correlated inversely with age and reading achievement in this sample, suggesting that as children have more contact with the language of schools and books, they acquire greater sensitivity to stigmatized features of AAVE, even those that have been attested to be frequent in more casual speech settings. Although imitating sentences presented by a SAE-speaking teacher is unquestionably a more formal task than retelling a story in one's own words, it is possible that greater contextual variation would be seen in children's colloquial speech in a sociolinguistic interview. Hence, in a small second sample of speakers from Richmond, VA, children's AAVE usage across this wider range of formality was examined to test this hypothesis. In Richmond, there was a stronger relationship between the speech on the retell and in spontaneous speech than on sentence imitation. Regional variation in AAVE is outlined as a factor of demographic differences, and the nuances of social class differences. Variation in low SES-African Americans is hypothesized to be an indicator of qualitative and quantitative differences in language norms. It is possible, especially for young speakers, that the observed differences may reflect the intersection of language acquisition amidst varying local social norms for AAVE usage across formal and informal settings.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Cognitive psychology|Ethnic studies|Black studies|African American Studies

Recommended Citation

Charity, Anne Harper, "Dialect variation in school settings among African -American children of low -socioeconomic status" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3179712.