I love sketch comedy. The Chapelle Show, SNL from the 80s and 90s, the Carol Burnett show, you name it. So, for anyone who hasn’t seen a Key and Peele sketch yet, you’re missing out. The show isn’t on TV anymore, but you can catch all of their episodes on Hulu.
Because of who I am, one of my favorite reasons to watch Key and Peele is because of the brilliant and intentional way they use language in their sketches. They speak MAE, they speak AAE, they use accents, they code-switch for the purpose of the punch line…I just love this ish.
I love it so much that I play some of their sketches in my undergraduate class to teach them about code-switching and *why people code-switch. Not only do my students literally LOL, but they actually learn about the link between cultural identity and the way we speak.
Okay, so now fast-forward to my day job. I do research on the influence of dialect and cultural identity on MAE literacy. Now, what does that mean exactly?
The best way to explain it is to dissect “The Substitute Teacher” sketch from two different angles. It’s best if you watch the sketch first, just sayin’.
Okay, follow along…
First, Key’s character starts the sketch by saying that he’s the new substitute teacher for that day and that he used to work in the inner city schools à code for “don’t start none won’t be none.” Most people watching the show would infer that working in the inner city meant that this teacher worked with some “rough” kids (read Black and Brown). I myself have worked in inner city schools and don’t find all the kids to be “rough”, but we know the way society portrays these things. I digress.
The humor is that his students for the day are clearly not the “start none” kinda kids. They are a roomful of White middle class kids in a suburban school waiting to do chemistry. And then it begins. Roll call. Key’s character starts to call off the names of the students and it is hella hilarious. He reads the names of these White middle class kids with the phonology and the stress patterns that you would speak in African American English (AAE).
Okay, think about this…most people who are used to speaking Mainstream American English (MAE) would pronounce this word “police” as “puh – LEECE” but many AAE speaking people would say “PO – leece” changing the stress pattern and the pronunciation. Just like many people who speak MAE would pronounce “Devonta” as in Devonta Freeman as “Duh VON-tah” but if you are in the AAE speaking culture, you more than likely say “Duh- VON-tay.” Slight change in pronunciation, but it makes a difference.
So, right off the bat you can start to see how dialect influences literacy. Each name is read with the stress pattern and phonological features of AAE (with some creative liberties taken of course) and each kid is confused as hell as to what the teacher is saying, more on that later.
Think about how this relates to the real world classroom. If you have a different phonological system in your head than the one you are being asked to read, then you may end up reading words differently than the MAE writer intended them to be pronounced. If the word is “Blake” and your MAE phonological systematic rules that you have grown up with makes you understand the word as “Bl – ache” then you have more than likely read the word “correctly” according to MAE literacy standards. BUT, if you read “Blake” as “Buh-LAH-kay”, according to your own phonological systematic rules, you are correct, but according to someone else’s rules, you are wrong. AAE-speaking children can sometimes be “wrong” when learning to read in the classroom.
Dialect influences literacy y’all. Simple as that.
Second, let’s get back to how those White students felt during the roll call. One, it took them a while to understand what the teacher was even trying to say. Granted, they were given a lot of context because they knew the purpose of that event was to say the names of the individuals in the classroom. But, if you notice, their ears had to adjust to the dialect differences of the teacher’s speech pattern so that they could understand what was happening. Once they started to catch on to the pattern, it became a bit easier, but easier in the sense that effective communication was starting to take place.
What was *not easier was the identity piece these kids may have been feeling because no one likes it when your name is pronounced incorrectly.
Okay, these were high schoolers with privilege, so perhaps the embarrassment was kept at a minimum. And to be honest, perhaps in another scenario, Key’s character would’ve been made fun of by the students. But, imagine a 1st grade Black boy named Dont’a (pronounced “Don-tay” I’m on a football kick) during roll call and the teacher calls out looking for a “Doan-tuh” – right off the bat this kid is feelin’ some kinda way about his name not being pronounced correctly. Feeling a slight disconnect between himself and the teacher from day one.
His cultural identity has been hit hard, and it’s only the first day of class.
I could really go one and one about all of the cultural and language symbols I see in this sketch, but I’ll leave some of the mystery to you.
And these are examples of AAE, but believe me, this same scenario could be seen with any kid who speaks a dialect that is not MAE.
So here’s the takeaway folks, the different ways we speak impact our communication interactions, cultural identities, and acquisition of MAE literacy. Think about that next time you are interacting with someone whose dialect differs from yours.