What Is the Universal Language?

Students are often told they speak incorrectly or use bad grammar. Telling students of color in rural or urban areas that they speak “incorrectly” or “ghetto” can have a negative effect internally.

I give students in my class the opportunity to analyze their “home” language (the first language they learn at home). I do not make students feel bad for the way they speak; however, I give them opportunities to translate terms or phrases into Standard American English.

One of the most rewarding and entertaining activities I use to teach Standard American English is one that I call What Is the Universal Language? Before beginning the activity, I play “Soldier” by Destiny’s Child. After listening to the song, I pose the question “Is there anything wrong with this song?” Students share their opinions as we chart their answers on the board. After a few minutes of discussion, I show the students three words: translate, formal and informal. I give them 15 seconds to reflect on the list of words. After the reflection, students get up and move to the words if they’ve ever heard them prior to this lesson. This gives me the opportunity to learn about their prior knowledge of these terms.

Once students are back in their seats, we view a PowerPoint presentation that explains the difference between the “home language” and Standard American English. Following the presentation, students are grouped in teams to translate lyrics and phrases into Standard American English. After the groups translate the lyrics we discuss dialects and cultures within different regions of the state (e.g., the Gullah culture of South Carolina and Georgia). Additional activities allow students to understand and appreciate these differences: 

• Summarize the U.S. Constitution for two audiences: A) urban youth; B) American professionals.

• Translate hip-hop song lyrics into Standard American English.

• Write a commercial selling a product of your choice in Standard American English and African-American Language. Students perform their commercials; the class notes the differences and analyzes their effects on the audience and product being marketed.

Each of these activities concludes with students comparing language of a culture versus Standard American English. Students learn to appreciate language and understand the importance of mainstream language usage.

Tamika Shuler
Heyward Gibbes Middle School
Columbia, S.C.

Download Tamika’s PowerPoint presentation.

This activity addresses the following standards using the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.

CCSS R.4, L.1, L.2, L.3, L.5

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