How Children With Dialectal Differences Develop & Use English

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the different dialects of American English and how children of differing backgrounds develop and use English according to the rules of their dialects.

Dialects of American English

If you're reading this, and you grew up in the United States, then you speak a dialect of American English. A dialect is a variety of a language that has unique pronunciation and grammar rules, but is still mutually comprehensible (most of the time) to other speakers of the same language. You might be thinking, 'That's silly! I don't have an accent, so how can I have a dialect? I just speak regular English!' In fact, dialects are completely different from accents, which only take pronunciation into account. The truth is, everyone has a dialect! The way that you use English, your pronunciation and grammar rules, is your dialect.

There are eight major dialect areas of North America. The names may vary depending on what source you look at, but generally they include: New England, the West, North Central, Canada, the South, the Midlands, the North, and the Mid-Atlantic/NY region. These specific names came from the 'Atlas of North American English', which is based on the work of sociolinguist William Labov. Within these eight areas, there are many subdialects, and even some dialects (such as African American Vernacular English or AAVE) that are not region-specific. There are upwards of 25, but the exact number is debated, since the lines between dialects are often very blurry and hard to define.

Deviating from the 'Standard'

Knowledge and acceptance of dialect differences is a very new concept, and it is especially crucial for children. In schools across America, a 'standard' English is taught and encouraged, to the point that children are often reprimanded for using their native dialect rules. This attitude overlooks the fact that each dialect is a fully formed variant of English with its own syntax, grammar, and pronunciation. Dialects are not simply 'incorrect' versions of English. Children of different dialects develop and use English in different ways, following the rules they grow up with.

Expanding knowledge of how children of different dialects develop and use English is crucial for helping children in school learn to the best of their ability, without trying to separate them from their dialect, which is a unique part of their identity.

There are too many varieties of English to discuss them all here, but let's look at two in detail.

Southern English

Southern American English is one of the most highly stigmatized forms of English. A 1996 study found that Southern English was regarded as one of the most 'incorrect' forms of English, even by people who recognized it as a legitimate variety. It is actually made up, however, of a number of subdialects, all sharing certain characteristics and containing fully formed grammatical and pronunciation rules.

Some of these rules are well-known. For example, the use of 'y'all' (short for you all) when addressing a group of people is a feature commonly associated with the South. Another common feature, though not necessarily a well-known one, is the pin/pen merger. This is widespread across southern dialects, and it simply means that words like 'pin' and 'pen', or 'windy' and 'Wendy' are pronounced with the same vowel sound.

Other aspects are less well-known. For example, in several varieties of southern English, especially in the Carolinas, double modals are completely acceptable. A modal is a word that qualifies a verb, such as 'might,' 'may,' 'could,' 'should,' etc. In many dialects of English, each verb can only have one modal. In dialects of southern English, however, they can be doubled.

An example of a double modal is the sentence, 'I might could do that.' Essentially, this means they might possibly be able to do that, but it's very uncertain. The 'might' qualifies 'could' and makes it a politely noncommittal statement. For southern English speakers, this is absolutely correct and acceptable, and it expresses a clear, specific sentiment.


Another widespread and highly stigmatized variety of English is African American Vernacular English. Speakers of AAVE, especially children, are often told that grammatical aspects of their dialect are 'incorrect'. One of these aspects is habitual 'be.'

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