14 There are Infinite Correct Ways to Communicate

Maya Ostfeld

My mother’s embarrassed frown will never leave my mind. I’d seen it so many times growing up, when she’d ask for scissors and be met with confused faces telling her they didn’t have any “Cesar”. When my brother asked for a Snicker’s Ice cream cake and she came home with a sneaker shaped birthday cake. She’d tried so hard to “speak normally”, to avoid looking “stupid”; I remember being twelve years old, sitting at the bottom of the steps, editing text messages and emails on her phone. If I even giggled at a mistake she made I’d see that frown. She’s embarrassed when I see her mistakes, and I’ve been correcting her spelling and grammar for ten years.  My mom is one of the smartest people I know, fluent in two languages, and yet everyday she struggles to communicate out of fear of appearing stupid. If she was a student, do you think she would feel comfortable raising her hand in a classroom? Is what my mother has to say less valuable because she cannot utilize “proper” spelling and grammar?

If schools accepted communication as a mode of self-expression, marginalized groups would feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts in the classroom setting. In creating a notion that communication needs to take place in “proper English”, marginalized groups feel discouraged from contributing their thoughts with the group, and therefore create an aversive learning environment. Students whose first language is not English may withhold valuable thoughts and participation out of fear of: being discriminated against, embarrassed, or being unable to express themselves without judgment. Kyle Wiens, a rich white man (and the founder and CEO of several tech companies), wrote an article stating he “[has] a “zero tolerance approach” to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid,” but has not considered that his “zero tolerance approach” makes him look stupid. As the CEO of a large tech business and the founder of another, Weins is in a position of privilege and has the power to create an inclusive environment for all of his employees. Instead, he demands that every employee “takes a mandatory grammar test.” Sure, Mr. Wiens takes “extenuating circumstances aside” for people with “dyslexia [or] English language learners”, but how are those with “extenuating circumstances” meant to feel after they have been given a pass to a test every other employee has to take to get the job. They would feel embarrassed, inadequate, and perhaps even alienated by the other employees that know how to cross their t’s and dot their i’s, while those with “extenuating circumstances” get stressed out trying to send an email to their coworkers. An environment that poses such expectations is a breeding ground for demeaning marginalized groups. This is the same environment being created for students as they attempt to navigate a secondary language, something already incredibly difficult.

Purpose, audience, and venue, as well as personal style determine how we communicate. By removing these factors and only allowing room for one “correct” mode of communication, educators are demonstrating a lack of inclusivity and neglecting an opportunity to educate students on writing and speaking for other purposes. Educators are disregarding a niche for student expression and critical thinking by not allowing for students to utilize their own language. In business meetings, emails, and other work force communication means, great ideas are shared in semi-casual language, or“in your own words”. People are generally not asked to write academic essays to present their innovative ideas. This poses the question of what educators truly value, good content or the way it is presented. By demonstrating that “proper English” is the most valued mode of communication, marginalized groups are being told their thoughts are not valued. Jesse Stommel, a prominent writer in the digital writing community, says it perfectly when he explains, “Policing grammar and style is a shortcut — a way to avoid actual engagement. When the goal is reflective dialogue, critical thinking, content mastery, or even good writing, grammar is usually a red herring.” By focusing on the “red herring” society is telling those who cannot use perfect grammar that whatever they have to say has no value.

The issue of devaluing marginalized voices cannot be fixed through providing or improving resources. The current mindset of the country, and especially of our education system, needs to be reevaluated to take into account that native language cannot be disjointed from its speaker. Good ideas should be seen despite language barriers, and our current system does not allow for this. Instead of adhering to a singular method of conveying intelligent thought, our education system should understand that intelligent communication happens through various modes.

Different slang, dialects, and lingo, are appropriate for different situations. Conversations in different locations, with different people, or utilizing different mediums of communications will occur differently, despite this these conversations and communications still have value. None of these conversations are incorrect or wrong. Have you ever had a casual conversation with someone and had a brilliant, eureka moment? Was that brilliant thought any less valuable because it occurred in a casual conversation instead of an academic essay written in “proper academic English”? When our education system begins teaching students how to think critically about ideas instead of about how those ideas are conveyed, more intelligent communication will occur and our society will progress forward.


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Good Ideas About Writing Copyright © 2021 by Maya Ostfeld is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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