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Dialects Aren’t ‘Bad English’ — They’re Patterns

Jessica Hatcher.

As part of its summer research series, the NC State Alumni Association recently spoke with Jessica Hatcher (English ’16) about the importance of linguistics education.

Hatcher is currently pursuing her M.A. in English linguistics at NC State and is a former scholarship and undergraduate research grant recipient of the college. Learn more about what she’s studying and why her research matters. 

Q: Can you tell us about your research and the work you are doing with high school students this summer? 

I’m interested in the intersection between sociolinguistics and education. I want to further support equity in our schools through teaching practices that include an understanding of language variation.

The Language Diversity Enrichment Program for high school students is the first of its kind at NC State. It is a week-long educational program designed to promote language awareness and explore dialect diversity in English. We introduce high school students to linguistics and promote inclusion and empathy through education about sociolinguistics. 

Language diversity is overlooked, and I want to help high school students learn more about this increasingly relevant aspect of diversity. I view community education and outreach as a vital aspect of research.

Q: How did you become interested in studying linguistics? 

I learned about the Language and Life Project from Dr. Jeffrey Reaser at an English Club meeting. I began working as Dr. Reaser’s research assistant, and I transcribed videos of class discussions. As I listened and typed, I wrestled with ideas I had never considered. All my life I had thought that the people around me, myself included, spoke “bad English.” But learning about sociolinguistics reframed my understanding. As I pursued a minor in linguistics, I became increasingly interested in the field and I decided to pursue a master’s degree. My experiences speak to the opportunities offered by NC State. You never know what you’ll learn or how that will influence your future.

Q: What is the most common misconception about your research or field of study?

People often think that dialects are just “bad English” and the people who speak them are lazy, unintelligent or lesser in some way. In reality, English dialects, such as Appalachian English or African American English, are linguistically valid and are rule-governed and patterned like mainstream English. The judgments about dialects are usually related to the people who speak them and are used to discriminate against people based on their ethnicity, socioeconomic status or place of origin.

Q: What do you find most fascinating about your research or field of study?

Language is complex and deeply intertwined with many aspects of our lives. Language is tied to identity, and people can, often unconsciously, signal an aspect of their identity through one seemingly insignificant sound. For example, because I pronounce pin and pen identically, I reveal myself as someone raised in the American South. 

Q: As an undergrad, you were a Fulbright Summer Institute scholar and recipient of the William and Lesa Edwards College Merit Scholarship. How have scholarship and giving made a difference in your college career?

I could speak for hours about the various positive impacts. Throughout college, scholarships allowed me to focus on my academics and engage in a variety of opportunities offered by NC State that I would not have been able to pursue otherwise. I was able to use time that would have been devoted to working a minimum-wage job to instead serve as an officer of the English Club, pursue a minor, work as a research assistant and act as an ambassador for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Study Abroad Office. 

Participating in the UK Fulbright Summer Institute enhanced my understanding of not only the United Kingdom, but also of the United States. Being able to experience another culture and interact with people face-to-face was so much more powerful than reading a textbook or writing an essay. Without the Fulbright scholarship, I would not have been able to afford this opportunity.