A Reflection on ‘The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom’

By Pashew Majeed:The Skin That We Speak

The influence language and color have on our life and the changes they make are just unbelievable. Most of us have been pre-judged by the way we look and speak on daily basis. By ‘look’ I do not solely mean color but also the appearance of your face. I have enough personal examples regarding language influences. These cultural misinterpretations lead to misunderstandings and the aftermath is a cultural clash. Educationally speaking, the aftermath will be a culturally and epistemologically illiterate being, as we can see every day in our lives. Language and look differences affect educational process: they slow it down, preoccupy us and affect the quality of education.

Firstly, the effect of color is so dangerously stereotyped in many nations – to assume certain colors bring misery and bad luck, and this can still be clearly seen somewhere like America. Delpit states that our skin is the appearance of our contact with the rest of the world: “a means to negotiate our interactions . . . how we perceive our surroundings and [how others] perceive us” (p. xvii). The appearance and the looks we possess create expectations as to whether we are clever or not. Those assumptions leave negative side effects educationally and also personally. This puts pressure on minorities to change themselves and forget about their origins, which is another, different calamity.

These stereotypes in a student-teacher and teacher-student interaction within the bounds of the school period make a negative difference in the two processes of learning and teaching. I think it will not cost so much to just remove the s from skin as Delpit said and eq from equality.

Secondly, linguistically speaking, the language, dialects, and accents we use daily also affect our learning as students and teaching as teachers. Deplit says, “there is much smoke and little light around the linguistic issues that might affect … failure” (p_xxi). Language is based on culture and is very personal and because of that in order to honor the individuality of the speaker, we as teachers should honor all languages and dialects.

“People are stereotyped by their language, dialect and accent and these aspects become a determinate of how people view both the intelligence and socio-economic status of the speaker … if these languages are viewed negatively by society as a whole, what can be done in the classroom to help my students overcome this societal view?”(Waters)  What can teachers do to foster a multicultural habit and behavior?

The first step in change is to recognize that there is a shortcoming in the academic world to meet the needs of these children.  Gloria J. Ladson-Billings addresses this idea in the first article of chapter three.  Students viewed as less intelligent and incapable of learning or achieving, based solely on the language they speak are, in essence, given “permission to fail” in the classroom (Delpit & Dowdy , 2002, p.110).  The reason that students are viewed as less able to achieve is twofold.  First, as Victoria Purcell-Gates points out, “socially and politically marginalized people are held in disdain by those who hold the power…there is always a generalized belief that they cannot learn as well as those in power” (Delpit & Dowdy, 2002, p.132).  The second reason is that “language seems to play a central role in this class-related denial of educational opportunity” (Delpit & Dowdy , 2002, p.133).

We need to avoid such stereotypes and their negative manifestations in school life. Teachers and schools must know that “children of poverty are learners, have been learning since birth, ready to learn at any time, and will learn” (Delpit & Dowdy , 2002, p.135). To know these things it is important to tie it to the teachers’ lives and examine their thoughts and ideas about the subject and how they manifest in the classroom. There is a nice story of a teacher has shed some lights on this book and tell her story by saying:

“I am from a very small town in Missouri and did not have much exposure at all to anyone different than myself.  When I went to college as an undergrad an undisclosed number of years ago, I was absolutely thrilled to be around people from all over the United States and other countries.  I have always delighted in meeting and learning about other people’s lives and have always felt a pull to work with ELL students.  What I discovered at West Boulevard, though, is that there are more students than those identified ELL that are also learning Standard English as a second language. I have several students whose primary language is AAE and I think it is only fair that they are taught Standard English with love and respect of their own. I have learned that Ebonics is not gibberish, deceptive, or only spoken by people of less intelligence or lower socio-economic status.  I have learned that it is a language associated with a rich culture and spoken by all sorts of people with unlimited abilities and potential.  I have learned to respect and appreciate both the language and the people that speak it” (Waters).

If we talk about the language and race implications in the school and classroom, there is no doubt that it affects the teacher’s academic and professional performance and the student’s learning environment as well. It takes a lot of time to understand this, not only for the students but for the teachers also, because it is clear to everyone that there are a lot of teachers who do not understand the differences and their impacts on teaching and learning performances.  If he or she thinks just like the students think, they do not allow for the possibilities to happen.

In a classroom where students come from different backgrounds and possess different accents and dialects, there need to be changes in the teacher’s instructional methods. It is important for the teacher is important to know his/her kids well and design the method suit their cultural background. Paulo Friere in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed  refers to the ‘problem-posing method’, where the teacher knows a lot about the students and he does not act as the authoritarian in the classroom, but as a learner like the students.

This experience is not unusual for the teacher, and it should not be. But the teacher should be ready to evaluate a child’s strengths and needs as this is the key to pinpoint the issues, and then come up with a different instructional program that facilitate the child’s development. He/she needs to be aware of the cognitive and the sociocultural aspects of the kids to be cautious about anything offensive from any source, because the use of offensive words, accents or ways of uttering the words can be offensive to the culture due to the strong connection between language and culture. In fact, the language builds the culture.

It is critical that the school settings provide a supportive and safe environment in which kids can be to use and practice any words or accents he/she has as long as this does not offend others. If it creates conflicts then other alternatives be found. Yet at the same time the teachers should expose the kids to language differences and make them feel and believe that the way you feel about your own language and culture is the same for others. We need to tolerate and accept differences and be happy for it is our way of success and living together.

I personally have had students from cities who speak with different accents and, even it is not a big issue just yet, we need to be well aware and plugged in for the times coming up.

For example, if a student is from Slemany City, for the question ‘why?’, he/she says (Bo-بۆ) but, if he/she is from Hawler just like me, he/she says (Lo – لۆ). So here in the classroom if I ask a question with (Lo) the Slemany guys may feel that I am biased but when say (Bo) the next time – I mean using both accents over time, a compound accent – the student’s attention will not be on my performance or any biases but rather on the topic we are studying, which is the whole point.

I think the teachers inside the classrooms can make the very first, outstanding step towards change on these issues. The teacher can raise the levels of understanding about differences in accent, dialect and pronunciations and show that these are to be respected because we are not here to prioritize one over another, but to know more about the other and get in touch with the beauties and wisdom of these differences.

This article first appeared on: http://pashewmajeed.blogspot.com/


Delpit, L., & Dowdy, J.K. (Eds.) (2002). The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and  Culture in the Classroom. New York, NY: The New Press.

Waters, M., Adria. Reflection on The Skin That We Speak: Part I . Retrieved from



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