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Teaching ‘voice’

I’m working on voice this semester with my Wednesday class. The wonderful thing about an ongoing group (this is my tenth year with them) that meets for forty weeks in a year is that it’s possible to take some serious learning quite slowly.

I have intensive methods of teaching voice, that bring it out quickly and effectively, but in this instance I’m using voice as a vehicle for teaching a bunch of other skills and understanding. This means it’s going to be a slow process and I’ll probably use every single one of the twenty weeks of the first two terms just to get through the first stages. And, of course, voice isn’t the only thing we’re learning.

We’re starting by examining recent influences on my students’ idiolects. Actually, we started with US/English spelling of worse that end in ise/yse/ize/etc, but they didn’t know that was linked with voice – this will come together later, when they piece together their choices, in their writing.

The official step one, then, was understanding that there are regional and culture-specific languages. I used a lovely diagram that I got from a rather brilliant linguist I encountered on Twitter (If you want to find it and her, she was the IndigenousX representative until today and her tweets can be found over the last week – just look for @IndigenousX ). It explained everything from pidgin to creoles and dialects for Australia.

Prior to this diagram I used French, for that’s the language I studied these things in and was thus able to explain clearly. I’m very happy now that I have a local handout – and very grateful. I got to explain a whole bunch of things about Australian English that really aren’t generally known (but ought to be). And I was able to put Creole and Kriol and Aboriginal English and Aboriginal languages other than English and Creole and Kriol into a personal context that my students could understand.

From there we talked about where we learn our languages from. My students’ homework is to find out what words and phases and twists of speech they use that are particular to them (from their background) rather than shared across Australia. One my my students has to watch Taggart, for he’s of Scottish origin but hasn’t ever stopped to analyse dialects. Others have forgotten the English of their childhood, whether it was from Fiji or Malaysia and are revisiting it, just to see if it has left legacies. We have the Melbourne/Sydney divide covered and the US/British (for one student has English as a Second Language, but was taught US English).

Next week we’re going to discuss their findings and find out how their idiolect can be used consciously in their writing.

At this stage, they still don’t quite believe that they have unique speech. That’s going to take a while to sort. People who use language totally differently all too often assume that they don’t. Or people obliterate their wider styles or cover them up with language notions their teachers have given them. I’ve already done a lot of stripping back with this group – they haven’t been writing classroom English in their creative texts for a while. This is why I can sneak a touch of linguistics and a bit of cultural anthropology into teaching voice.

When people tell me that voice can’t be taught, I wonder at what methods they use. There are so many approaches to teaching voice. This approach is what will serve this class best. They need a lot more than a writing voice that will make beautiful and unique fiction. They also need life skills. In this case the life skills are partly increased literacy and partly increased cultural literacy.

And this is how I spent yesterday morning. This term is light in teaching terms (long story – and not a cheerful one) so I’m very happy for my Wednesday class.

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