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Linguist wants people to rethink their idea of 'proper English'

Linguist wants people to rethink their idea of 'proper English'

Linguist wants people to rethink their idea of "proper English"

September 15, 2021 at 10:51am

Nandi Sims is amplifying the voices of people in Black communities who are often told the way they speak English is wrong.

The linguist and distinguished postdoctoral scholar in FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education is leading research on how race, ethnicity and social dynamics shape language variation in Black communities. She hopes her work can help change perceptions about language, since many beliefs can be harmful and perpetuate discrimination and inequalities.

Sims does the bulk of her work in a place that, more than likely, many adults would prefer to never step foot in again — a 6th grade classroom.

“I focus on middle school because it’s a pivotal time — when kids are becoming teenagers, making new friends and figuring out who they are going to be,” Sims said. “I wanted to measure how their speech changed during these other changes.”

Being in a classroom is where Sims always thought she’d end up, though she thought her role would be a little different.

After graduating from William and Mary with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, Sims moved from Virginia to Miami. She planned to become an elementary school teacher, but there was a moratorium on hiring new teachers at the time. Sims found a job as a reading specialist at a speech pathology center. It launched her career in a new direction — linguistics. Working with the children, she wanted to learn more about their speech issues so she could help them.

Sims came to FIU for a master’s degree in linguistics, where she met FIU sociolinguist Phillip Carter. She assisted him with his research on the different language varieties of people from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. When she began her Ph.D. at Ohio State University, she decided to continue this line of research, only this time, she would study Black populations, especially Black communities in Miami.

The next several years, she divided her time between Columbus, Ohio and Miami, Florida. Sims found a middle school that was almost 100 percent minority serving — about 40 percent Haitian American and 40 percent African American. She spent a lot of time observing different 6th grade classrooms.

As time passed, the students became more comfortable around her. They knew she wasn’t a 6th grader, of course. But, she also wasn’t one of their teachers. She was simply Ms. Sims — the person they talked to while playing card games.

Sims’ initial goal was to shadow the students as they moved through middle school, but the pandemic disrupted her plans. No longer able to collect the long-term data she needed, she adjusted her dissertation to describe the social structure of the school and the linguistic varieties. She listened to the recordings of the conversations she had with the students, examining the variation within their speech. She measured the vowels — one of the first places linguists look to identify language differences — as well as differences in morphosyntax.

This approach worked to her advantage, laying the critically important groundwork for her postdoctoral research, where she will be working, once again, with her former advisor and mentor Phillip Carter at FIU’s Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment.

Sims is anxiously awaiting the day she can reunite with the students she hasn’t seen in almost two years. They are now 8th graders.

“When we diversify our research, it helps everyone understand more about the U.S. Most of the time people make generalizations like, ‘People in the U.S. say this word like this,’ but they are usually talking about middle class white people,” Sims said. “And that’s not true for most people, so my research is about helping those communities be seen and included, so social theories actually reflect social realities.”