If “grammar” is the rules for putting together categories of words to help us construct meaning (though “grammar” – syntax – is clearly different than “meaning” – semantics) in formal settings, then we might think of “usage” as the analogue to grammar for natural language.
There are two pieces to this:

  1. We say things differently than we write them, and we do it commonly, purposely, and meaningfully. Contractions started this way, as a way that people spoke but didn’t write, and they were considered ungrammatical. These days, when we say “Are you gonna go?” it’s not quite right to say it’s “grammatical” and yet, it is correct to speak that way. Novice teachers when they start thinking about this, will begin to speak very unnaturally, “Are you going to go?” when any highly fluent speaker would use “gonna” in all but the most formal of settings.
  2. In natural language, generally considered informal in English, most spoken communication falls into this category, there are lots of things which would be considered incorrect but it wouldn’t quite sound right to say they are ungrammatical. “That’s a whole nother thing.” is a good example. We should probably say, “That’s a whole other thing.” (and sometimes we do!) but this is very commonly said, and it feels right to say it, even though “nother” is not a word. There are examples that go further afield such as the elimination of the copula in Black Vernacular English. All of your grammarian friends, Black or White, would say that “Imma go. ‘” is ungrammatical – and yet, if you are in the language community where Black Vernacular English is spoken it’s incorrect to say “I am going to go.” and also incorrect to say “I’m gonna go.”

P-P-T is able to resolve the enduring problem for English teachers by working explicitly with natural language in context. So, if we are teaching English in an area where there are lots of speakers of Black Vernacular English, it might be appropriate to explore those constructions, because people will hear them and unlocking their linguistic environment might require that.

English teachers have generally thought that the empowerment purpose of language teaching is to facilitate the development of language skills that will allow the learners to access formal institutions. But that is only empowering if that’s where the learners are trying to get.

A final comment on usage and natural language as a guide: What if a Korean speaker moves into a neighborhood where there are lots of Spanish speakers? And she frequently hears a word or phrase that is a developmental artifact that is common to Spanish speakers, enough that she starts to produce this sound as if it was the final realized version – for example, the word “very” sounds like “berry”. Should we encourage the mispronunciation of “very” so the Korean speaker can fit in better with the Spanish speakers in her environment? A two-part response:

  1. in the case of “gonna” or “Imma”, these are not developmental stages – they are final realized forms of regularized speech (which also is frequently written as an orthographic representation of the spoken vernacular.
  2. maybe, if it was helpful for that person in that context.

As culturally responsive, white, English language skills development facilitators, should we correct a speaker of Black Vernacular English who is teaching “Imma”? I would say the most responsible thing is to become acquainted with Black Vernacular English first, before correcting it. Many white teachers would just say it was “incorrect”. Once we have done our homework, the next thing is to decide if the language that facilitator is practicing is appropriate for the situation. If so, then we should resist the urge to “correct” it. If it’s clearly not appropriate for the situation, then in recognition of the power imbalance, we might want to either have a good relationship where we can interrupt and redirect, or wait until a moment outside class time.

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