Does being precociously fluent in English but teased on the playground indicate a dialectal problem?
David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster:
A SNOOTlet is a little kid who’s wildly, precociously fluent in SWE—Standard Written English—(he is often, recall, the offspring of SNOOTs). Just about every class has a SNOOTlet, so I know you’ve seen them — these are the sorts of six-to-twelve-year-olds who use whom correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to shout “How incalculably dreadful!” The elementary-school SNOOTlet is one of the earliest identifiable species of academic geekoid and is duly despised by his peers and praised by his teachers. These teachers usually don’t see the incredible amounts of punishment the SNOOTlet is receiving from his classmates, or if they do see it they blame the classmates and shake their heads sadly at the vicious and aribtrary cruelty of which children are capable.
Teachers who do this are dumb. The truth is that his peers’ punishment of the SNOOTlet is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. They’re learning about Discourse Communities. Little kids learn this stuff not in Language Arts or Social Studies but on the playgroun and the bus and at lunch. When his peers are ostracizing the SNOOTlet or giving him monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there’s serious learning going on. Everybody here is learning except the little SNOOT—in fact, what the SNOOTlet is being punished for is precisely his failure to learn. And his Language Arts teacher — whose own Elementary Education training prizes “linguistic facility” as one of the “social skills” that ensure children’s “developmentally appropriate peer repport,” but who does not or cannot consider the possibility that linguistic facility might involve more than lapirdary SWE — is unable to see that her beloved SNOOTlet is actually deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammer, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it’s these abilities that are really required for “peer rapport,” which is just a fancy academic term for being accepted by the second-most-important Group in the little kids life. If he is sufficiently clueless, it may take years and unbelievable amounts of punishment before the SNOOTlet learns that you need more than one dialect to get along in school.
…The point is a little A+ SNOOTlet is actually in the same dialectal position as the class’s “slow” kid who can’t learn to stop using ain’t or bringed. Exactly the same position. One is punished in class, the other on the playground, but both are deficient in the same linguistic skill — viz., the ability to move between carious dialects and levels of “correctness,” the ability to communicate one way with peers and another way with teachers and another with family and another with T-ball coaches and so on.
Still curious? David Foster Wallace is the author of Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, and The Pale King.