Lifeworld Vernaculars Are Key to Literacy Transformations

After reading Megan Foss’ personal narrative, Love Letters, I found an appreciation for the honesty in how she presents her natural voice. While her natural voice dominates the story, she simultaneously shows her literacy transformation of being an uneducated woman from the streets to an educated college graduate as her vocabulary got significantly better over the course of the story. Rather than switch back and forth between her lifeworld street vernaculars to her academic secondary vernacular she elected to combine the two. Her effectiveness in doing so makes me want to be able to present my ideas and stories in similar ways.

Tacoma, Washington

I am from Tacoma, Washington and went to a diverse school in a relatively diverse city. For example, from 1980–2000 the Hispanic population of Tacoma increased by roughly 26,000. The black and Asian/Pacific Islander population increased as well; black population by roughly 28,000 and Asian/Pacific Islander population by roughly 44,000. To show how significant those increases in population are to diversity, I will also give the demographics of Olympia, Washington over the same time period. The population of Hispanics only increased by roughly 7,000, the black population increased by roughly 5,000, and the Asian/Pacific Islander population increased by roughly 11,000 (Harvard School of Public Health).

Being from Tacoma has exposed me to the vernaculars of multiple different races. Vernacular meaning, using your ordinary language in everyday speech opposed to formal language. Those vernaculars melded together to create what I will call a Tacoma vernacular. I assert that whatever city you are from your city will have its own vernacular as well, whether it’s Tacoma, New Orleans, or Akron.

The vernacular that you acquire growing up is part of what James Paul Gee, in his book, Social Linguistics and Literacies, specifically, in his chapter “Discourses and Literacies” would call your lifeworld discourse (165). Gee discusses a number of discourses with the main ones I will focus on in this paper being primary, lifeworld and secondary. A primary discourse is something you acquire based on family and sociocultural setting (153). Lifeworld discourse differs from primary discourse in that your primary discourse blends with your everyday life and secondary discourses which makes you culturally distinctive from everyone else (165). However, in school (or work) there is another vernacular, that of academic vernacular (or work vernacular). Unlike the vernacular you acquire through your lifeworld discourse, school is a place where you can both acquire and learn the academic vernacular making school (or work) a place Gee would call a secondary discourse (154).

A prime example of the difference between the vernacular of your lifeworld discourse and the vernacular of your secondary discourse is laid out by Gee in his book. “What is important in communication is not speaking grammatically, but saying the ‘right’ thing at the ‘right’ time and in the ‘right’ place” (147). Foss, although unaware of Gee’s claims, found this idea presented by Gee true for herself as she moved through academia. She found the vernacular of her lifeworld discourse didn’t necessarily have a place in her new secondary discourse. Yet, she didn’t want to lose the part of her that she thinks helps define her.

Here is a sample of how Foss wrote Love Letters, “I suppose it shoulda occurred to me that sitting there with that tablet on my lap and a CoCo County Sheriff chatting me up wasn’t the brightest thing I coulda done” (14). Even Microsoft Word wants me to correct the spelling of shoulda and coulda although it was such a significant factor to the importance of Foss’ narrative. By using her lifeworld vernacular Foss shows us that you can be knowledgeable about your secondary discourse/vernacular and express the same ideas with the same impact while using your lifeworld discourse.

Foss’ lifeworld vernacular came out strongly in her writing; however, over the course of the narrative her vernacular changed to more of the secondary discourse of academia. By the end of her narrative she realizes that her lifeworld vernacular is such a key part of who she is that her narrative wouldn’t be the same without it. One professor encouraged her to write her (true) narrative as fiction because the language and story wouldn’t make it believable if it was presented as nonfiction (30). Another professor told her to write it how she spoke it (31), specifically, “Whittle away the academic and moderate tone.” But Foss couldn’t do it, it felt wrong because she felt her lifeworld and secondary discourses couldn’t coexist, “I’d write the word ‘ain’t’ and it would feel like I was crossing a bigger line than it felt the first time I sold my body” (31). What this implies about language is that it’s not one dimensional. Foss’ words illustrate that there are different vernaculars for different situations. For her it was the streets versus school.

It wasn’t until Foss discovered that writing letters to her estranged ex-boyfriend, Daryl, was when she used her most natural voice, that of her lifeworld discourse. Foss’ situation is similar to how a Texas native moves to the Pacific Northwest and her Texas accent fades away. Yet, when she gets on the phone with her mom, her real Texas accent that has been masked away by her transition to speaking like we do in the Pacific Northwest comes out full blast blending somewhat with some of the secondary vernacular the Texas native has learned. Foss writing her letters is a blend of both her lifeworld vernacular of the streets and her secondary vernacular of academia.

Her grammar would be that of the streets but her vocabulary improved and blended into her narrative so nicely that she could use gonna and hermeneutics in the same sentence (32) and not feel dumb for doing so. She described this experience by noting, “Reclaiming my language — proving that being trailer park trash doesn’t preclude intelligence — has gone a long way towards bringing me comfort in my new world” (31). This statement towards the end of her narrative defines her as a bi-discoursal person, according to Gee. Bi-discoursal people have the ability to master two contesting or conflicting discourses (164).

I understand that Foss was a creative writing major and did her graduate work toward a master’s degree in fine arts, but I don’t see why we can’t write things as we speak, as her professor told her to write her narrative. Why do we have to write things and categorize them as fiction if they are spoken in our primary vernacular as Foss’s first professor suggested she do? This is where I struggle most. My transition from my primary vernacular to my secondary vernacular is a daily thing when I am in class speaking orally and writing papers compared to how I talk to my parents and friends, how I text, and just speak in general. Gee would add that in order for there to be a change in secondary vernacular more pieces of work like Foss’ that push that boundary need to exist (164).

Like Foss, I find myself struggling to be able to blend the two. I have found myself becoming absorbed by my secondary vernacular so much so that sometimes I feel out of place when my primary vernacular organically comes out. For example, recently in a 19th Century Literature class I am taking someone in class raised a question about a poem we are reading in Elizabeth Bachinksy’s Home of Sudden Service. She asked, “Why does the poet keep referring to these guys as boys?,” and I responded with, “Probably the same reason we call women girls. To say look, if you’re finna call me a girl when I’m actually a woman, I’m finna call you a boy even though you’re a man to show you that we are on equal playing fields. You’re a boy to me if I’m a girl to you.” The word finna threw people off. Finna means gonna or going to if you couldn’t figure it out in context. What happened was that question triggered a response by me; without noticing, my primary vernacular slipped out amidst a discussion with people I share a secondary vernacular with. I think people in a 300 level English lit class would expect going to rather than finna.

As I noted towards the beginning, Gee claims speaking grammatically is not the important part, saying the right thing at the right time is (147). Although I used my primary vernacular, I made my point clearly and wasn’t questioned on the content of what I said; I just received a few looks when I said finna. I easily could have said going to instead of finna with my ability to code-switch between vernaculars. My ability to use both vernaculars makes me rhetorically flexible. I am able to switch between my primary and secondary vernaculars the same way Foss can, making her rhetorically flexible as well.

I think Foss’ use of her new and improved secondary vernacular vocabulary and grammar combined with her natural lifeworld vernacular from the streets comes across as a beautiful blend of her discourses. Some people don’t understand why if you know how to use the vernacular of an educated secondary discourse you would choose to still speak with the vernacular of where you grew up. But like Foss, I find myself most comfortable when I speak with my Tacoma vernacular. I don’t feel dumb when I say the things I say, but I do feel like people think I am dumb when people say, “What are you talking about? I have no clue what you just said.” I usually respond with something similar to what Foss’ second professor told her, rather than use multiple sentences to explain what I just said, I encourage them to think of the context of the sentence I just spoke and decipher for themselves what the word or phrase I used that confused them means (31).

When people hear things they aren’t accustomed to it’s like they are not paying attention to what’s actually being said because they are so distracted by the accent or grammar. For the most part, I can decipher what anything means no matter the grammar because I listen to the context clues I am presented with surrounding the word, phrase, or idea that I am unfamiliar with. In fictional texts we read different types of vernaculars all the time. We are able decipher what is being said by the words and sentences around the difficult parts of the text. The truth is, although the stories in fictional texts are not based on true events, the language is usually the actual vernacular of real people. For example, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is written in southern United States vernacular that can be hard for people in the Pacific Northwest to understand, same with anything written by Shakespeare. If we are doing this with literary texts, why not with each other? However, when we pay attention to the context clues around the words and phrases we are confused by or unfamiliar with we can begin to decipher what’s being said to us as readers.

I feel a lot like Foss in that I have been significantly shaped by my secondary discourse and its vernacular so much so that sometimes when I hear my lifeworld vernacular I don’t see how the two can coexist. But every time I hear my lifeworld vernacular being spoken I am reminded of its beauty and how it makes me who I am. I find myself using more of my secondary vernacular in my lifeworld vernacular than my lifeworld vernacular in my secondary vernacular simply because in my secondary vernacular it feels uncomfortable to bring out my lifeworld vernacular.

If I turned in a paper where I left the ‘g’ off of thinking my professors would be so confused and ask why I am doing such a thing. I wish I could write a paper sayin things how I wanna say them, but my secondary discourse holds me back from doing so. And to be honest, it feels uncomfortable. Writing that previous sentence was uncomfortable because it’s not something I’m used to doing for class. Writing in my primary discourse is a lot more difficult than speaking in it. Talking to my professor or a classmate in my primary vernacular is a lot more organic than turning in a paper where I know primary vernacular is typically not accepted. If my professor is okay with me asking questions and talking in my lifeworld vernacular why is s(he) not okay with me writing in it?

Let me be clear, my lifeworld vernacular and secondary vernacular are not drastically different, there are just phrases I like to use and words I like to shorten that I feel uncomfortable doing in my secondary vernacular. I love how I talk, and even more so, I love that the development of my secondary discourse has allowed me to expand my lifeworld vernacular so much so that I can say I’m finna be presenting on post-colonialism in class today rather than, today I will be presenting about postcolonial theory, just like Foss can say gonna and hermeneutics in the same sentence.

Foss defines herself as socially bilingual, or as I put it, rhetorically flexible, while Gee would define Foss as a bi-discoursal person. I would argue that in the case of literacy being socially bilingual and being a bi-discoursal person is the same thing. It means being able to be rhetorically flexible between lifeworld and secondary vernaculars. Further, I would define myself as just that, a blend of Foss’ social bilingualism and Gee’s bi-discoursal people, and I wouldn’t wanna be anything else. However, I elected not to write a majority of this essay in my lifeworld vernacular unlike how Foss wrote Love Letters mostly in her lifeworld vernacular. Towards the end I transitioned a bit, but I wanted the contrast of my lifeworld discourse to stick out with my finna and going to example. Gee claims that bi-discoursal people are the catalysts for change (164); Foss showed me how lifeworld vernaculars have a place in secondary discourses, sparking the literacy change Gee discusses, as long as your claims are strong and supported.