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Getting Ahead: Language patterns

Posted Jun 07, 2023 8:32 AM
By Patricia Jones, Alliance Community Task Force: Creating Opportunity

Some of the major barriers faced by people in poverty are language related. We’ve all seen social media posts that make us shudder; we wonder why this person never learned to read or write.

People may have trouble making the transition from casual register, used in conversation with family and friends, and formal register, used in school, employment, and working with government agencies. Casual register relies on body language more than word choice. This is true in both speaking and writing. Writing includes emojis and nonstandard spellings, like the ones often used in text messages.

The ability to use formal register is a hidden rule of the middle class. Students in poverty households and immigrant families may have only communicated in the casual register at home, yet schools operate in the formal register. Well-paying jobs are accessed via formal register and would use formal register throughout the work being done. Using casual register in an application letter, resume, or job interview will disqualify many job applicants immediately. Regardless of intelligence or ability, the applicant would be relegated to a lower-paying position.

A second language issue faced by those in poverty is the pattern of discourse, the manner in which information is organized. The biggest difference is that in formal register, the pattern is to get straight to the point. In the casual register, the pattern is to go around and around before finally getting to the point.

Story structure in formal register is linear. It starts at the beginning, moves chronologically through the narrative, then reaches the end. The important parts of the story are the plot and the events.

In casual register, the story begins with the part with the greatest emotional intensity, usually the end. The story is told in segments with lots of comments and jokes about characters and their value. Listeners are encouraged to participate and comment.

Community service providers who are working with people in poverty are often frustrated by clients who they think are wasting time. Exchanges tend to be misunderstood on both sides. Providers want to get information quickly. But their clients need to tell a story first to contextualize and build to the point. When providers try to cut the conversation short, clients view that as rude and often shut down. The problem doesn’t get solved.

Think about this in terms of different service providers. A doctor is working with a patient and has a limited amount of time until the next appointment. Rather than describing symptoms and time frames, the patient is babbling about friends and family and their reactions to different

things. S/he may not ever share the information the doctor needs to make the correct diagnosis.

What about a parent-teacher conference? The teacher wants to discuss what the class has learned, what they will study in the future, the quality of work the student is doing, classroom behavior, getting things done on time. The parent wants to talk about relationships, family matters, friendships, fights – issues that are outside the classroom. Parents quickly get the message that teachers don’t want to hear their story, so they often don’t speak at all.

A third language barrier institutions must work to understand relates to a person’s ability to fill out forms. Job applications, insurance claims, requests for assistance – these can be overwhelming. Immigrants may speak English fluently, but they may not read and write in their second language, the one used on forms. People in poverty and the elderly often have vision problems that make reading forms difficult. Formal register is expected in paperwork, so the form may be filled out incorrectly, or using misspelled words or texting language.

For people who need the services of the healthcare system, the schools, law enforcement agencies, or other service providers, communication can be very difficult. The institution’s need to gather information in formal register and in a linear fashion can frustrate their clients. The client’s circular description of events, problems, or histories can frustrate the professional needing the information. Our society’s need to do paperwork often overwhelms the person completing the form.

Being able to use the language expected in different situations is necessary to negotiate the environments we must function within – family, friends, school, work, agencies, and the community where we live