SC State Student's Hometown Dialect Leads to Meaningful Opportunity

Friday, August 6, 2010

Jessica RichardsonWhen you hear Jessica Richardson speak, it is not reminiscent of the Gullah language spoken by many of the residents in her hometown of Huger, S.C. (Gullah is defined as a creole language spoken by the Gullah people, also called “geechees” within the community). Richardson, a graduate student in the Speech Pathology and Audiology Program at SC State University, has achieved neutrality when it comes to her speech. In fact, she speaks with such intelligence and poise that it landed her a full scholarship and stipend for Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Communication Sciences and Disorders doctoral program that she will begin in the fall.

Although Richardson has made such a huge accomplishment, she can still revert back to her Gullah dialect, citing phrases like, “uh he’p dem” or “I helped them.” Richardson has embraced her dialect, but living in a varied culture, she understands the significance of learning what most have deemed the typical language, as well as the repercussions of embracing her dialect.

“The only reason I learned how to switch was because they closed our African-American high school and moved us to a more diverse school. It was at Hanahan High School in Hanahan, S.C. that I was forced to learn how to change,” says Richardson. This was the main reason for Richardson’s research presented during the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) conference held last year in New Orleans that ultimately led to her latest achievement.

One aspect of Richardson’s research focused on prospective teachers and their perception of various dialects, such as standard English, southern English and the Gullah Geechee language. Junior and senior level education majors listened to the recordings of three speakers. They then rated the speakers on friendliness, honesty, socioeconomic status, personality and educational level. The comparison was made to determine which speaker these prospective teachers rated lower solely based on listening to their respective dialect. The Gullah Geechee speaker was rated lower in every category. “If it’s harder for them to understand, you receive a lower rating,” notes Richardson. The research would also help with providing language tests that are now lacking, but which can ultimately accommodate a wide range of nonmainstream and mainstream dialects of English.

Richardson’s research paper was submitted to ASHA and accepted. Consequently, she delivered a poster presentation, summarizing her research through an introduction, message and results. “You’re there with your poster presentation for one hour,” says Richardson. “Whenever a group of individuals approach your poster, you present to them.”

Richardson was lucky to be approached by Dr. Janna Oetting, a professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at LSU. Richardson recalls her encounter with Oetting whom she quoted in her research. “She approached me with a group of three others. I went through the research and we just engaged in a discussion about the language. She told me that my research correlated with research that they are doing now at LSU about the Creole dialect,” says Richardson. “She then asked me if I would be interested in pursuing a Ph.D. from LSU. If I was interested, they had a research assistant grant that I could work on and they would pay me a stipend for four years. It would be tuition free.”

Oetting, whose research focuses on child language development and disorders in the context of different dialects of English, was fascinated with Richardson’s research. “I recruited Jessica for my lab because I was impressed with her abilities at ASHA,” says Oetting. “Her areas of expertise and interest complemented those of other graduate students who work in my lab.”

Initially, Richardson, leery of the offer from a professor she just met, almost missed out on a big opportunity. Thanks to her professor, Dr. Regina Lemmon, and a visit to LSU, she was convinced to move forward. Lemmon, an assistant professor in the Speech Pathology and Audiology Program at SC State, also led Richardson’s research class. “I encouraged Jessica to complete the application little by little,” states Lemmon. “Lo and behold, she completed it and received the full scholarship and living stipend. They are actually paying her to get a doctorate. She doesn’t understand how enormous this opportunity is. Something like this doesn’t come along very often.”

Lemmon wants to ensure that her students, like Richardson, are exposed so that they may receive other enormous opportunities. ASHA consists of 140,000 members, and approximately 20,000 attended last year’s conference. This means that research must be rigorous to be accepted.  Research begins within Lemmon’s graduate studies class, designed to take students through the research process.  Students then present their research during Lemmon’s class, at the state conference, and finally at ASHA if it is accepted. “At the national level, it is so demanding that a lot of times I may submit three or four projects and only one may get accepted,” states Lemmon.

This year, Richardson’s research was the sole project from the University that was selected. Lemmon notes the uniqueness of the Gullah Geechee dialect. “There’s another young lady in our class from the U.S.  Virgin Islands who speaks with a dialect,” says Lemmon. “It’s amazing that when Richardson and her classmate get together, they use some of the same words and they sound the same. Slave ships traveling from Africa to America would make stops along the way in the different islands in the Caribbean, so the Gullah dialect has been traced back to Sierra Leone and other areas in Western African.  Therefore, people from the Caribbean islands who meet people who speak Gullah Geechee use some of the same speech patterns,” states Lemmon.

Twenty-four year old Richardson is ready to share this history lesson and other research she’s learned at SC State with the community at LSU. “Dr. Lemmon’s research class really opened my eyes to research,” exclaims Richardson. “It broadened my horizons and showed me that without research, you wouldn’t know what works in a clinical setting.”

Now, Richardson is ready to continue broadening her horizons. A full scholarship and a living stipend are wonderful incentives that will help her blossom within this 25,000 member institution. According to Oetting, Richardson’s funding is provided by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. “The goal of the grant is to further document the dialect diversity that exists in kindergarteners who live in rural areas of Louisiana, as well as document differences between kindergarteners with and without language impairments within these dialect communities,” says Oetting.

Although a large institution, Richardson will work with a small team of researchers including three faculty members, seven Ph.D. students and four master’s students that will assist in developing the language tests necessary to help children with language impairments get the early services that they need.

Lemmon and Dr. Gwendolyn Wilson, department chair for SC State University’s Speech Pathology and Audiology Program, are ecstatic about Richardson’s doctoral pursuit. “That is why we work so hard to get our students to attend and present at national conferences,” says Wilson. “Exposure is what it is all about. We want our students to know that if you work hard and if you are excellent at what you do, you will have opportunities presented to you that can have a significant impact on your future. We are all very proud of Jessica.”