AAVE tends to be characterized by a relational rather than an analytical style (Hey, what's happen' brother?), and exhibits a preference for concrete and context-rich language (Right on! Keep on keepin' on, meaning, If at first you don't succeed, try, try again). Poussaint confirms that these language characteristics plus a limited vocabulary do not lend themselves to the abstraction and analysis required for academic work.
"Is there a way to say metamorphosis in Ebonics?" he posits. "In German you can write scientific textbooks. You can't write a decent composition with Ebonics."
In a reverse on the Afrocentric cultural argument, Normant believes legitimizing AAVE as a native language limits African American students, contending that both black and white teachers use the limitations of black English as justification for students' not being able to read well at grade level and not being able to write organized, coherent essays. Normant considers that such views let teachers off the hook.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that AAVE-speakers are able to understand what they hear and read but are unable to express themselves in standard English. Rickford suggests the difficulty is embedded in the language's syntax and cites examples from research by leading AAVE authority William Labov who asked African American teenagers to repeat standard English sentences utilizing inverted questions. When requested to repeat, "I asked Alvin if he could go," a typical response was, "I as' Alvin could he-could he go?"
For Mufwene, the goal is coexistence: active competence in standard English concurrent with casual use of AAVE and an understanding on the part of the speaker when it's appropriate to use each.
"There are settings in which the right way to communicate is probably the way people speak in the ghetto, but there are other settings where the right way to communicate is the way that's being taught in the school system. Kids should learn that."
Mufwene's remarks are borne out by Los Angeles students queried about their language preference (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 28, 1996). High school senior Terrence Braggs said the way he speaks depends on whom he's talking to. "It's just like dress. Nobody goes to a wedding dressed in sweats," said Braggs. "Many of us African Americans use Ebonics around family and friends. Outside that circle, we upgrade our language to standard English."
Senior Stephanie Taylor said she uses standard English during job interviews and formal situations and uses dialect when with friends, adding, "I have a friend who talks basically in the dialect. She really has a problem with double negatives. I correct her because I am not going to see myself succeed and her not."
An interesting light is shed on another aspect of the special programs being offered AAVE speakers by Liliana Salinas, a freshman at Santa Monica College, who recounted that her older siblings insisted she learn English before entering school. She explained one sister in particular wanted to spare her the embarrassment of ESL classes. "When she was in school," explained Salinas, "ESL was considered dummy classes."
The Los Angeles African American students' remarks reinforce Mufwene's opinion that educators should acknowledge the strong pull of community and peer group pressure children must contend with. "You have to look good in your community; you don't want to look weak," he explains. "If you are a boy, you don't want to look sissy because you talk in a different way. We can teach kids to talk one way in the classroom and tolerate if they talk differently on the playground because it's a different setting."
For such a "bilingual" approach to be successful, however, teachers must know something about the features that make AAVE different from standard English. When teachers become sensitive to dialectical variation, says Mufwene, they can notice the kind of problems their students have. Is this similar to what Oakland is after? Yes, says Mufwene. Is Oakland's approach is valid? It's a reasonable way to approach the problem, he surmises, although "certainly not the only way." Everyone agrees that repeatedly labeling a child's nonstandard speech as wrong or inferior will have a deep and long-lasting effect on the child's confidence and self-esteem. What effects the stress of switching languages and determining which is most appropriate under various circumstances will have on children is a question that is likely to warrant future investigation.
Normant, who as a child attended segregated schools in Memphis, Tenn., thinks the better way is to require that children learn. "I had teachers who insisted we learn and we master. There was no such thing as you can't do or you didn't understand. I don't recall a person in my fourth grade class who could not read, write, compute or speak well." Normant believes part of today's problem is that neither African American students nor their community values education as they have in the past.
"For some communities the tie isn't made between having an education and having money. They see other individuals making much more money than a teacher, and they don't see necessarily going to school to get an education [as a way to have a better life]."
Mufwene supports Normant's view. "The problem is that in the community there isn't enough motivation for children to learn [when to use AAVE versus Standard English]," Mufwene said. "Part of the education should be to instill in children more about the division of labor in society."
Given the difference in background between teachers and the children they will teach, Normant wants teachers to become more familiar with the life and culture of urban and ethnic communities. (Ethnically, the United States is about 75% European or standard English-speaking, 12% African American, 10% Latino and 3% Asian.) A more endemic problem, Normant says, is that many teachers are not really teaching the structure and grammar of standard English because they have not been well-trained in it.
No one disagrees that any program is bound to fail if it doesn't enlist the support of the community. "Parents themselves would have to be behind [it] and say they want their children to learn standard English," Poussaint insists. Dismissing black English scholarship as peripheral to the central issue, he contends the debate about whether or not AAVE is a language or a dialect is unimportant. "The point is, it's not standard," says Poussaint. "Unless the whole culture is going to revert to Ebonics, it becomes dysfunctional to the user."