Ebonics-Black English or Boondoggle?

Mar 01, 1997

The important thing about teachers listening to Ebonics is for them not to equate it with the students' being stupid, says Alvin Poussaint, M.D., professor of psychiatry. "It means they've learned a way to speak in their community or home that's a natural way for them to speak, which they then carry with them to school." While the language is part of who they are and their connection to their community, it doesn't absolutely have to exist to preserve a black identity.

There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language. It's terrible to think that a child with five different languages comes to school to be faced with books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging...I know the standard English. I want to use it to restore the other language, the lingua franca.  

-Toni Morrison

This observation by African American author Toni Morrison effectively reflects the dilemma embedded in the debate recently sparked by one school district's intention to use what Morrison calls the lingua franca to teach black students standard English.

It's probably safe to say that before the Oakland, Calif., Board of Education's Dec. 18, 1996, resolution recognizing Ebonics as the native language of African Americans, many of us took whatever examples of black speech we might encounter as either street or ghetto slang or incorrectly spoken standard English. (Ebonics was coined by linguist Robert L. Williams, from ebony and phonics.)

According to John R. Rickford, Ph.D., of Stanford University, "black English," or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), as the linguistic community prefers to call it, is "a highly structured and systematic language" that reflects the unique experiences of African American culture. Rickford, an AAVE scholar, helped draft the Linguistics Society of America's Jan. 3, 1997, resolution supporting Oakland's recognition of Ebonics. That resolution acknowledged 30 years of scholarship documenting AAVE and insisted, "Characterizations of Ebonics as 'slang,' 'mutant,' 'lazy,' 'defective,' 'ungrammatical' or 'broken English' are incorrect and demeaning."

Providing credence to this view is the work of such linguists as Geneva Smitherman (author of Talkin and Testifyn: the Language of Black America, 1977) whose work has helped support the view of black English as an essential manifestation of black culture to be recognized, nurtured and preserved.

Those linguists and educators who support the concept of using what is called contrastive linguistics to help students learn standard English expect that comparing linguistic structures and vocabulary will heighten children's awareness of the differences between AAVE and standard English and enhance their ability to speak the standard with less errors. Rickford cites studies in Europe and the United States that suggest placing value on a child's vernacular can accelerate achieving proficiency in the target language. Anecdotal evidence from some classrooms appears to support that contention, although large-scale, controlled studies are lacking.

Others familiar with African American culture and speech express concern that the Ebonics/black English issue deflects attention and effort away from the complex of factors affecting reading and writing competence among African Americans.

"The important thing about teachers listening to Ebonics is for them not to equate it with the students' being stupid," says Alvin Poussaint, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston, Mass. "It means they've learned a way to speak in their community or home that's a natural way for them to speak, which they then carry with them to school." While the language is part of who they are and their connection to their community, it doesn't absolutely have to exist to preserve a black identity, he says, adding, "There are many other things to being black and having a black perspective than speaking a certain kind of language."

He dismisses charges that efforts to establish standard English competence implies a denigration of African American culture. "[African American children] need standard English to function in this society," says Poussaint, "and even to enhance and go more deeply into their culture."

Furthermore, Poussaint believes it is not the syntactical and phonetic errors teachers object to, but rather the profanity African American children pick up from the streets and incorporate in their everyday speech, which is not necessarily part of Ebonics. The teachers take the profanity as a sign of disrespect and a threat to maintaining classroom discipline.

Similarly, Nathaniel Normant Jr., Ph.D., of Temple University's department of African American studies, contends that the language teachers complain they can't understand is actually the code and slang of hip-hop culture, which he considers much different from what has been identified as features of black English vernacular. Normant also disputes the view that Ebonics is a separate language and prefers to view it as a dialect of standard English. Nor does he believe, as some linguists have contended, that the particular structure of AAVE causes interference with African Americans' ability to learn and use standard English (linguistic interference). He contends his research shows the same errors are evident in low-level writing by African Americans, whites, English as Second Language (ESL) students and foreign language speakers generally.

Despite its recent high profile, the use of AAVE to teach standard English is not new. Under the Standard English Proficiency Program (SEP), Ebonics is the means by which African American students in 18 of California's 1,000 school districts currently learn English. As early as 1979, a federal court upheld the right of black parents in Michigan to have their children educated in Ebonics.

Roots of Ebonics

Normant points out that the present circumstances have roots in two developments that collided in the 1960s-the Black Power movement, with its celebration of African American culture, and the simultaneous propagation of the view that African Americans are genetically inferior in intelligence and cognitive ability. The Black Power movement led to linguistic analysis that traced AAVE to West African roots (replacing theories that American slaves mimicked the Old English of original white settlers). At the same time, research purporting to document inferior cognitive ability and intelligence in African Americans led to the subtle anticipation among educators that such students would not do well in school. Although the latter view has since been discredited, it is still, Normant contends, an influence upon the educational establishment.

While it is considered that AAVE is more likely to be spoken by working class or lower class African Americans, it has not generally been acknowledged that nonstandard English is likewise spoken among whites. Salikoko Mufwene, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago, contends that many features associated with AAVE are also found among white nonstandard English; constructions such as I dun told you, phonetic habits of dropping the g from ing, replacing th with d and consonant clutter simplification (tes for test).

"We talk about the situation of African Americans as though it were unique," says Mufwene. "In fact, what is unique about it is that it is more conspicuous. When you see a black person you think he's from the lower working class even if this person isn't speaking African American English. When you see a white, you think they must probably be from the middle class. You have that prejudice." Mufwene's observation suggests one reason for negative reactions among some teachers who tend to associate the AAVE spoken by their students with substandard English spoken by uneducated or illiterate whites. This reaction has been used as the basis for criticism by some African Americans who feel that whites have used AAVE to justify racial inferiority.

Relational Style

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."

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