Fall 1998 - Volume I, Issue
This paper represents the second part of a journey I began seven years
ago. I sat in a professional development training class for literacy educators
at Lesley College in Cambridge, MA., and challenged my professor. We'd been
discussing David Wood's book, How Children Think and Learn, which addresses
language learning and the use of dialect by African American students. Until
this point I disdained Black English Vernacular (BEV), and what I termed "that
kind of talk." My instructor elucidated Wood's insights by informing me that
African American dialect was not "inferior" or bungled English. BEV was simply
a dialect--something different from standard English. What was she saying? Who
was she, a white scholar telling me, a highly educated African American
professional that I was ignorant regarding an African American subject ? But
that was a mentor's role according to Daloz (1986). That is, in my journey as a
literacy educator, she was helping me to become a "competent traveler." I
became confused yet stimulated. My beliefs about people who talked "that way"
This spirited discussion prompted me to begin my own
informal research about the nature of African American dialect. I began to
listen carefully to people who used that dialect--particularly on
television--and to examine my responses as they spoke. Instead of discounting
what they said if they happened to leave an 'ed' off the end of a word, I
learned that, indeed, one's speech had little to do with the level of wisdom
presented. I remember listening to a tenant organizer in Chicago's Cabrini
Green section. She spoke in Black English Vernacular. I marveled at this
woman's courage--courage that I lacked--and the wealth of ideas she expressed.
Today, I take pride in the fact that I've become an advocate for
linguistic diversity, enlightening and supporting teachers who find themselves
challenged in meeting the educational demands of such cross-cultural
communication (Nelson-Barber and Meier, 1990; Pine and Hilliard, 1990). At the
same time, I am ashamed that I reached graduate school before realizing my
ignorance and need for a new "thought-set" (Good and Brophy, 1987).
With these revelations came a tentative release of long held views about
"highly stigmatized" (Dandy, 1991) forms of spoken English. I'd heard both of
my parents say "wit" for "with" and "dem" for "them." My father always called
me "MayAnn" instead of MaryAnn in keeping with the BEV rule that drops the
final "r" such as in Southern dialect (doe for door). But that was forgiven
because he was my dad, and not "highly educated." However, I cringed whenever I
heard other African Americans speak "that way" in my neighborhood, in school or
in the media. I raised my son forbidding him to ever talk "that way" because I
believed such talk denoted illiteracy and ignorance.
As a college
instructor and teacher educator, I've now entered another era of learning as I
seek to expand and share these new insights that engender greater awareness.
All that I discuss here represents my present understandings about linguistic
diversity and the African American Ebonics speaker. My intent is to raise
levels of consciousness, change attitudes and spark informed discourse.
Ebonics may be defined as the linguistic and paralinguistic features which
on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West
African, Caribbean and the United States slave descendants of African origin.
It includes the grammar, various idioms. . . idiolects and social dialects of
Black people. Ebonics also includes nonverbal sounds, cues and gestures which
are systematically and predictably utilized in the process of communication by
Afro-Americans. - Dr. Ernie Smith, linguist, 1973
The word Ebonics is
formed by combining ebony (black) and phonics (speech sounds). Before December
1996, when the Oakland school board decided to embrace Ebonics as a language
bridge to standard English, most people hadn't heard of the term. Outrage
erupted across the nation, in white and African American communities. Due, in
part, to the "media's negative spin" (Williams, 1997, p. 208), the board's
intent was completely misrepresented. Oakland's actual goals emphasized the
teaching of standard English, but in ways that valued, utilized and supported
students' use of their home or native language. Some myths that prevailed
included: • Oakland is condoning slang and street language. •
Oakland is teaching Ebonics instead of standard English. • Oakland has no
research to support the use of code switching (bridging between Ebonics and
standard English) to improve student achievement. Ogbu (1997)
underscores Oakland educators' intent and sense of urgency, as he provides
compelling data regarding achievement of Black students in the Oakland Unified
School District. The GPA in 1995-96 was 1.80 compared to the district average
of 2.40. Black students comprised 53% of the student population; 71% of which
were in Special Needs classes and 37% of gifted education population; 64% of
students repeating grades were African American and 19% of Black twelfth
graders had not met graduation requirements. A task force found that of the
eight major language groups in Oakland, African Americans had the lowest scores
on standardized language tests. Black children were over represented in Special
Needs classes primarily due to low language assessment test scores.
This information prompted the Oakland school board to adopt Ebonics as a way
to provide strategies that would help Black students effectively transition
from their home language to standard English. Their basic concern was not that
Ebonics was a separate language, but that African American children--more than
any other language group--were not achieving levels of English proficiency.
Oakland Superintendent Carolyn Getridge (1997) wrote "...this policy mandates
that effective instructional strategies be utilized to ensure that every child
has the opportunity to achieve English language proficiency. Language
development for African American students...will be enhanced with the
recognition and understanding of the language structures unique to many African
American students..."(p. 27).
In essence, many African American
children speak Ebonics at home, and take it to school. They've learned it from
their families and communities. Unfortunately, at school peers tease and
teachers often scold, correct and admonish African American students not to
"talk like that." As a result, African American Ebonics speakers feel degraded
It is out of this need to affirm the culture of
African-American children while simultaneously transitioning them to "standard"
English that the Ebonics movement evolved. Dr. Robert Williams, who coined the
term Ebonics, states "the important point here is that my language is me! It is
an extension of my being, my essence. It is a reflection and badge of my
culture. Criticism of my language is essentially a direct attack on my self
esteem and cultural identity" (1997, p. 209).
Before describing predominant responses to the Ebonics
controversy, I will present two theories concerning its roots as a linguistic
system: The two are referred to as the Pidgin/Creole and the African Retention
theories (Williams, 1997).
According to the Pidgin/Creole theory,
Africans were brought from predominantly West African areas to America speaking
a variety of languages. Holloway (1996) describes the enforced isolation of
Bantu tribes on American plantations in the Carolinas. This allowed slaves to
retain many aspects of their culture including religion, folk tales,
storytelling and naming practices. As a result of this separateness, Africans
were able to retain much of their cultural identity -- sharing across and
between tribes - while adopting American customs and language. This composite
language of various slave groups evolved into "pidgin" language. Pidgin was not
the native language of any one group. Creole has pidgin as its source; children
learned this pidgin language from their parents and the newly created language
was called Creole (Williams, p. 211). Asante (1996) describes a second stage of
language development, "Englishization" or Ebonics whereby the Creole speaker
began to "code switch." This is a process of transitioning back and forth to
The second theory, African Retention, posits that
Ebonics has evolved from West African languages such as Ibu, Twi, Yoruba,
Wolof, Fante, and Mandinka. They are dialects of the same speech system. Dr.
Ernie Smith, an African American linguist, asserts that Ebonics is the mother
tongue of the African American child just as Spanish is native to the Hispanic
child. He believes that "Ebonics is the African American's linguistic memory of
Africa applied to English words. Ebonics is the linguistic continuation of
Africa in Black America "(1997). Examples of African retention include:
As a result of
readings and many discussions with my colleagues , I have discovered three
predominant responses to the Ebonics controversy. . I present these responses
based on two seemingly conflicting personal beliefs. First of all, I value
language differences, and believe individuals and groups benefit by maintaining
vernacular speech varieties. At the same time, I contend that a successful life
in America is facilitated by mastery of standard English, and that resources
should be made available to all who aspire to such mastery. I believe that
teachers will be more prone to provide the resources if they understand the
concept of linguistic diversity as a strength upon which to build. The
following responses provide educators with a broader view of that idea
emanating from the work of noted scholars in the field of linguistics.
Response One: Ebonics is a separate language. Speakers deserve
bilingual services if needed.
The work of several African
American linguists supports this view (Dilliard, 1973; Smitherman, 1986;
Spears, 1996). They believe that the label 'Black English' is an oxymoron. That
is, African American and Euro-American speech emanate from a separate
linguistic base. English has Germanic roots with a completely different rule
system than Ebonics. According to most linguists who support Ebonics, it is a
separate language that has its origin in West and Niger-Congo African
languages, and is not a mere dialect of English. Ebonics is, in essence, the
mother tongue of African Americans. Thus, students have a right to receive
bilingual support services because English is not their native language.
Dr. Ernie Smith contends that African American children have been viewed by
teachers as "linguistic invalids." He argues that these children have a
separate language, and thus qualify for Limited English or Non-English
Proficient (LEP/NEP) programs just as Hispanic, Asian or Native American
children who come to school with different mother tongues. In his view Ebonics
speakers are "equally entitled, and should be given ESL and their literacy
instruction in the vernacular that they natively understand" (1995, p. 15).
Supporting this view, psychologists Williams and Rivers (1973) and
educational researchers Simpkins, Holt and Simpkins (1974), have demonstrated
how the use of Ebonics and the instructional strategy of code switching or
bridging has served to increase reading scores of African American children.
Results indicated that poor test performance did not mean that African American
children were incapable of processing standard language. "...The child's intake
gates [were] not activated by the stimulus properties of standard English. The
child must be taught to code switch -- to move from Ebonics to Standard
English" (Williams, 1997, p. 212). Although, I am heartened by results of such
studies, I believe more expanded research efforts are necessary to support the
call for formal bilingual support services for Ebonics speakers.
Response Two: Ebonics is a dialect of English. Speakers need
culturally sensitive teachers to assist hem in "code switching" or
transitioning (back and forth) to standard English.
particular theory originated from the work of Labov (1970,1979) who studied
language patterns of inner city children in Philadelphia. Labov concluded that
non-Standard English was "just as logical and consistent as Standard English;
it could be reproduced and it made sense. It is merely different." Lindfors
(1980) defines standard English as a "dialect that doesn't call attention to
itself, standard English is English as I speak it. The notion of a 'regional
standard' dialect(rather than just a standard for the language in general)
seems better to reflect the situation of dialect diversity in that it
recognizes that there are many identifiable varieties of English, and that they
are all valid linguistic systems" (p. 355).
Dandy, in her book, Black
Communications: Breaking Down the Barriers (1991), defines a dialect as a
"variation within a particular language." She contends that all English
speakers speak a dialect of their native language. Consider the dialect
differences of President Clinton and Senator Edward Kennedy. In Dandy's view,
dialect is not inferior as is the popular belief. It is simply "something
slightly different from another of the same type." She notes the fact that
American sign language has dialect differences. She posits that dialect is a
language system peculiar to a region or social group. It is set off from other
dialects by unique features of pronunciation, word order and vocabulary." Dandy
prefers to use Hoover's (1985) term Black Communications because she believes
dialect is more than speech; it is a system of communication including speech
sounds, grammar, vocabulary, verbal strategies, style, nonverbal behavior,
sociolinguistic rules, special speaking behaviors and moral teachings (1991, p.
12). Proponents of this view encourage teachers to "view dialect different
speakers as human beings who are developing the ability to communicate in two
different modes: Standard or Educated English and Black Communications" (Dandy,
1991, p.110). The educator's task, according to this theory, is to view
language as a medium of exchange and to help students become bidialectal-able
to switch from one "code" to another as needed. Advocates of this view help
students learn that standard English serves as a "passport allowing them to
travel anywhere they want to go" (Brice-Finch, 1991). Dandy reminds teachers
that "they were not born speaking Standard English as adults. . . Just as
someone taught them the language, teachers must teach their language to
students. The key lies in a teacher's attitude and expectations..." (p. 110).
Response Three: Ebonics is a substandard dialect reflecting
deficient language skills. Speakers need immediate correction and formal
instruction in standard English.
Williams convened a conference in 1973 at Washington University in St. Louis on
language development because he'd "grown sick and tired" of African American
speech being referred to as "substandard," "restrictive," "deviant,"
"deficit," "non-standard"... (1997, p. 209). Asa Hilliard, Professor of
Education at Georgia State, describes the consequences of this deficit view:
Feelings of shame and doubt among African American children are consequences of
stigma since many African Americans, even the well educated, misunderstand
basic linguistic principles...(1983, p. 32). Labov (1979) believes that most
teachers "have no systematic knowledge of non-standard forms which oppose and
contradict standard English" ( p. 4). Smitherman and Cunningham, educators at
Michigan State University, view the "negative pronouncements on Ebonics" as
indication of a "serious lack of knowledge about the scientific approaches to
language analysis, and a galling ignorance about what Ebonics is . . ." (1997,
Teachers holding the deficit view look upon deviations from
standard English as "inherently evil, and they attribute these mistakes to
laziness, sloppiness or the child's natural disposition to be wrong" (Labov,
1979, p. 4). These educators perceive the teaching of English as a "question of
imposing rules upon chaotic, shapeless speech filling a vacuum by supplying
rules where no rules existed before" (p.5).
Herein lies the challenge
for those of us hoping to convince this camp that Ebonics is valuable--a
strength upon which to build. We must persuade educators that the African
American child's speech is NOT chaotic, shapeless or empty -- a point on which
all linguists agree. There is a moral imperative for educators to initiate
informed and mediated discourse in order to eradicate this pervasive,
ill-informed ,damaging response to the Ebonics speaker.
What helpful attitudes, beliefs
or personal constructs should teachers be aware of?
The need to
determine and evaluate one's personal attitude regarding Ebonics is, I believe,
the most appropriate place for educators to begin. Without knowledge and
appreciation of diverse communication styles, teachers may respond with lowered
expectations and inappropriate teaching and assessment procedures as
illustrated in Oakland.
Dandy (1991) describes research in actual
classrooms "... Teachers interrupt these children more frequently in their oral
reading, call on them less frequently, give them less time to answer questions,
provide less verbal feedback for their answers, and provide them with less eye
contact and positive nonverbal attention" (pp. 128-129). In a survey of
teachers' attitudes about language differences, Shuy (1975) found that teachers
equated lack of standard English vocabulary with overall lack of vocabulary. If
children did not talk much at school and were unfamiliar with school related
terms, teachers inferred that children just didn't have a vocabulary.
To address the needs of Ebonics speakers, a new mind set by teachers is
required. I agree with Gere and Smith (1979) that attitude change necessitates
"a conscious effort which entails the modification of one's thinking." They
present five ways to begin this process of change which I've posited as
The furor created by the Ebonics resolution passed
in Oakland has brought the issue of language differences in our public schools
to the national limelight. Ogbu (1997) has conducted compelling research that
underscores the fact that this issue is not as simple as it appears. Results of
his studies call for educators to become more knowledgeable in two major
categories: language differences and "cultural meanings" of those language
The following captures what I believe is required
information for an educator's "linguistic diversity" repertoire:
It is evident that issues emanating
from language differences are quite complex. Prudent, sensitive educators are
those who skillfully utilize this information to sharpen their sense of
awareness, and establish a sound knowledge base on which to build ongoing
insights. With sound theory and a heightened sense of personal blind spots,
educators are now more prepared to consider instructional issues.
Dandy (1991) recounts a story of Joey, an African American third
grader who is asked to read by Alice, a white student teacher. Joey is in the
highest reading group, and will read with Alice in a demonstration lesson for
her supervisor. As Joey begins to read, it is evident that he is a dialectal
speaker; he pronounces street as "skreet." Alice responds "not skreet, Joey,
say street." Joey says "skreet." Alice again interrupts Joey when he
mispronounces the word a second time. As he reads on, he reads about a cat who
"skretched" out... Alice says "No Joey. You're doing it again." Joey repeats
"skretched"; Joey's voice becomes more quiet, and he finally stops because he's
lost his place. Sims (1972) reviews the idea of miscue (mistake) quality. "A
miscue(mistake) that doesn't cause a loss of information or interfere with the
originally intended meaning of the passage is high quality (meaningful and
useful). . ." Johnson (1975) calls this "alternation skr for str a dialect
shift-a translation without a loss in comprehension." I believe that teachers
need to understand that constant interruptions for mispronunciations break the
flow of the story line, and erroneously stress reading as a sounding out
process. Much more importantly, it demoralizes children. Krashen (1987) in his
studies of second language acquisition refers to an "affective filter" that
operates when a student is "over anxious about his performance... (causing) a
mental block.. (which) will prevent the input from reaching those parts of the
brain responsible for language acquisition" (p. 232). When students are
constantly corrected, the affective filter gets raised which causes them to
become self-conscious and monitor their speech making talking difficult.
Generally, it is nearly impossible to apply or monitor language for rules while
speaking or reading. Typically, silence results as the teaching example with
Joey illustrates. In contrast to spontaneous oral language or public reading,
writing seems to lend itself more to opportunities for editing which doesn't
damage the spirit of a child. It is a mediated process allowing for reworking
before there is public display.
Dandy (1991) offers eight instructional
strategies, based on Taylor's work (1986) that enable teachers to provide
learning opportunities for students to develop communicative competence in
standard English while preserving the home dialect.
At this point in time, I too hold the
"different" view espoused by Dandy. That is, Ebonics is a dialect of English.
Students who speak this way must be sensitively taught to code switch by
teachers who acknowledge and accept the child's home language. It is incumbent
upon us as teachers to assist students in becoming bidialectal speakers. To do
anything less is to miseducate a child. These strong views arise out of my
reflections on the words of David Wood (1988):
No one dialect of
English, in any linguistic sense, is superior as a means of communication to
any other...Although dialects and creole vary in pronunciation and grammatical
structure (due to their distinct historical origins) they are no less
grammatical than Standard English. All languages, dialects and creole are
governed by rules of grammar...they are all 'equally' grammatical...the fact
that one way of speaking is viewed as superior, more intelligent or more
'proper' than another is not a linguistic phenomenon, but a political, social
and economic affair. A particular way of speaking has become dominant because
those who speak it have risen to power, and control functions like education,
mass communication and the means of production. (p.92) It is
imperative that teachers develop new ways of thinking about diversity. A
teacher's major role is that of a communicator. Educators must be able to
communicate meaning across individual differences. This complex task involves
interaction across issues of race, culture, socioeconomic status and power. All
demographic data points to the fact that the United States is becoming a nation
characterized by diversity as never before. What can educators do? What should
we do? I recommend that we must first look inward and develop a sensitivity to
issues of language differences. From there we can gain helpful insights and
knowledge which allows us to view diversity as a resource not a barrier:
Following this we can build an arsenal of understanding that equips us as
culturally sensitive communicators and problem solvers. I hope that
the energy educators have expended to eliminate Ebonics will be redirected
towards supporting its historical, cultural, social and linguistic utility. By
implementing approaches that assist students in becoming bidialectal,we equip
African American children to become skilled participants at any table of
opportunity in mainstream America. As Spanish is valued by most Hispanic
Americans and Yiddish is for Jewish Americans; as French is to Haitian
Americans, so Ebonics is to most African Americans. While we teach students to
value standard English as the language of commerce, access, power and
intergroup communication, we all should strive to learn more about the cultural
value of Ebonics or Black Communications (Burnett et al., 1997; Dandy, 1991).
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and Learn. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, Inc. Return to the Journal of
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Fall 1998 Issue Main Page
Editorial - Luke Baldwin in Memoriam
Luke Baldwin and Linda Brion-Meisels - Fostering Gumption
Jim Cummins - Rossell and Baker: The Effectiveness of Bilingual Education
Brenda Matthis - Stories From The Other Side of the Screen
Wade A. Carpenter - The Grand Bazaar
Sarah Nieves-Squires - Cultural Identity and Bilingualism in the Puerto Rican Reality
Mary Ann Johnson - The Ebonics Debate
Angela María Pérez-Mejía - His-panics and Mine
Donna Cole - English as a Second Language
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