Soon after the Oakland School Board announced their decision to resort to AAVE in the education of its speakers in their school system, the New York Times invited me, right after Christmas 1996, to write the following op-ed article which was eventually not published. My position on the subject matter may interest you.

Ebonics Or African-American English:
What's In A Name And Can School Systems Ignore It?
By Salikoko S. Mufwene*

The Oakland School Board's decision to recognize African-American English, called "Ebonics" by some African-American scholars, as a separate language from American standard English should force us to look at a deeper question.

Linguists have learned that there are other nonstandard American vernaculars. There are also many equally underprivileged children among whites in various parts of the country and other ethnic groups whose problems also need to be addressed.

We must come up with a more general educational reform for all students who speak nonstandard English. And if African-American youngsters are the majority of those who wind up in special needs programs, this may reveal some negative aspect of our society that in, itself deserves attention. School boards alone may not be able to resolve the social class problems. The more we focus on ethnic background and not educational needs, the more we may be hurting those we want to help-perhaps stigmatizing them even more.

According to the Dec. 20 New York Times, "Blacks make up 53 percent of the (Oakland) district's enrollment. But they are 71 percent of special education students and only 37 percent of students in gifted and talented classes. Blacks' 1.8 grade point average on a 4.0 scale is the lowest in the district." These are sickening statistics, and one cannot dismiss the contribution of language offhand-even though it may not be the only relevant factor. The city, the state and the nation should do whatever they can to avoid failing such an important proportion of our youth, on whom the future depends.

The name "Ebonics" is not necessary. The variety itself is not a separate language any more than are other nonstandard American English vernaculars. Neither need it be stigmatized any more than the other vernaculars. However recognizing African-American English as a legitimate dialect of English does not mean that it operates by the same grammatical rules or that it differs from standard English only by its vocabulary and its phonetic system-including its distinctive pronunciation of words and intonations. African-American English is not lazy speech or the result of some inherent inability of descendants of Africans to acquire English "adequately." There is plenty of evidence against such fallacies.

Perhaps overemphasis on the influence of African languages in the development of African-American English has not helped dispel these myths. Although we know little about how African-American English developed, the fact is that every variety of American English is the result of language contact in a new social environment. All of them have some nonstandard British English influence, which is in part why all American varieties of English are different from British varieties.

On the other hand, it is not by accident that nonstandard vernaculars in both North America and the United Kingdom share several features. For instance, multiple negatives that do not undo each other (e.g., "I ain't seen nobody nowhere"), usage of "done" before a verb to show that a state of affairs has been obtained already (e.g., "he done gone and took it"), and lack of subject-verb agreement in the present tense or in the past tense of "be" (e.g., "he don't care" and "we was beat").

Many of the British who brought English to America were speaking nonstandard vernaculars of their language themselves. This fact doesn't deny the role of Niger Congo languages in determining the patterns of African-American English. One must, however, be cautious about attributing every peculiarity to this group of languages.

Still, regardless of the factors forming the African-American English system, the tragic reality remains that American schools are failing a large proportion of the speakers of this vernacular. Shouldn't something be done? This is the question that the Oakland School Board is addressing, and board members should be praised for doing so.

The main issue is whether the proposal to teach standard English to African-American English speakers by using techniques for second language teaching is justified. Here I think the Board needs more constructive advice than criticism. The idea of teaching standard English as a non-native variety is certainly a good move; after all, standard English is native to very few. This educational approach might also work well with other groups of students who speak nonstandard American English.

However, my concern with teaching standard English as a second language is that it may fail simply because speakers of African-American English, like those of other nonstandard vernaculars, know that they are being taught another variety of their language. While the linguistic problems they face are due largely to structural differences between standard English and African-American English (as in cases of second language learning), one need not specifically teach standard English to African-American English-speakers the same way English would be taught to speakers of Chinese, Swahili or Spanish. Such an approach to the problem may become counterproductive, because it disenfranchises African-American English-speakers, making them feel like foreigners in their own country.

Teachers should be trained to identify their students' problems correctly and use better techniques to teach standard English more successfully. It is useful to get inspiration from second language teaching, but one should not apply those techniques literally, because the conditions of teaching and learning are not the same.

One question that concerns me is whether the problem the Oakland School Board is addressing is an ethnic problem. Are African-American kids the only ones in the predicament that has been debated? Are we right in ethnicizing the problem or should we rather treat it as a general social class problem-to the extent that African-American English is typically associated with the lower stratum of African-American society and with the ghetto? (I will ignore the fact that not everyone in the ghetto speaks African-American English as stereotyped in academia.)

Some have speculated that the Oakland School Board embraced the term "Ebonics" to clear the way for state and federal funding. It is a shame that state and federal investments in school programs are so rigidly legislated that a school system would have to resort to this kind of strategy. If they really calculated things this way, can we really blame them? On the other hand, is it not embarrassing that it may be more difficult to obtain funds to address problems of American citizens in school than to secure funds for the linguistic needs of immigrants? Both groups are entitled to equal chances of success in a society where beating the competition is almost a motto.

* Salikoko S. Mufwene is Chairman of the Department of
Linguistics at the University of Chicago