ON THE "EBONICS" DEBATE
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:
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
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
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").
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.
* Salikoko S. Mufwene is Chairman of the Department of