EBONICS AND STANDARD ENGLISH IN THE CLASSROOM:
- Salikoko S. Mufwene, University of Chicago
Published in 1999 Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and
The Oakland Unified School District Boards resolutions of December
1996 about using Ebonics in the classroom, in order to help its speakers
develop more proficiency in standard English and perform better academically,
brought to the surface a number of questions and issues on this vernacular.
Among these was the question of whether it is an American English dialect
or a separate language altogether. Reactions to the resolutions included
myths about its development. I focus only on two of them in this essay.
1) Some of those claiming that African-American English (AAE) is a separate
language have argued that it is a Niger-Congo language and is mistakenly
identified as English (e.g., Smith 1998). Therefore standard English should
be taught to its speakers according to second-language teaching techniques,
more or less in the same way that English is taught to speakers of Niger-Congo
languages in Africa, for instance.
2) The second myth has to do less with use of any special techniques
for teaching standard English to AAE-speakers than with negative opinions
about African Americans, considering them as less skilled at acquiring
the English language in North America, unlike members of other ethnic
groups. According to this myth, White Americans have inherited English
intact from England and have restructured it little, if at all, whereas
African Americans have misshaped it, perhaps beyond recognition, and only
their laziness or mental inferiority must be blamed for the problems experienced
by their school children.
It is not clear whether these unfounded myths are clearly different
from each other, except regarding the ethnic affiliations of their authors
and their attitudes to using federal or state funds to help the relevant
school children. The Ebonics qua Niger-Congo language position has been
advocated especially by some African Americans since Williams (1975),
whose definition, discussed below, has provided good justification for
requesting allocation of funds from Limited English Proficiency (LEP)
programs, to teaching standard English to AAE-speakers (Baugh 1998). Since
LEP programs were designed for speakers of languages other than English,
they argue that AAE can also be treated as a separate language and techniques
for teaching standard English to its speakers must be at least similar
to those used for teaching it to children of immigrants from non-Anglophone
The misshaped English position is an older and more popular myth,
held mostly by the average nonlinguist White American and some successful
African Americans who have an opinion on the subject matter. Those who
subscribe to it assume that the average White American speaks standard
English and this is little restructured, if at all, from English as brought
over from England in the 17th century. Accordingly, all it should take
African-American school children to speak standard English is being more
dedicated to schoolwork and working harder at the task at hand to succeed
like everybody else.
I take issue with both positions, arguing that all American English
varieties are contact-based and restructured varieties; everything we
have learned, and still will be learning, about the development of AAE
makes us more aware of questions we should be addressing about the development
of White American English varieties (Mufwene 1996a, in press-a). The Niger-Congo
identification of AAE is quite a romantic idea, which is undermined, on
the one hand, by communicative difficulties between Anglophone Africans
and basilectal AAE-speakers, and, on the other, by the often observed
structural similarities between AAE and White Southern English (Mufwene,
to appear). I also argue that the debate on Ebonics in the classroom has
been unduly ethnicized. It should have been no more than a question on
whether or not nonstandard English vernaculars can, or should, be used
in the classroom. Aside from further stigmatizing AAE-speakers, the debate
as conducted to date has also been at the expense of underprivileged White
children whose condition in the classroom has probably not been better
off than that of African-American school children.
2. What We Should Remember About the Development of American English
The tradition of singling out AAE as the only restructured variety
of English in North America is bizarre, because there is no White American
English variety that matches a British English variety of today or of
the past few centuries (Mufwene 1996a). As far as contemporary varieties
are concerned, part of the explanation for this diversification lies in
the fact that British English itself has changed since the 17th century.
The population movements which brought European populations over to the
New World started in Europe itself. Migrations of British indentured servants
to North America were typically extensions of labor migrations in the
British Isles, by which English, Irish, and Scottish populations moved
around in search of jobs and often wound up unemployed in port cities
such as London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and then decided in desperation
to try a chance in the New World (Baylin 1986, Fischer 1989).
In England, these population movements also entailed dialect contacts,
and the latter led to the restructuring of British English into its present
dialects. In the case of the United States, the population movements led
to new contacts both among English dialects (Algeo 1991) and with other
languages, European and non-European. Although English prevailed over
the other European languages, such as French, German, and Dutch, its victory
was a pyrrhic one. It prevailed in a restructured form. The socio-economic
history of North America suggests that even if British English dialects
had not changed over the past four centuries, American varieties of English
would still not be identical with them. Indirect evidence for this conclusion
comes from new Englishes in places such as Australia, New Zealand, and
the Falkland Islands (Trudgill 1986). Although they developed from later,
18th and 19th-century varieties of British English, novel contacts of
(subsets of) these dialects have produced varieties different from both
American and British Englishes.
The situation of AAE is a compounded one, with the still unanswered
question of what role African languages played in the selection of its
features, even if the features themselves did not necessarily originate
in the African languages (Mufwene 1999). AAE has remained very close structurally
to White English varieties that developed on the tobacco and cotton plantations
of the southern states, as well as on the rice fields of coastal South
Carolina and Georgia. Gullah must have diverged earlier from other American
varieties, because segregation was instituted early in coastal South Carolina,
in 1720, when the colony was proclaimed a crown colony. The reason was
the early Black majority and constant threats of uprising against White
oppression (Wood 1974). Nonetheless, Gullah remains close to plantation
White speech, despite the kinds of differences observed by Rickford (1985).
African-American vernacular English (AAVE), seems to have diverged
rather late from White Southern English, to which it has also remained
very close. The divergence, attributed mostly to White varieties undergoing
changes in which African Americans have not participated, is the consequence
of the institutionalization of segregated life styles since 1877, after
the passage of the Jim Crow laws (Schneider 1995, Bailey 1997). The fact
that AAVE shares several of its features with White American varieties
(e.g., Appalachian English) suggests that its peculiarities were selected
from Englishundoubtedly under partial corroborative influence of
some African languages (Mufwene 1999), by the principle of convergence
(Thomason & Kaufman 1988, Mufwene 1996b).
There is thus no reason to assume that the AAEboth Gullah and
AAVEdeveloped by any structural processes peculiar to it, although
it has selected a set of structural features which only overlaps with
sets selected by other dialects. This observation applies to any English
dialect, since none is identical with another. Despite the following definition
of Ebonics proposed by Williams (1975:vi) and adopted by Smitherman (1997)
and Smith (1998), it remains that AAE-speakers sound more like speakers
of other American English varieties than like those of Caribbean or African
[Ebonics is] "the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric
continuum represents the communicative competence of the West African,
Caribbean, and the United States slave descendants of African origin.
It includes the various idioms, patois, argots, ideolects [sic], and social
dialects of black people" especially those who have been forced to adapt
to colonial circumstances. Ebonics derives its form from ebony
(black) and phonics (sound, the study of sound) and refers to the study
of the language of black people in all its cultural uniqueness.
Structural linguistic facts, especially those features that AAE shares
with other American non-standard vernaculars (e.g., Poplack, ed. 1999;
Bailey & Thomas 1998), suggest that AAE is a regular American linguistic
phenomenon, and it need not be disfranchised because of the race of its
speakers (Mufwene 1997). A pilot survey I conducted recently (Mufwene,
in press-b) shows that overall its speakers think they speak English but
not some form of a separate African(-American) language.
3. AAE in the Classroom
The typical solution proposed to date to improve the proficiency
of many African-American school children in standard English has been
conceived on second-language teaching techniques. To be sure, there is
a sense in which standard English, an elusive target that I will not attempt
to define here, is a second-language variety to most English speakers.
One of the reasons is that it is primarily written with structures more
consistent with writing as a medium of expression, whereas other English
varieties are primarily oral, with structures more consistent with orality.
For the instance, the latter have fewer complex sentential structures
and certainly fewer instances of complex subordination. Wh-relative
clauses and Pied-Piping are more typical of written texts than of spoken
discourse. As a matter of fact, wh-relatives in spoken discourse
are a by-product of literacy. They are rather uncommon in non-standard
vernaculars, except for where and what in a sentence such
as everything what Mary said.
However, some vernaculars are structurally closer to the standard
than some others are, and speakers of such varieties have fewer problems
developing proficiency in standard English. One may also argue that one
of the reasons some native speakers fail to acquire perfect command of
standard English is their inability to perceive differences between some
structures of their vernaculars and those of standard English. For instance,
to the extent that aint is accepted as an emphatic negator,
one may miss the fact that standard English does not allow saying I
aint seen Tom instead of I havent seen Tom. Likewise,
because done meaning finish is homonymous with done
as past participle of the verb do, its use as a marker of PERFECT
in nonstandard vernacular English, as in I done told you may easily
be transferred incorrectly into standard English discourse. Underdifferentiation
and overgeneralization are phenomena common in second language usage.
Similarities between learning a second language and developing proficiency
in a second dialect end perhaps with the above observations. A native
speaker still feels that he/she is learning to read and write, and even
compose more structured discourse, within the same language. In the process
of learning standard English, he/she brings in the classroom assumptions
and expectations which are not the same as those of non-native speakers
of the same language, such as being able to understand what is said in
standard English and paraphrasing it in their own vernaculars. Such an
expectation is to some extent validated by the exposure that a hearing
child has typically had to oral media before going to school. He/She has
developed some passive competence in the media variety and an awareness
of structural features which distinguish that variety from his/her own
vernacular. Unfortunately, because of the passive nature of this competence
in the media dialect, he/she may not realize that he/she keeps slipping
back to patterns of his/her own vernacular while intending to speak or
write standard English, especially when differences between the two varieties
are subtle and the relevant nonstandard features are strongly stigmatized.
The question here is: how should teachers handle such situations? Should
they treat speakers of non-standard vernaculars in the same ways as they
do speakers of languages other than English? Are the psychological dispositions
so similar in both cases?
The literature reports all sorts of humiliating experiences in which
the childs vernacular has constantly been put down, his/her sense
of identity and self-esteem shattered, and his/her motivation for performing
well in the classroom eroded (Delpit 1998). Based on Smitherman (1998),
Judge Charles Joiner was right in treating the problem in the Ann Arbor
Black English Trial more as a problem of attitude toward the vernacular
of African-American school children than as a problem of another language
or of significantly different structures. The position regarding structures
is indeed what is supported by McWhorter (1997:9-10) when he observes:
It is a fact that Black English is not different enough from standard
English to pose any significant obstacle to speaking, reading, or writing
it. Black English is simply a dialect of English, just as standard English
(...) It is mutually intelligible with standard English both on the page
and spoken and its speakers do not occupy a separate nation. (...)
We also must not make the mistake of equating Black English with
mere "street slang." Black English speakers indeed often use a colorful
slang (...) just as standard English speakers use slang (...).
(...) African Americans are often aware of the similarity between black
speech and that of poor Southern whites, such speech is essentially as
different from standard English as Black English is.
The way to interpret McWhorters position constructively is
that AAE is not alone in being different from standard English and that
the differences between AAE and American standard English are not necessarily
greater than between the latter and other American non-standard English
vernaculars. The position implies correctly that techniques for teaching
standard English to African-American school children need not be different
from those used for teaching it to other American school children who
speak English natively, though they should be adapted to subcultural differences.
This position does not of course entail that school systems should continue
business as usual. It simply suggests that AAE need not be treated as
an exceptional or uniquely deviant case in the classroom.
In a way McWhorters position invites us to situate elsewhere
than in structural differences the problem with the failure of school
systems to make many African-American school children proficient in standard
English. The kinds of attitudinal problems discussed by especially Delpit
(1998) deserve more attention. She points out that solutions proposed
to date to address underproficiency in standard English have typically
eroded the positive disposition of African-American school children in
one way or another. The very fact of singling out their vernacular as
the only or most deviant one from standard English is a problem in itself,
because we know that every vernacular deviates from standard English in
one way or another. It boils down to a problem of tolerance of linguistic
variation, reflecting negative attitudes of some members of the American
society to speakers of some specific varieties (Lippi-Green 1997). It
is indeed a problem when the child is led to wonder why some ethnic ways
of speaking variants are accepted but not his or hers. Adopting for African-American
kids special solutions which privilege other ethnic and cultural backgrounds
over their own is a serious psychological problem that can kill the learners
motivation for learning.
Solutions which insist on treating AAE as a separate language of
the Black diaspora have derived support from cultural differences which
distinguish the average African-American population from the majority
White American population (e.g., Smith 1998:55). However, they have ignored
differences within the White American population, for instance, the fact
that Appalachian and rural White Southern school children apparently face
problems similar to those of African-American children, unless their teachers
are from their own backgrounds and use educational materials that pay
attention to these particular backgrounds. Overemphasis on structural
differences between White and African-American ways of speaking, sometimes
suggesting that most Whites speak standard English, gives the historically
incorrect impression that unlike other Americans, African Americans have
failed in the acquisition of English as brought from England. It contributes
unwittingly to the myth that African Americans are lazy or mentally inferior
and had to develop their vernaculars through extraordinary processes.
Despite their authors good intentions, this approach disfranchises
and stigmatizes African-American school children as much as those alternatives
that are racially motivated and assign them to special remedial programs
on the simple basis of dialectal differences.
Delpit (1998) is correct in observing that constant negative comments
about their vernaculars and constant zealous corrections of the ways they
read and/or speak make African-American school children "increasingly
aware of the schools negative attitude toward their community."
This treatment of African-American children makes them resentful of being
put down and unmotivated for learning. Indeed, as Delpit also observes,
there are alternative, less humiliating and more constructive ways of
teaching standard English to AAE-speakers, as to speakers of other vernaculars.
For instance, she suggests role playing, which should teach the kids "that
there are many ways of saying the same thing, and that certain contexts
suggest particular kinds of linguistic performances" (19). Excessive corrections
intended to discourage school children from speaking their vernaculars
altogether often ignore the fact that the same children are subject to
contrary peer pressures in their own backgrounds, such as stigmatization
for "talking proper" or like a white person.
As a matter of fact, AAE has persisted, despite being stigmatized,
because it has also functioned as a marker of ethnic identity in a society
where integration has been more de jure than de facto. When
put down at school and the chances for success in the socio-economic system
look grim despite the promises associated with proficiency in standard
English, and when there is no rational motivation for losing ones
ethnic identity, then the African-American school child may lose interest
in learning the variety that is being proposed to replace his/her vernacular.
As a matter of fact, consistent even with second-language teaching strategies,
the goal of the school system in teaching standard English should not
be to replace the childs native vernacular but instead to help him
or her acquire command of an additional variety that will help him/her
function adequately in settings where the vernacular is not accepted.
In this respect, the typical approach to the problem of many African-American
school children with standard English has failed and one can only empathize
with the Oakland Unified School District Boards decision to seek
alternative solutions. The Board just did not have to claim that AAE is
a separate language.
AAE is definitely not the only nonstandard vernacular spoken in the
USA. Its excessive stigmatization and the related commitment on the part
of some to eradicate it may have to do with negative attitudes inherited
from the American colonial past, the period since which African Americans
have been thought of as less intelligent. The very fact that vernaculars
of the White middle-class have typically been identified by fiat
as standard, although only some of them are close to it, reflects that
prejudice, some tacit consensus in the overall society that everybody
should adapt to White middle-class norms.
It is true that socio-economic stratification has imposed a system
in which command of either standard or White middle class English has
become part of the requirements for success in the professional world.
However, developing proficiency in these norms need not be at the cost
of abandoning ones vernacular for all communicative functions. Vernaculars
have their own social identity functions; and many speakers are not ready,
least of all eager, to renounce that social-indexical role of their vernacular.
As observed by Delpit (1998), they see in the humiliations of excessive
corrections and in the very style of the corrections themselves, aggressions
of their own ethnic and cultural identities. The childrens negative
reactions to inadequate approaches to the standard English proficiency
problem foster lack of enthusiasm, which in turn produces poor performance
not only in standard English but also in the classroom in general, especially
when they become self-conscious linguistically.
It remains imperative that school systems teach standard English
more successfully to AAE-speakers. What I hope to have shown in this paper
is that this effort should be consistent with the development of diverse
non-standard English vernaculars in North America since the colonial period
and with the fact that AAE is only one subset of such varieties out of
many others. Perhaps excessive concern with AAE is in itself a negative
factor that has ethnicized the more general question of how to teach standard
English efficiently to speakers of non-standard vernaculars in general
without bruising their speakers self esteem nor eroding their enthusiasm
and interest in being educated.
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