Arrow-right Camera


Schools Chief Waves Off Ebonics Approach Board Members More Sympathetic To Idea; Doctoral Student In Linguistics Explains It As Dialect

SATURDAY, DEC. 28, 1996

Seattle Schools Superintendent John Stanford says the school district should focus on teaching its students English and not embrace black English, or Ebonics, as a way to teach black youngsters fluency in standard English.

Stanford said recognizing Ebonics as a separate language does not justify spending money meant for teaching English to bilingual students from other nations.

“My view is that to come from speaking in vernacular English to (standard) English is not as difficult as to come from a different language to English,” Stanford said.

“We intend to teach English in our school systems. We have to focus on perfecting the English of our kids.”

The issue has been much discussed since the Oakland, Calif., School Board recently voted to declare Ebonics a separate language. The district plans to train teachers to understand Ebonics and to use it as a tool to help students make the transition to standard English.

Seattle School Board President Linda Harris said she wants to take a wait-and-see approach. If the Oakland program to teach Ebonics “proves to raise academic achievement, then I would be all for it,” she said.

“If a child comes to school and has a language that means something to them, it is incumbent upon the schools not to tell him or her that the language is wrong,” said school board member Michael Preston.

“If a child is told that their native language is wrong or it is dumb, then the child ends up having a self-concept that is diminished. And as a result, that child is more difficult to teach. What we should do is learn what the language means and translate it into useful English.”

Ernest Johnson, a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of Washington, said Ebonics is not some street language, jive or slang.

“You can hear Ebonics spoken in any black barber shop in Seattle,” said Johnson, whose dissertation is on the “Influence of Speaking Black English on the Spelling of Standard English.” But the language is not spoken by all blacks.

“It tends to be spoken by Southern blacks, working-class blacks and the older generation of blacks. It is spoken less frequently by middle-class blacks. The research on inner-city youth shows that they speak it and they are the ones that are keeping it alive.”

Johnson said Ebonics is a dialect of English that has its roots in West African languages such as Ibo - languages that have different grammatical structures than English.

“Speaking as a linguist, black English is not a separate language,” Johnson said. But, “as a dialect of English, black English is different enough from standard English to cause significant problems in reading, writing and spelling.”

Some people are saying that black English is just bad English, said Johnson. “That is wrong. It is a rule-governed language that originated prior to slavery.”

It is crucial, he said, for teachers to respect their students’ home language and not suppress development of standard English skills by criticizing children for expressing themselves in black English.

Click here to comment on this story »