December 28, 1996 in City

The Language Gap Pro-Con Does Oakland Schools’ Recognition Of Black English Remove Barriers Or Reinforce Them?

Robert L. Steinback Knight-Ridder Newspapers
 

Is there anything objectionable about an American who can fluently speak Creole and standard English?

How about Gaelic and standard English? Spanish and standard English? Patois and standard English?

It doesn’t matter what other languages or dialects an American speaks - as long as he or she can speak standard English.

Yet the decision last week by the Oakland School Board to recognize black-dialect English as a primary and distinct language has provoked horror, outrage and ridicule from black and non-black Americans alike - even though its purpose is to make students who speak in black dialect also competent in standard English.

The critics rail that recasting black English - dubbed “Ebonics” - as a formal language legitimizes the broken, mutated form of English spoken by many African-Americans. This, they say, sanctions bad English rather than addressing the frightful lack of English skills among so many young African-Americans.

The spontaneous emotional outcry against the Oakland strategy is certainly premature and possibly misguided. Some linguists argue persuasively that black English is more than just sloppy English. It is a hybrid that combines English words with grammatical structures common to certain African languages - a unique dialect with consistent rules of usage. This implies that speakers of black English, rather than being deficient, may actually be speaking properly - in the dialect they learned.

The recognition of black dialect alerts educators that a considerable proportion of black Americans speak it as their ONLY verbal language. In this sense, they face the same problem as many immigrants - a lack of command of this nation’s operational language: standard English.

The core question: Does it make sense to apply the same techniques used with non-English-speaking immigrants to speakers of black dialect?

It does. Immigrants are provided with specialized educational programs such as ESL English as a Second Language - to help them develop competency in English without surrendering their native tongue. They learn English as a SECOND language, not a replacement language.

The Oakland plan simply applies the same standard to those who speak black English. The presumption that speakers of black English are intellectually deficient would be replaced by a presumption that they are normal students who, like immigrants, simply need help mastering an unfamiliar language.

A unique circumstance has put some black Americans in the same linguistic boats as immigrants. Many African Americans - for better or worse - look upon black dialect as an element of culture, even identity. For them, standard English is “talking white” - which implies that the dialect of the inner-city and back country is, culturally, “talking black.”

This complicates the teaching of standard English to some African-American students: They view it as a compromise of their blackness. It isn’t, of course - as the linguistic artistry of Maya Angelou aptly demonstrates. But no matter how regrettable, the sentiment is deeply entrenched.

There are few more passionate advocates for standard English than I. Even though I am African American, I don’t speak black dialect and can’t even fake it very well. I regularly encounter African Americans who tell me I “talk white” - which sometimes carries with it the subtle jab that I must also “think white.”

Adults are entitled to their opinions - even dumb opinions. But when I hear black students resisting standard English because it represents “talking white,” I hear denial, misunderstanding and fear. THEY’RE AFRAID TO EMBRACE STANDARD ENGLISH FOR FEAR THEY WILL LOSE THEIR CULTURE.

The Oakland experiment says it’s OK to keep your dialect which might reduce the cultural fear some African Americans associate with embracing standard English.

The experiment deserves to be tested. If it works, it would help surmount a stubborn obstacle to black students acquiring proper English language skills.

Anything bearing that promise shouldn’t be wantonly discarded.

xxxx

For opposing view, see column by Gregory Kane under the headline: The language gap


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