Talkin the Talk: An Examination of Black English in the American Education System
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How many people here believe that schools should require the use of standard English at all times? That schools should respect all languages? How many people believe that Ebonics is a legitimate language that should not be compared to standard English?
Most of you are probably wondering why I am interested in Ebonics. Obviously I’m not black. But, that does not mean that I can’t take an interest in the success of my friends and classmates. I attended Amherst Regional High School in Amherst, Massachusetts. My town is supposedly a liberal, open-minded place. But I always wondered why there were very few black students in my advanced-level classes and how come some of the black friends I had in the beginning of the year were no longer around at the end. I talked to one of my friends about this once. She told me that many black students in our school had moved from a nearby city and that they were not used to the academic standards of the school. Many of them became discouraged due to the lack of support of the teachers and some students even dropped out. This is a problem. In my opinion, many teachers do not respect students’ cultures if they are not a part of the mainstream, white culture. Although language is only one part of this respect, it is a large part of every student’s culture. Even though there has been a movement to improve inner-city schools and increase the success of black students, these programs would benefit any school around the country.
Although the debate over the legitimacy of Ebonics as a language had been burning out, the Oakland school board decision in 1996 re-sparked this debate. Every marking period, in the Oakland school district, many African-American students brought home report cards singed with bad grades. In a school district where 53% of the student population is African-American, what concerned the school board was that these black students accounted for 71 percent of "special needs" students and received an average GPA of 1.8, compared to the average of 2.4 for all other students (Perry xi). It was time to correct that problem. The school board of Oakland, California organized a task force to do just this. The Ebonics Resolution, as the plan was called, recognized Ebonics as a legitimate language that deserved respect within the classroom.
This plan called for the use of black English to teach African-American students standard English. This initiative was supposed to improve the success of Black students. Instead, the resolution inflamed opposing views and arguments. Over the past three years, many controversies, confusions, and misrepresentations of the Oakland plan have been added to the fire. What many people fail to recognize is that Ebonics is a language with its own rules, and that despite the controversies, the resolution passed by the Oakland school board positively effects students in the district.
The debate about language is an important one for black children. Many black children that attend urban ghetto schools perform poorly; African-American students in this setting average more than two years behind the national norm in reading (Durkin 283). Due to statistics such as this one, there are many myths about black students and their capabilities. In the past decade the government has sponsored research to discover the disadvantage or "defect" from which black students suffer (Durkin 282). This viewpoint, called the deficit theory, assumes that black students lack something that other students have. According to this theory, children show a cultural deficit because they have grown up in an impoverished environment (282). In the area of language, the deficit theory takes on the idea of verbal deprivation; in other words, children from the inner city have poor means of verbal expression. According to the deficit theory, Ebonics speakers come to school without speaking a fully developed, logical language. But, educational psychologists who had very little knowledge about language and black children completed this research. The idea that black children are not as developed linguistically is a product of the American caste system. Unfortunately, many children, including black children, know that Ebonics is a "low-prestige dialect" (Brooks 24).
Due to the existence of myths, Ebonics causes negative responses from people who do not speak the language or understand the culture. Black English is used by more than 20 million African-Americans in the United States, and many lower and working class black youth learn this dialect as their first (Ball 225). Nevertheless, Black people do not use Ebonics at all times and the type of Ebonics is determined by sex, age, socio-economic status, and geographical area (Brooks 22). However, Ebonics is a language system with its own rules. For this reason, many linguists believe that teachers need to learn about the language in order to effectively teach black children. The main issue behind the Oakland resolution, and new educational plans in other areas, is the poor academic record of many black students. Although language is not the only cause, more and more educators agree that when a teacher demeans the speaking habits of many black students it negatively affects their self-esteem. Although it has been misunderstood, the purpose of the Ebonics Resolution is to allow black students to become involved and excited in their education and to improve academic success.
In 1996, before the Ebonics Resolution, the Prescott Elementary School was the only school where a majority of the teachers voluntarily participated in the Standard English Proficiency program. This program is a statewide initiative, begun in 1981, that acknowledges Ebonics as a language with its own rules and supports the use of the language to help students learn to read and write in Standard English (Perry xi). The Prescott Elementary School was known for the success of its students and caused the task force of Oakland to look closely at the program. The goal of the Standard English Proficiency program is to use students’ home language and culture to teach them standard English. The philosophy of the program is, "We are teaching you a second language, not fixing the home language you bring to school" (Perry 80). Teachers learn about the sensitivity of language, and are encouraged not to mock the speech of parents or relatives of a black student. They learn to accept that if a student can express a concept in any language, he/she possesses that concept (Perry 155). Teachers must always support the students’ self-identities within the classroom. They must also recognize Ebonics as a language with its own rules and structures, as well as nonverbal elements. Teachers have begun to incorporate culture, language and literacy into classroom lessons. As students get older, they are encouraged to speak standard English, but are not required to do so. Students are given classroom exercises and texts that point out the differences between their language and standard English in creative manners. The program does not stress how well a student acquires and speaks English; they emphasize learning to read through a strong literacy component (Perry 80). This Standard English Proficiency program was the main goal of the Ebonics Resolution, and the program continues to grow.
The question of Ebonics as a language is important to inner city black youth. Their speech patterns are a large part of their culture and identity. If a teacher constantly tries to correct them, the students begin to question the legitimacy of their identity, just as any other student would. Since the 1930s, many scholars have said that African-American language derives from an African language system (Smith 55). According to Africologists, Ebonics retains the shape of the syllable structure of the Niger-Congo African languages (56). For this reason, there tend to be no consonant clusters in Ebonics. Words such as west, best, land, swift become wes, bes, lan, swif . Within Ebonics, the verb to be is often not used in the present tense, not because it has been "deleted," but because "the verb to be was not a part of the African languages (Smith 57). Another common feature of Ebonics is the use of a habitual "be" in place of certain adverbs such as sometimes, often, always, and whenever. For example, a speaker of Ebonics would say "Doug be trying to tell" while a standard English speaker might say, "Doug is often trying to tell" (Ball 232). Ebonics speakers also use double subjects by using a recapitulative pronoun to stress the subject, such as "That teacher she mean" (Smith 57). Speakers of Ebonics also often drop the -s in the third-person singular present, saying "she walk" instead of "she walks." Multiple negatives are used in one sentence to provide emphasis and possession is indicated by context, not the possessive "’s" (Brooks 23). Some words also have different meanings in Ebonics than standard English. Besides these rules and structures, Ebonics also has cultural connections.
The way children are raised teaches them how to communicate. Within the African-American community, by the time children enter kindergarten, they have usually formed a sense of identity that is strongly linked to their ability to use their spoken language (Meier 121). "In their communities, they are applauded for their quick verbal responses, their creative plays on words and sounds, their imaginative improvisations of familiar stories and themes, and their ability to best an ‘opponent’ through superior verbal reasoning" (121). African-Americans also use different pragmatic rules - rules which govern how people use language to accomplish social actions. For example, Black children are taught to be creative rather than answer a question with a known answer. These expressive qualities could potentially help a student excel within the classroom. However, if a teacher does not understand the differences between Ebonics and standard English, these stylistic differences could be marked as errors and even cause a teacher to assume the child has cognitive difficulties.
In order to better understand Ebonics as a language, we must explore the cultural value of this linguistic system. According to Geneva Smitherman, a linguist who studies black English, there are four main categories of Black modes of discourse. African derived communication is a process of call and response. In this type of spontaneous verbal and nonverbal communication, statements by the speaker are responded with expressions from the listener. It is not considered discourteous to holler and whoop while someone is speaking in order to show approval of what has been said. Signification is also a large part of Black communication. This is the "verbal art of insult," as the speaker humorously puts down the listener (318). This is a socially accepted way to talk about people, and through the use of humor, the insult is easier to accept. If the receiver cannot think of an insult as a reply, they can just laugh along with the group. Ebonics is also a language that values sounds, and therefore tonal semantics, the rhythm and inflection of the language, are extremely important; for this reason, talk-singing is used in any situation where people feel good. Another cultural quality of Ebonics is the use of highly detailed narratives. The speaker may use a story to explain a point or persuade listeners to agree with his/her argument. "Though highly applauded by blacks, this narrative linguistic style is exasperating to whites who wish you’d be direct and hurry up and get to the point" (Durkin 324). This misinterpretation of African-American culture leads to teaching environments that do not help Black students to excel. This is where the Oakland School Board decision becomes relevant.
The wording of the Ebonics Resolution, as well as the ideas in the document itself, caused a great uproar and re-started a large debate about black English that many thought had ended years ago. The document called Ebonics the "primary language" of students and asserted that it was a "genetically based" language. It stated that blacks "are not native speakers of a black dialect or any other dialect of English" (Applebome 3). Many critics do not believe that Ebonics deserves equal footing with other established languages ("Using Ebonics…"). Proponents of the resolution have said that the media misinterpreted the document and misinformed the public. District officials of Oakland have tried to qualify the "genetically based" reference by saying that they only meant "that certain speech patterns had their ‘genesis’ in Africa" (Colvin 2). Proponents also say that critics today reflect the conservative fear that public schools are not succeeding (3).
Other critics say that the resolution is "dumbing down" academic content in order to make students feel good about themselves (Colvin 3); they argue that the recognition of Ebonics would cause a lowering of standards. Some African-Americans also think that the resolution implies that black students cannot speak clear, understandable, proper English, and the only way for black students to do well is if the standards are lowered. ("Oakland Schools’ Decision…", Colvin 1). They say that the resolution had as much to do with self-esteem and racial politics as it did with promoting good education for all (3). Supporters of the resolution argue that the philosophy of the program is to improve students’ success, not to lower standards; under the proposed plan, teachers would have the same expectations but would implement them in different ways. The main misinterpretation of the resolution is that students will be taught in Ebonics (Using Ebonics…) However, proponents of the resolution argue this point very clearly. Carolyn Getridge, The superintendent of the Oakland Schools wrote, "The district is not teaching Ebonics. Nothing could be further from the intent of this policy" (Getridge157). The purpose of the resolution was not to argue that black students should not learn standard English. Instead, it was a recommendation with a goal to improve the success of black students. The resolution does not call for teachers to teach students in Ebonics; rather it supports the idea that teachers should use the language to help black students learn standard English. Educators who support this plan want to help students learn by using what they know to teach them.
The uproar over the resolution caused the task force to write another document in order to clarify the intent and prevent the racial jokes that the controversy fueled. Since the introduction of the resolution in December of 1996, the school board revised the plan and removed the controversial terms from the policy. The resolution no longer speaks of a separate black language, but the core initiative, the Standard English Proficiency Program, is still the main focus.
The language debate of Ebonics vs. standard English is a debate that is not new in the history of the United States. Nevertheless, the recent decision by the Oakland school board brought the education of black students back to the forefront of the nation’s priorities. No student deserves to be ridiculed or discriminated against due to the culture they bring to the classroom. Every student deserves an inviting learning atmosphere that captures their attention and causes them to want to learn. I know that in my own high school, this philosophy of Oakland’s program could have helped some of my friends. One of my black friends didn’t feel valued as a student. Even when she tried and did poorly, she felt that her teachers never cared enough to help her because she was black. Eventually she just dropped out. I was so sad as I knew that she wanted to succeed. If teachers had respected and valued her, she could have believed in herself. She would have been in college right now. The Ebonics Resolution of Oakland is changing the educational experiences for people like my friend. The Standard English Proficiency program is giving results; the program itself is spreading to more schools throughout the district, and other school systems are creating programs that are similar. One high school senior from Oakland, Michael Lampkins, wrote in support of the new resolution, "I need a solid education. I want to learn. I want teachers and administrators who want me to succeed in my future… Therefore, I need instructors with the classroom strategies that are right to meet my unique needs growing up in a contemporary urban community" (Lampkins 181).