African American English: Implications for School Counseling Professionals

Article excerpt

African American English (AAE) refers to the systematic, rule-governed linguistic patterns of found among African Americans. This article provides an overview of AAE. More specifically, the article enumerates the historical underpinnings associated with AAE, identifies a representative set of AAE characteristics, reviews relevant research, and addresses implications for school counselors who work with AAE speakers.

INTRODUCTION

Pundits have relied on numerous terms to describe the distinct communicative styles of African Americans. Common terms include Ebonics, African American English (AAE), African American Vernacular English, African American language, Black English, and Nonstandard English (Ramirez, Wiley, de Klerk, Lee, & Wright, 2005; Smitherman & Baugh, 2002; Taylor, 1998). Of the descriptors used to refer to the systematic, rule-governed linguistic practices of African Americans, Ebonics functions as the least accurate term, despite the frequency with which it is used.

The term Ebonics was originally coined by clinical psychologist Robert Williams (1975) to refer to a shared linguistic experience, which united African origin people throughout the Diaspora. Linguists argued however, that the term Ebonics was far too broad and encompassing to capture the distinctive features of Ebonics spoken in the United States. Moreover, the term Ebonics represents an amalgamation of the words "ebony" and "phonics" (Green, 2002). Translated literally, the term means "black sounds"; however, neither the term black, nor the term sounds captures the complex grammatical, vocal, and pragmatic features or the rich social, political, and historical significance embodied by the term African American English (Baugh, 2002; Smitherman, 2000). At times, the term Ebonics conjures a set of pejorative attitudes about language, especially within popular American culture. Consequently, AAE will be used because it best approximates the cultural depth, richness, and complexity of African American communicative practices. One noticeable exception occurs when the controversial Ebonics debate of 1996 is referenced.

Issues related to language diversity have received limited attention within the school counseling and multicultural counseling literature (Faubert & Locke, 2005; Fuertes, Potere, & Ramirez, 2002). This article provides an overview of AAE and identifies a requisite set of strategies that professional school counselors can use to help AAE speakers achieve school success. The article opens with an historical overview, continues with a review of some distinctive features associated with AAE, and closes with a set of practical strategies that professional school counselors can use to work more effectively with AAE speakers.

Historical Background of AAE

A number of linguists assert that AAE features are traceable to languages spoken in West African countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria (Baugh, 1999; Crawford, 2001; Green, 2002). Upon arriving in America, restrictive laws prohibited African slaves from communicating in their native African languages or learning to read and write in English without the threat of severe punishment or death (Baldwin, 1998; Smith, 2001; Smitherman, 1998). In the absence of formal training, African slaves and their descendants developed a unique communication system that synthesized their native African languages and English. Essentially, AAE draws extensively on two unrelated linguistic systems. Firstly, AAE borrows heavily from the grammatical constructions associated with several West African languages (Baugh, 1999; Crawford, 2001; Green, 2002; Smith 2001; Smitherman, 1998). These grammatical constructions reflect fairly consistent patterns of usage among its speakers. Secondly, AAE relies on an English lexicon or vocabulary and many AAE speakers combine an English vocabulary with certain West African rules of grammar (Baugh 1999; Crawford, 2001; Green, 2002; Smith, 2001; Smitherman, 1998). …