Black English in Oakland Schools SLANG OR LANGUAGE?

Article excerpt

It has been the language of playgrounds, neighborhoods, and churches since African slaves were brought to this country hundreds of years ago.

Now the Oakland school district is officially recognizing "black English" as a separate language, touching off the biggest debate in American education since the return of phonics.

To critics, the move represents political correctness run amok: It elevates slang to a legitimate language - and threatens to undermine the teaching of standard English to a generation of inner-city youths. But proponents say recognizing black English will only help African-American kids learn linguistic skills - including standard English - better. The result is a controversy that now transcends the city of Oakland to encompass sensitive issues of race and education reform across the country. "I think it's tragic," says Ward Connerly, an African-American businessman and University of California regent who led the successful ballot initiative last month to end state affirmative action programs. "These are kids {who} have gotten themselves into this trap of speaking this language - this slang, really - that people can't understand. Now we're going to legitimize it." Behind all the furor is a long history of serious research by linguists and educators on the existence of black English, or ebonics as it's called, and its impact on learning problems. Oakland school officials, caught off guard by the uproar, have tried to explain that their goal is to improve English skills. There are no plans to teach classes in ebonics or to substitute it for standard English, they say. Underlying their decision is a belief, based on many studies, that black English is a distinct dialect, if not a language, that has systematic differences in grammar and syntax from standard English. The term "ebonics" - combining "ebony" and "phonics" - was coined in the 1970s at a time of extensive research into the structure of black English, including its grammatical roots in West African languages. LINGUISTS are split over whether to call black English a dialect or a language. Stanford linguistics professor John Rickford, who teaches a course on "African American Vernacular English" and co-authored a forthcoming book on the subject, considers it a "creole," such as the combination of French and English spoken in Louisiana. In any case, he says, "I agree with the premise that African-American kids are coming to school with a {linguistic} system that is regular and in many ways quite different from standard English, and it poses problems." By recognizing this reality, and employing techniques that borrow from bilingual education, teachers can improve English skills more effectively, many experts say. "The first step is to recognize it is a language - or something other than {standard} English - but the next step is to teach only standard English reading and writing," says Mary Hoover, a Howard University education professor and an adviser to the Oakland schools. Although the Oakland declaration that ebonics is a separate language marks a first for any school district, it is by no means the first acknowledgment of ebonics. …