Black English as a Badge of Identity

By Steinback, Robert L. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), December 3, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Black English as a Badge of Identity


Steinback, Robert L., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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?

Most would agree 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 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. Most critics, including poet Maya Angelou, worry that describing black English as a language will reduce the black student's desire or incentive to learn standard English. Other critics have invoked hyperbolic visions of Ebonic "translations" of Shakespeare, Melville and Hemingway substituting for the originals in order to make things more comfortable for poorly literate black students. Cynics sneeringly forecast lawsuits to have street signs, ballots and menus written in Ebonics. Such visions are utter nonsense. The 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 intell ectually deficient would be replaced by a presumption that they are normal students who, like immigrants, simply need help mastering an unfamiliar language.

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