Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American Vernacular English and Hawai'i Creole English: A Comparison of Two School Board Controversies

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American Vernacular English and Hawai'i Creole English: A Comparison of Two School Board Controversies

Article excerpt

This essay compares the controversies surrounding actions taken by two school boards-one in Hawaii and the other in Oakland-in their attempts to help students in their districts attain fluency in standard English. Public reactions expressed during each of these two incidents demonstrated a general lack of understanding about languages and nonstandard dialects. The myths and characterizations about Hawaii Creole English and African American Vernacular English, and the issues these two stigmatized dialects have raised, point to educational policy implications concerning academic achievement and the politics of language.

In December 1996 the school board of the Oakland Unified School District sparked a firestorm of controversy when it issued a resolution that addressed its students' nonstandard speech-African American Vernacular English (AAVE). A decade earlier, the school board of the Hawai'i State Department of Education also triggered avid contention when it proposed a policy that was aimed at its students' nonstandard speech-Hawai'i Creole English (HCE). While these two school boards served apparently disparate social and cultural communities, the policymakers shared a common concern: What to do about the marginalized language of many of the students in their school district? This essay compares the controversies and educational issues surrounding the two school boards' actions.

Like AAVE, HCE has long been a topic of considerable educational concern. Over the past decades the issues provoked by these two dialects have erupted intermittently and without fail. Why? Both have been prevalent and highly noticeable within their respective communities. Both have been the center of emotional debates among the general public. Both have raised questions about the role they play in hindering academic achievement, particularly in reading and writing standard English (SE). Both have placed schools at center stage and have stymied educators who have sought to address the issues raised. Finally, both have been at the center of controversial attempts at policymaking.

HCE has not generated the kind of national debate and media frenzy brought on by AAVE and most Americans are unaware of the existence of HCE. Nevertheless, a comparative history of the educational debates generated by these two nonstandard forms of English can be instructive. The similar myths and characterizations about them, and the attendant issues they raise point to conclusions that have important policy implications.

In discussing these two language varieties, I have chosen to use the terms African American Vernacular English and Hawaii Creole English. Over the years, a variety of designations have been used for African American speech: Black English, Black English Vernacular, Ebonics, U.S. Ebonics, African American English, and African American Vernacular English. In this essay I use the term African American Vernacular English because of its current use by many linguists. Similarly, I use the linguistic term Hawaii Creole English. The more popular designation, "pidgin English," is technically incorrect. Hawaii Pidgin English is an earlier form of communication that was the basis from which HCE developed. Recently some linguists in Hawaii have begun to use the popular lexicon "pidgin English" to refer to HCE. For this essay, I have chosen not to follow this practice; instead I use HCE, which is the more linguistically accurate designation.

Hawaii Pidgin English, the earlier form of communication, was a contact language developed during the latter half of the 19th century on the islands' sugar plantations. Indentured laborers, who had been recruited from all parts of the world, especially from Asia, spoke mutually unintelligible languages. In order to communicate with each other, with Native Hawaiians, and with European American plantation managers, these immigrant laborers and those with whom they came in contact devised a rudimentary form of pidgin speech. …

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