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
Most would agree it doesn't matter what other languages or
dialects an American speaks - as long as he or she can speak
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
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
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
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. …