Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ebonics: The Task of Sharing Language and Keeping Identity

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ebonics: The Task of Sharing Language and Keeping Identity

Article excerpt

All through junior high and high school, one of my good friends was a classmate who had emigrated from Sweden with her parents when she was 5. Like many immigrants, she lived in a world divided by two languages. At school, she spoke perfect English. At home, she and her parents reverted to Swedish - a practice she and her mother continue even now.

To those of us in her circle of friends, listening to her family's conversations in Swedish offered a window on another world. As she shifted between two languages, we realized that her bilingual status gave her a perspective far broader than our insular Midwestern backgrounds.

It is a long way - in years, in miles, in culture - from my friend's Swedish-American household in northern Illinois to the African-American homes of students in Oakland, Calif., whose use of black English has put them at the center of an international controversy. But ever since the Oakland school board decided last month to recognize ebonics as a separate language, I've been thinking about my friend's linguistic dual citizenship - and about the millions of other families clinging to the comforting familiarity and dignity of their native language and cultural heritage while yearning to find a place in the prevailing culture around them. The parallels are not exact, of course. My friend never spoke Swedish outside her home and knew that success in her adopted country depended on mastering standard English. Yet as the number of people like her who are straddling two cultures grows, the Oakland decision raises issues that go beyond one city and one minority group. Even readers of The Times of London are now debating the subject in the paper's letters column. Opponents of the Oakland plan to legitimize ebonics make a valid case that the three R's cannot be reduced to Readin', Ritin', and Rappin'. It's hard to be a full member of a community if you can't speak the correct language - in this case, standard English, the language of education, business, and government. …

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