`Black English' Pushed for `Bilingual' Education

By Innerst, Carol | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

`Black English' Pushed for `Bilingual' Education


Innerst, Carol, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Officials of a California public school system think black pupils who speak "black English" should qualify for federal bilingual education funds because they speak an authentic language other than English.

The Oakland Board of Education's Task Force on the Education of African-Americans already has agreed that the nonstandard English dialect dubbed "Ebonics" is a bona fide language.

In Ebonics - an old, little-used term that grew out of a 1973 conference of educators, researchers and psychologists concerned about the language skills of black students - speakers say, for instance, "I been done walk" instead of "I have walked."

Whether Ebonics is a legitimate and separate language or another euphemism for bad English remains a bone of contention, but linguists agree that black students need extra help to learn the kind of English required to make it in the world beyond the ghetto.

"Government money is offered to other limited users of English," said Aisha Blackshire-Belay, professor and chairman of the department of African studies at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. "Traditionally, African-American children have not had access to programs - bilingual education would be one kind of program - and they need that."

But Joan Davis Rattary, president and founder of the Washington-based Institute for Independent Education, a national alliance of nearly 400 private black schools serving 70,000 children, rejects the nonstandard English completely.

"I don't call it Ebonics," she said. "I call it incorrect English.

"I understand the social and psychological attachment many youngsters have to the culture and language they bring into any environment - that's not unique to African-Americans - but you need to develop a learning situation where you have high expectations for children to use the language of the country, and to make sure they excel in the use of that language."

Speaking Ebonics prevents black students from decoding standard written English, according to the Oakland Task Force on the Education of African-Americans. The school district's Standard English Program for black students who score below average in verbal skills has focused partially on Ebonics, said spokeswoman Sherri Willis, but the task force's recommendation is the first time officials have thought of Ebonics as another language.

Washington-area school officials say they aren't familiar with the term Ebonics.

The language many black children bring to the classroom is "not a foreign language," said Christopher Cason, spokesman for the Prince George's County school system. "We can still understand what they're saying, and their use of these `slangs' doesn't preclude them from using standard English."

Ms. Blackshire-Belay considers Ebonics a language and teaches a course in it. Her course is aimed at teachers and social workers trying to address the needs of black children.

Ms. Blackshire-Belay taught Ebonics at Temple University in Philadelphia and will teach a similar course at Indiana State in the spring. She says that Ebonics has none of the negative connotations of "black English" and that it's important for teachers to validate the language that black children use at home. …

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