The Ebonics debate: separating fact from fallacy

For the past several weeks, the nation — and its news media —
have been engrossed in an on going and highly emotional debate on the
subject of “Ebonics,” a term used by some to define a linguistic system
used by many — but certainly by no means all — African Americans.

In many ways, it is rather remarkable that any language issue could
capture the attention of the general public or the news media for such
a long period of time. Yet, the current Ebonics debate has done just
that. Why?

Perhaps the controversy has received so much media attention
because it emerged during the month of December, a traditionally slow
news period. Or, perhaps, it is symptomatic of one of the nation’s
quintessential issues, which is how to handle race and linguistic
diversity in a multicultural society.

The lightning rod for the controversy was a resolution passed by
the Oakland, California Board of Education that advocated teaching
African American children standard English competency by respecting the
language systems they bring to school and using these systems as a
bridge to teaching standard English. This reasonable goal of taking
students from where they are to where they need to go has been depicted
incorrectly by many as an initiative to teach Ebonics in the Oakland
schools.

Some of the controversy was probably triggered by the language used
within the resolution itself. To its credit, the Oakland School Board
has since clarified its goals and intentions on the Internet
(http://ousd.k12. ca.us/oakland.standard.html). In its clarification
statement, the Board states that it is not advocating replacing
teaching Standard American English with any other language, and that
the Oakland Unified School District is not teaching Ebonics. It also
has clarified that it does not view the language of African American
children as being biologically based.

As we ponder the merits of Oakland’s strategy to teach standard
English, it is important to remember certain facts that are well
documented within the sociolinguistic literature:

* Variations within English — or any language — are normal,
learned phenomena that exist as regional and social dialects. These
variations result from a complex mix of social, political, historical,
and economic factors.

* There is a difference between slang and dialect. While many media
reports and public commentaries have focused on contemporary African
American slang, the Oakland program focuses upon the finite set of
pronunciation and grammatical rules that govern the speech of many —
again, not all — African Americans.

* Vernacular language systems are often devalued within societies,
e.g., the Cockney of England, the English of the Appalachian mountains,
Brooklyn-ese in New York City and Ebonics.

* Traditional teaching methods, which have largely disregarded the
value of using the language that students bring to school as a bridge
to teaching the school’s language, have failed to teach standard
English to far too many African Americans. If they had been successful,
the current debate over Ebonics would have little currency.

* With proper instruction, all students can be successfully taught to speak and write standard English.

* Competence in more than one language or dialect is generally seen as an asset.

The nature and origins of African American language and
communication systems — and what to do about them — have been debated
by scholars for decades. The current Ebonics debate will likely
continue, in one form or another, into the future. In the meantime, our
nation’s leaders, institutions of higher learning and media
organizations. should perhaps pay more attention to a much larger
issue, namely the fact that too many African American children do not
acquire sufficient competence in standard English to facilitate
academic success.

Dr. Orlando L. Taylor, Professor of Communication, Dean of the
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Howard University. Dr. Taylor
serves as a consultant to the Oakland Unified School District’s
Standard English Proficiency program in the 1980s.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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