The debate about teaching Ebonics in schools has been raging in America since 1997 when a school in Oakland decided that it would teach it as a bona fide language. The premise of this paper is that Ebonics should be taught in the schools as an African-American dialect which honors and is representative of the African-American culture and experience. One of the primary arguments for teaching Ebonics in American schools is that it helps African-American students learn English.
Like many individuals of other cultures, there are many African-American youth who use a different language at home than the one they are taught in school. This does not mean the language is not valid or useful. However, in the case of Ebonics it is unfair to consider it just a form of slang. In a panel on linguistic teaching strategies, the following comment was made which indicates that there are many forms of English and Ebonics is one of them. “Everyone speaks different varieties of a languages, depending on where they’re from…you need to get rid of the notion that `they speak a dialect and I speak English” (Tamanaha). For far too long, the development of dialects has been misunderstood as the result of being lazy or uneducated. However, a Stanford University professor disagrees. He states that Ebonics is not slang and it is a misrepresentation of it to suggest that this is so. He also states that there is a general lack of information about Ebonics in the public domain which suggests that “…it was simply the product of laziness or cussedness, for instance, or that it had no history or structure or regularity, or that it was a loose collection of slang words in which you could do or say pretty much what you please” (Rickford 1989). However, Rickford states emphatically that this is not the case.
In many ways the language(s) we speak is at the heart of who we are. Language whether it is spoken or gestured (such as American Sign Language) provides us with a means to express ourselves in every way. It provides us with the bases to communicate with each other, create literature, music, poetry, theatre, film and so many of the creative arts. To suggest that African-Americans use Ebonics but it is not a language, is to suggest that the culture that created it does not exist. To author David Trott, Ebonics has become a means for African-Americans to express themselves in their own language. “For many Blacks Ebonics measures the complications of assimilation and the resiliency of shame” (Troutt 2). In other words, Ebonics empowers Blacks to speak of their unique cultural experience and history in a language that is completely their own.
To some degree the debate over Ebonics is very similar to the debate that raged for centuries over American Sign Language. People of the Deaf Culture had to lobby hard on their own behalf to have it recognized as a formal language. For a very long time, it was considered just a haphazard collection of gestures used by a people who refused to try and speak. The Deaf Culture points out that speaking is not the issue. Deaf people do not wish to speak as they have a silent language of their own which reflects their culture and meets their needs. The argument over Ebonics could be said to be very similar.
However, some also believe that acknowledging Ebonics will also make it possible to assist African-American students to learn Standard English (Troutt 3). The fact is there is support among those who practice linguistics and socio-linguistics to use Ebonics as a means of teaching Standard English. It has not been the professionals who have argued against its use but the general public. Again, this goes back to a general lack of knowledge about Ebonics, what it is and how it developed. “However, linguists who study the sounds, words, and grammars of languages and dialects though less rhapsodic about Ebonics than novelists were much more positive than the general public” (Rickford, p. 278).
As Rickford describes his experience in dealing with the Ebonics issue he chronicles the role of the media in decrying the use of this ‘street slang’ in the schools. However, he notes that the linguistics community saw the issue quite differently, a fact that he found extremely interesting. He said the reason for this is that linguistics don’t judge how people talk, they only describe how people talk (Rickford). His point is that linguistically, Ebonics is actually a variety of English. It is not the Standard English that is being taught in schools but a variation on a theme. This suggests that using Ebonics is simply another step towards learning and using Standard English. From a cultural perspective, one can appreciate Rickford’s analysis. The fact is America is an enormous cultural melting pot. There are children from many cultural backgrounds for whom English is not the language used in the home. While Standard English is a skill they will need to acquire in order to move forward in their formal education and attain a job, the use of a variation on Standard English does not in any way diminish the language itself.
It is unfortunate that there has been such a media and public backlash against the use of Ebonics in schools. The fact is that it empowers African-American students to express themselves in a manner they are accustomed to. By allowing it in the schools, it provides a natural linguistic evolution towards using and learning Standard English. However, there is a very strong ethnocentric value around the use of English, in that we value it as the official language of this country. Ebonics is definitely a variation of English and its use in the schools would be beneficial to African-American students.
Rickford, John R. “The Ebonics Controversy In My Backyard:A Sociolinguist’s Experiences And Reflections.” 1998. http://www.stanford.edu/~rickford/papers/EbonicsInMyBackyard.html
26 May 2008.
Rickford, John R. “Suite for Ebony and Phonics.”
Tamanaha, M. “Ebonics Panel Explores Teaching Strategies.” The Daily Trojan, 1998. http://www.usc.edu/student-affairs/dt/V130/N59/03-ebonics.59c.html. 26 May 2008.
Troutt, David. “Defining Who We Are in Society.”
Editors Note: With all the problems in our public schools, it amazes me that this is an issue any school administrator would waste time on. The last thing we need is to further separate the classes by giving them their own language. Speaking in a way that is too lazy to pronounce your constants, creating your own abbreviations of words, and referencing a continely long list of rap lyrics, is not a language, it’s called slang.
School administrators’ time would be better spent focusing on issues that create an environment of learning. School uniforms, more nutritional lunches, smaller classes sizes and better uses of technology.