Date: Wed, 8 Jan 1997 12:32:02 -0600
From: Dennis Baron debaron[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]UIUC.EDU
At the risk of reduplicating, here is my revised op-ed essay, which will
appear in some form close to this in the Chronicle for Higher Education
(which will no doubt supply its own title).
Hooked on Ebonics
by Dennis Baron
The word of the year so far is "ebonics." Although it's been around since
the 1970s, few people had heard of it before last Dec. 18, when the
Oakland, Cal., School Board unanimously passed a resolution declaring
ebonics to be the "genetically-based" language of its African American
students, not a dialect of English. In the full text of its resolution,
printed in the San Francisco Chronicle (Jan. 2, 1997, p. A18), the school
board called ebonics a separate language derived from African linguistic
roots, with heavy borrowings from English vocabulary. The board declared
its intention to instruct "African American students in their primary
language [ebonics] for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy
and richness of such language . . . and to facilitate their acquisition and
mastery of English language skills." Claiming that "African-American
people and their children are from home environments in which a language
other than English is dominant," the board indicated that it would also
seek bilingual education funding from the federal government for the
teaching of standard English. After a great deal of negative publicity,
Oakland backed away from some aspects of its original resolution. Oakland
now plans to follow a less controversial path, educating teachers about the
language of their students, and teaching students how to translate from
ebonics to standard English.
I strongly agree with Oakland's efforts to recognize and value the
language that students bring with them to school. But I do not think that
the method chosen, teaching them English as if it were a foreign language,
is likely to move students from ebonics to a more mainstream variety of
English. Nor do I think that acquiring standard English will guarantee
success, either in school or in the world of work.
The linguist Max Weinreich once said that a language is a dialect with an
army and a navy. The schoolchildren of Oakland, who are predominantly
African American, do not have the kind of power that brings their speech
linguistic prestige. The school board tried to do something to change the
negative image of black language by calling it ebonics and asking teachers
to learn something about the speech of their students.
But the American public reacted to the school board's declaration of
linguistic independence as if to an act of secession. Black leaders and
intellectuals condemned the board's decision. They denounced black speech
as slangy, non-standard, and unworthy of the classroom; they condemned as
racist the separatism that would result from any recognition of black
English. They warned that ebonics would give schoolchildren a misplaced
sense of pride and that students' continued use of black English would
exclude students from higher education and the corporate boardrooms of the
The U.S. Department of Education immediately reaffirmed the position
it took during the Reagan administration that black English was a dialect
of English, not a distinct language eligible for bilingual-education funds.
And a delegate to the Virginia House introduced a bill to prohibit
Virginia schools from teaching ebonics.
Stung by the negative reaction, the Oakland school board backed away
from its initial claims, assuring the public that it never intended to
teach students anything but standard English. But it was clear from
televised clips of Oakland schoolrooms and from statements by Oakland
educators that the schools already were using exercises in which their
students translated from "ebonics" to "standard English."
After the initial round of criticism, some observers sought to explore
the positive side of the Oakland move. Perhaps approaching black English
as a foreign language might help students become fluent in standard English
when other methods have failed. And educators nationwide began affirming
the need to learn more about the language of at-risk students. Even its
harshest critics aligned themselves with Oakland once they were assured
that the schools would not burden their students with a second-class
At the least, the Oakland school board's action has focused public
debate on a number of important linguistic questions:
Is ebonics a separate language, or is it a dialect of English?
We can say that two people use the same language-or dialects of that
language-if they can understand each other's speech. If they can't
communicate, they are speaking separate languages. But linguists define
languages politically and culturally, as well as by degree of
comprehension. Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible, yet
both are Chinese. They are held together by an army and a navy and share a
common writing system as well as a common cultural definition of what it
means to be Chinese. Serbian and Croatian are mutually intelligible,
though they use different alphabets, but because of their two separate
armies what once was Serbo-Croatian is now considered by Serbs and Croats
to be two separate languages.
Most linguists, myself included, think of black English, or African
American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a dialect of English. It may
exhibit some features derived from African languages, but it is readily
recognizable and understandable as English. Afrocentrists may see a
political and cultural advantage in calling AAVE ebonics and treating it as
an independent language, but even Oakland has backed away from this
In any case, the linguistic differences that do exist in the United
States are symptoms of separateness, not its causes. Language barriers are
erected at social borders as well as national frontiers. When social
mobility for speakers of a language is low, dialects abound; when mobility
is high, linguistic as well as other distinctions tend to disappear. It
seems to me that if Oakland is prepared to characterize its students as
strangers in a strange land, in need of learning English as a second
language, it is doing so out of a fear that Americans really are drifting
Are ebonics and other dialects of English simply incorrect, sloppy
American schools, particularly in the northern United States, have
treated AAVE as a form of language requiring remediation by speech
pathologists or special-education teachers. But linguists have known for
some time that non-standard dialects, such as AAVE and Hawaiian Creole, to
name another example, are consistent, legitimate varieties of language,
with rules, conventions, and exceptions, just like standard English. These
dialects do not carry the prestige of standard English, but they influence
and enrich the standard language, keeping it vibrant and constantly
evolving. Examples from black English abound: in an article on ebonics,
the New York Times cited Richard Nixon's use of "right on!" "Rip-off,"
"chill out," and "dis" are other popular borrowings. Hawaiian gives us
"aloha," and Hawaiian Creole expressions permeate travel brochures as well
as the English of the islands.
Furthermore, we know that all speakers of a language are able to adapt
it to fit changing social circumstances. Given sufficient exposure to new
situations, all language users can switch between prestige and non-prestige
forms, between formal and informal ones, between intimate and polite ones,
without explicit instruction or conscious translation. Americans, no
matter what dialect they speak, are exposed to standard English through
television. As a result, AAVE is not all that different from standard
English. It seems then that it takes more than dialectal differences to
account for the lack of success in school.
Are foreign-language teaching techniques useful in teaching
English-speaking students standard English?
Although educators using translation techniques have claimed success
in raising the scores of ebonics speakers on standardized tests, others
find these claims unproved. Moreover, it seems alienating and misdirected
to teach English as a second language to students who already speak English
as their first language, if you believe as I do that ebonics is just a
dialect of English.
When the Oakland school board explained that it was simply having
students translate from ebonics to standard English, rather than teaching
students both ebonics and standard English, many critics began to relax,
for that strategy looked like something they could live with. But
second-language educators do not rely on translation alone. Instead they
offer a rich combination of immersion and explicit teaching: students not
only study vocabulary and grammar, they converse, role play, read
newspapers and magazines, watch television and movies, and most important,
interact with fluent users of the language in authentic communication
situations. Similarly, students who speak nonstandard varieties of English
will become fluent in the more mainstream forms of English only if they can
first break down social barriers and participate as equals in authentic,
mainstream social contexts.
Even with such varied methods, foreign language instruction in our
schools does not typically create fluent speakers. Everyone who has taught
or taken a foreign language in school knows the difficulty of getting
students to learn a language well in a classroom situation. Simply
translating from one language to another is never enough to achieve
fluency. It would be a mistake, too, to think that Oakland's plan for
translating from black to standard English will solve the reading and
writing problems of the students in its schools. Do we really want to
condemn students to speaking English as well as the typical American
high-schooler speaks French or Spanish?
Don't students need standard English to be successful in school and in
Perhaps. But it is also true that discrimination-on account of their
language-against people who speak non-standard English usually masks other,
more sinister forms of prejudice. Women and members of every ethnic and
racial minority have found that mastering the mainstream varieties of
English-say, legal language, business English, or technical jargon-by
itself will not guarantee them equal treatment. Even if your language is
irreproachable, if teachers, employers, or landlords want to discriminate
against you, they will find another way to do so.
Standard English may be necessary, but it is seldom sufficient, for
school and workplace success. And if our sports heroes, media celebrities,
and public figures are anything to judge by, success is often achieved
without standard English. In addition, few of the success stories of
first-generation immigrants to this country involve the learning of
impeccable standard English.
Is ebonics only "a black thing"?
No. For one thing, not all African Americans speak ebonics, and not
all ebonics speakers are African American. A significant number of whites,
Hispanics, and Asian Americans who live and work closely together speak
dialects that can be characterized as black English. As linguists study
AAVE, they find that, just like standard English, it is not monolithic, but
comes in flavors and varieties. In addition, as I've indicated above,
mainstream English has borrowed heavily from the speech of African
Americans. So, in many ways, it is easier to conceive of all the dialects
of English as variable and continuous, rather than categorical and
separate. For another thing, the problems ebonics speakers face are shared
by speakers of other nonstandard dialects as well, whether they live in the
inner city, in rural America, or even in the suburbs.
As this discussion suggests, the flap over ebonics is more complex than the
school board's action and the initial public response indicate. It raises
crucial questions about the workings of language and our attitudes toward
its use, especially in school contexts. Many teachers assume that their
students are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. But by the
age of five or six, students already have learned more about their native
language than they will learn from school. Teachers must learn to
recognize the rich and flexible linguistic talent that students already
possess, working with it as they move students not toward a monolithic,
mechanical correctness, but toward increasing linguistic depth and
flexibility. The teacher's job is not merely to conduct lessons in
translation, but to introduce students to, and get them to function more
comfortably in, new and ever more diverse language environments.
It is this richness and flexibility, rather than strict adherence to a
vaguely-defined standard, that will bring about successful communication.
Non-English-speaking immigrants have found that learning English does not
guarantee they will make their way in American society. In the same way,
speakers of nonstandard forms of English, whether or not they are members
of a racial or ethnic minority, may find that it takes a lot more than
speaking standard English to get accepted into the mainstream. Sometimes
it takes an army and a navy. Or the Supreme Court and the National Guard.
Or the Civil Rights Act. Or perhaps a school board waking us up to a
We must not reject Oakland's attention to ebonics out of hand.
Teachers are seldom adequately trained to deal with the language that
students bring with them to the classroom, whether those students are
suburban, rural, urban, or inner-city. The Oakland ebonics question has
opened the way for much-needed linguistic training, for teachers as well as
students. We must make sure such training is both available and
effective. But increased efforts to work with students' language will not
solve the problems of inner-city schools. Translating into standard
English will not replace lack of textbooks, deteriorating schools,
overcrowded classrooms, and canceled affirmative action programs as a tool
for solving the educational, social, and economic ills of the nation.
Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Dennis Baron debaron[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]uiuc.edu
Department of English office: 217-333-2392
University of Illinois fax: 217-333-4321
608 S. Wright Street home: 217-384-1683
Urbana, IL 61801