Date: Wed, 8 Jan 1997 12:32:02 -0600

From: Dennis Baron debaron[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]UIUC.EDU

Subject: Ebonics

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

separatist position.

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

farther apart.

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

the workplace?

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

long-neglected problem.

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]

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