Children Focus of Bitter Ebonics Dispute

NEW YORK (IPS) -- Do black children living in U.S. central cities speak English?For weeks, dozens of U.S. commentators -- ranging from former Democratic presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson to conservative former Education Secretary William Bennett -- have dismissed as ridiculous the idea that they do not.But some educators and linguists contend that African-American children speak a vernacular they now call "ebonics" (a neologism combining "ebony" and "phonics"), which is as grammatically consistent as standard English. Their views have in turn been ridiculed as a defense of poor English skills. The debate centers on last month's decision by the school board of Oakland, California, to recognize ebonics as a separate language. Although the Oakland board quickly clarified that they wanted the federal government to provide more funding to teach black children standard English, the decision sparked howls of protest from politicians and commentators across the board.Jackson, one of the most prominent U.S. black activists, said the Oakland ruling had made blacks "a national laughingstock," adding that it was "an unacceptable surrender, bordering on disgrace."Liberal columnist Mary McGrory wrote in The Washington Post that the idea of learning an idiomatic Black English is "kooky, even for California." Still others labelled the flap the latest low point in "politically correct" pedagogy. In its own ruling, the Department of Education reaffirmed its view that Black English -- the subject of intense debate among linguists for two decades -- is a vernacular, not a language, and should not be encouraged at the expense of standard English.But the ebonics supporters have rallied back, countering that the debate is not over whether African-American children speak a new language, but over how to best teach them standard English."It's ludicrous to ignore students in a classroom who are fluent in a kind of English," says William Leap, a professor of linguistics and anthropology at American University in Washington. The issue, he argues, is to take the language skills that black children have, and to use them as a base upon which to build skills in standard English."You start with the language skills that children have," argues Leap, who has taught English skills to African-American and Native American children. To attain that goal, he said, educators first have to approach children using their own, distinctive speech patterns and then to persuade the children to play games with language in which they imagined different ways of speaking with other audiences."That's what we did in American Indian country," Leap says. "Six-year-olds aren't dumb. They know you speak one way to your minister, and another way to your grandmother."The Oakland board took note of that, noting certain consistent speech patterns among Oakland's black children, who comprise 53 percent of the city's school population, but 71 percent of the population enrolled in "special education" programs for students deemed to have learning problems.Rather than having problems with language, the board argued, the students had their own consistent grammar and syntax, different from standard English. For example, the children dropped the verb "to be," as in "he walking," or used different pronunciations of words, such as "she axed" for "she asked."Whereas in the past such usages would simply be labelled bad English, some educators in parts of this country have turned to a Standard English Program, which recognizes that the children are obeying consistent language rules. That approach has been a boon to teachers in predominantly black inner-city schools, argues Jonathan Schorr, an Oakland Tribune reporter who taught in Los Angeles."Their comments might be intelligent, but the language was peppered with double negatives and 'you be' and 'I is'," Schorr, writing in The New York Times, said of some students' contributions. "Was I supposed to praise the thought and let the language go? Or tell him that he said it wrong, perhaps leading him to fall silent?"Leap says the important thing is that people who are anxious to learn standard English should not have the doors slammed in their faces because they are perceived to have learning problems stemming from the type of English they already speak.Few of the critics of ebonics have grasped that point, argues Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, a publication of the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)."It's startling to me how little pundits understand about linguistics," Naureckas says of the media coverage of the ebonics flap. "There is this assumption that there is one right way to speak English, and that people who don't speak it are ignorant. It's depressing that commentators seem to feel justified in mocking the way that other people talk.""The debate itself is further proof of how endangered black people are," New York University law professor Derrick Bell told The Village Voice. "Any damn thing that is out of the mainstream of what white people feel comfortable with causes a controversy, during which a good number of black folks come out and say, 'These folks are crazy, and they're hurting our cause'."In fact, such criticism has prompted the Oakland board to step back from claims that ebonics is a separate, African-derived language, a switch which gained them Jackson's support for a campaign to teach the children standard English. Still, Leap argues, the contempt heaped upon defenders of ebonics comes from the same people who have resisted increasing federal funds to teach standard English to all U.S. schoolchildren. The debate, he says, obscures the lack of attention being paid to children's language needs: "If people were really seriously concerned in dealing with language issues in Oakland schools, we wouldn't be having this debate at all."In particular, he said, educators face a problem in convincing black children to learn standard English skills if they feel they will never obtain the jobs or opportunities to use them."What's a kid going to learn standard English for if there's no job?" he asks. "Why learn a code that they're never going to be able to use?"

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