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Date: Wed, 22 Jun 2005 09:50:22 -0400 From: Nkonko Kamwangamalu Subject: Ebonics: The Urban Education Debate, 2nd ed.
EDITORS: Ramirez, J. David; Wiley, Terence G.; de Klerk, Gerda; Lee, Enid; and Wright, Wayne E. TITLE: Ebonics SUBTITLE: The Urban Education Debate (2nd edition) SERIES: New Perspectives on Language & Education PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2005
Nkonko M. Kamwangamalu, Department of English, Howard University
First published in 2000, Ebonics: The Urban Education Debate is an edited collection of 6 papers and 6 sets of documents aimed at providing a scholarly response to the controversy that erupted in 1996 in Oakland, California over the status and role of Ebonics in the education of African American (AA) students. The contributors to this volume view Ebonics as a non-standard variety of the English language (but see an opposite view in Kifano and Smith's paper, pp. 62-95). They argue that schools need to become more aware of language diversity and variation and use Ebonics as a bridge in helping AA students learn Standard English to improve their academic performance in general, and in reading and language arts in particular.
In its effort to address the language needs of AA students, in 1996 the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Board adopted a resolution recognizing the existence of Ebonics, that is, the " [home]language patterns that AA students bring to school" (p. 129). The aim of the resolution was, inter alia, "to move or transition students from the language patterns they bring to school to English proficiency [..] while respecting and embracing the legitimacy and richness of their home variety [or Ebonics]" (p. 129). The resolution sparked the second controversy (the first one being the 1979 court case opposing Martin Luther King Junior School against Ann Arbor School District Board in Detroit, Michigan) and the ensuing debate over the status and role of Ebonics, also known as African American English, African American Vernacular English, Black dialect, Black English, or African American Language, in the education of AA students. For some, among them politicians and community leaders, the resolution was a step backward for it legitimized non-standard English; while for others, the majority of them linguists, it was a welcome development because it not only recognized language diversity as a major area of concern in promoting educational access and equity, but it also sought to ensure that AA students learn Standard English, the expected norm and one that would empower them to compete more effectively for resources in the mainstream American society.
The book is divided into two parts preceded by an introduction in which the editors provide the background to the book, and deplore the negative attitude that educators and policy-makers hold towards Ebonics. Part I consists of 6 papers one each by Terrence Wiley, John Rickford, John Baugh, Geneva Smitherman, Subira Kifano and Ernie Smith, and Carolyne Temple Adger. Part II consists of 6 sets of documents providing the background to the policy debate about Ebonics and its role in the education of AA students. These sets of documents include (i) The Original Unified School District's Resolution (on Ebonics) and related clarifications, (ii) Examples of Legislative Reaction to the Resolution, (iii) Legal Background, (iv) Linguists' Reactions, (v) Organizational Responses, and (vi) Recommended Readings on Ebonics.
Part I of the book begins with the chapter "Ebonics: Background to the policy debate" (pp. 3-17) by Terrence Wiley. In the chapter Wiley discusses the notion of 'standard English' (or school English) and the language policy proposals with which it has been associated in the US educational contexts. Wiley observes that these proposals have, in the main, been restrictive and designed to not acknowledge the legitimacy of Ebonics and other varieties of English spoken by minority children (pp.12- 13). He calls on educators and policy-makers to acknowledge 'that there are systematic linguistic differences between Ebonics and school English' (p. 13). It is counterproductive to ignore these differences or to 'erase' Ebonics in attempts to teach AA students the standard. This is because students learn by building on their prior linguistic and cultural knowledge.
In the next chapter, "Using the Vernacular to teach the Standard" (pp. 18- 40), John Rickford first provides the background against which the Oakland School Board's Resolution on Ebonics was made, namely, to find a solution to the massive educational failure within the African American community. The key argument of Rickford's chapter is that, contrary to what some in the US media have claimed, Ebonics is relevant to the educational success of AA students, a point that is also echoed in Wiley's chapter. Therefore, Ebonics should be used as a bridge to the standard. Rickford observes that the failure of AA children to do well in school tends to be attributed to factors such as the lack of good facilities, qualified teachers, school supplies and parental involvement; and teachers' negative attitudes towards and lower expectations for their AA students. In addition to these factors, Rickford argues, there is the language question, to which he proposes three approaches. First, teachers need to be linguistically informed about the distinction between mistakes that AA students make in reading and differences in pronunciation. An AA student who simplifies the consonant cluster in the word 'tests', for instance, has not necessarily made a mistake. Rather, the student decodes this word according to the pronunciation pattern of their home dialect, Ebonics. The second approach is a bi-dialectal contrastive analysis in which teachers draw students' attention to the differences and similarities between their home dialect and the standard variety and teach them about the contexts where it would be appropriate to use one variety or the other. The third approach involves teaching student in the vernacular first and then switching to the standard.
John Baugh's chapter, "Educational implications of Ebonics" (pp.41-48), discusses Ebonics, its history and educational implications, with a focus on the following questions: What are the best educational policies for the academic welfare of AA students and other students from low income and underprivileged backgrounds? Should educators alter educational standards for the poor, or for those who do not speak English, or should educational programs be adapted to help less fortunate students compete more effectively with affluent students who have learned Standard English natively? Is Ebonics a separate language, or is it a dialect of English? What is the legal linguistic classification of American slave descendants? In an attempt to address some of these issues, Baugh distinguishes three linguistic categories of speakers of English in the United States. These include (i) speakers for whom Standard English is native; (ii) speakers for whom Standard English is not native; and (iii) speakers for whom English is not native (p.42). Unlike Kifano and Smith (see below), Baugh does not consider Ebonics as a separate language. Rather, he places Ebonics and its speakers in category (ii), as defined above. Accordingly, he endorses the view that educational programs should be adapted to help minority students including AA students succeed in school.
In her chapter, "Black language and the education of Black children: One more once" (49-61), Geneva Smitherman seeks, as she did in the 1979 court case opposing Martin Luther King Junior School against Ann Arbor School District Board in Detroit, Michigan, "to drop some knowledge on the subject of Black language"(p.50). Smitherman says the term "Ebonics" was coined by a group of Black scholars, principal among them the clinical Psychologist Dr Robert L. Williams, at a conference on language and the Black child, held in St Louis Missouri in January 1973. In its original definition, as Baugh points out in his chapter (p. 45), the term Ebonics was not synonymous with Black English or, later, African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Rather, it was broadly used to refer to: ".. the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendants of African origin. It includes the various idioms, ... idiolects, and social dialects of Black people, especially those who have been forced to adapt to colonial circumstances. 'Ebonics' derives its form from ebony (black) and phonics (sound, the study of sound) and refers to the study of the language of Black people in all its cultural uniqueness." (p. 51).
For Smitherman, Ebonics is, besides its structural characteristics, an Africanized style of using European languages, a system of communicative practices. The second part of Smitherman's chapter presents the breadth of the research tradition on Ebonics and concludes with the question of what needs to be done to ensure that Black students do not stay in school longer than they need to, but are rather able to compete more effectively with their colleagues in the mainstream American society. She proposes that "we work for a national multilingual policy" .. ".. within an educational framework for social change" (p. 59).
In the following chapter, "Ebonics and education in the context of culture: Meeting the language and cultural needs of LEP African American students" (pp. 62-95), Subira Kifano and Ernie Smith examine the Africologist/ Ethnolinguistic theory of the origins and historical development of African American English. At the heart of the Africologist theory is the claim, which Kifano and Smith endorse, that Ebonics (or African American speech) is not a variety of English (p. 71). It is, in their view, "the linguistic continuation of Africa in an African American context. That is, African American speech is both typologically and genetically African" (p. 65). The theory echoes the policy adopted by the Oakland School District Board in December 1996, which states unequivocally that Ebonics is not a variety of English: ".. African Americans (1) have retained a West and Niger-Congo African linguistic structure in the substratum of their speech and (2) by this criteria (sic!) are not native speakers of Black dialect or any other dialect of English" (p.75).
Drawing on their view that Ebonics and [Standard American] English are separate languages, Kifano and Smith argue that "English language instruction is appropriate for African American Ebonics-speaking students" (p. 83). For English language instruction to be effective, the authors argue, it must be preceded by instruction in the students' first language, Ebonics. That is, as John Rickford would put it, schools should use the vernacular to teach the standard. In so doing, they recognize and respect the rich culture of Ebonics-speaking students and the prior linguistic knowledge that they bring to learning.
Carolyn Temple Adger contributes the book's last chapter, "Language varieties in the school curriculum: Where do they belong and how will they get there?" (pp.96-108). The author's key argument is that the school curriculum needs to include accurate information about dialect differences/language variation and about the contexts in which it is appropriate to use one dialect or another. Also, she argues that dialect awareness should become an integral part of pre-service as well as in- service teacher training. It is hoped that such an awareness will aid teachers to change their attitudes towards language variation, to value and respect the speech of their AA students, and to abandon the myth of one true, invariant, uniform (Standard) English. Like previous contributors to this volume, Adger suggests additive bi-dialectal instruction where AA students' dialect (i.e. Ebonics) serves as the basis of second dialect (i.e. Standard English) development.
Part II of the book introduces the reader to the background documents on the Ebonics debate. The first set of documents (pp. 115-131) includes the Original Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Resolution on Ebonics and related clarifications in response to the reaction by the media, the legislature and the public to the original resolution. The key point of OUSD resolution was that African-American students perform poorly in reading and language arts because English is not their native language. Therefore, a program had to be devised "to facilitate [these students'] acquisition and mastery of English language skills (p.117)". Such a program would offer additive bi-dialectal instruction as suggested by Adger and other contributors to the present volume.
The second set of documents (pp. 135-151) includes examples of legislative reaction, among them the Congressional Response (p.135), the State of Virginia's reaction (p. 136-141), the State of California's reaction (p.142-148), and John Rickford's response to the latter (pp.149-151). In the main, all the legislative reactions to the OUSD resolution aim to contest the premise that Ebonics is a language, and to ensure that no state or federal fund is used to pay for any educational program that is based on such a premise. In his response John Rickford reiterates the point he has made in his chapter, that "mastering the standard variety is more effectively achieved by approaches which take the vernacular into account than by those which ignore or try to condemn it into nonexistence" (p. 149).
The next document (pp. 155-158) presents the legal background to an earlier, 1979 Ebonics court case in Ann Arbor, Michigan, pitting Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School children et al. against Ann Arbor School District Board. In that historic case distinguished scholars, among them Geneva Smitherman, testified to the existence of Ebonics, pointing out that it is a variety of the English language but different in significant respect from Standard English (p. 156). Also, the scholars argued that both Ebonics and Standard English have a role to play in the life and education of AA students. The students need Ebonics "to maintain status in their community and Standard English to succeed in the general society" (p.156). It is noted further, as is the case in the Oakland Ebonics debate, that any attempt to instruct AA students in Standard English while denigrating the students' dialect is, for obvious reasons, not likely to succeed. Similar arguments are advanced in the next set of documents by linguists (pp.161-182) such as Charles Fillmore, Walt Wolfram, John Rickford, and William Labov; and by professional organizations (pp.185-196) such as TESOL, American Association for Applied Linguistics, Center for Applied Linguistics, and California Association for Bilingual Education. The last section of the book offers a list of useful scholarly references (pp. 199-207) for further reading on Ebonics.
The reader will find this well-written, well-researched and insightful book a rich source of information about Ebonics, what it is and what is not, and why it is opposed by some but supported by others especially in regard to its status and the potential role it can play in the education of African American children. I would like to comment first on the name 'Ebonics' itself. It seems to me that this name may have contributed to what Wolfram (p. 171) identifies as 'the separate language issue' and the 'the African base issue' that the Ebonics resolution has raised, and to the ensuing negative reaction by many against the use of Ebonics in the education of African American children. Recall that in his paper John Baugh remarks (p.45) that in its original definition Ebonics was not synonymous with Black English or African American Vernacular English, a point that Smitherman also highlights in her chapter (p.50). Against this background, it would be more appropriate for the literature to give more prominence not to the name Ebonics but rather to African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Unlike Ebonics, AAVE does not raise the question whether African Americans speak English as a native language, nor does it raise the issues identified (above) by Walt Wolfram. It is encouraging to note, however, that whatever name (e.g. Ebonics or AAVE) they use for the home variety of African American children the contributors to this volume all share a common concern. They concur that if schools are to help African American students acquire Standard English, which is the key to educational success for every child in the United States, they need to acknowledge language variation and diversity and build on the prior linguistic knowledge that African American (and other minority) students bring to learning.
My second comment concerns the issue on which the contributors do not speak with one voice, namely the origins of AAVE and more specifically the question whether AAVE is a separate language or a variety of the English language. The majority of contributors to this volume share the view that AAVE is a native variety of American English, albeit a non-standard one. However, in their paper (pp. 62-95) Kifuno and Smith (p. 71) do not share this view, as observed earlier with respect to their Africologist/Ethnolinguistic approach to AAVE. Once again, according to this approach AAVE is NOT a variety of English. It is a separate language whose origins are in Africa. The question of the origins of AAVE has been the subject of several studies, the most recent ones being Wolfram & Thomas (2002); Poplack & Tagliamonte (2001); Lanehart (2001), to list a few. In their book, African American English in the Diaspora, Poplack and Tagliamonte (2001) address the origins question by analyzing the speech of the African Americans themselves in three diaspora settlements of Samana (Dominican Republic), Guysborough and North Preston (Nova Scotia, Canada). They conclude that AAVE has evolved (not from a Creole but) internally from an early variety, or what they call Early African American English, whose distinctive character resides in its phonology and retention of features in the face of ongoing grammaticization and change.
In a related book, The Development of African American English, Wolfram and Thomas (2002) examine the speech of African Americans in Hyde County, North Carolina, with a focus on the nature of intra-community language variation in and the effect of regional dialects on earlier AAVE, the trajectory of language change in earlier and contemporary AAVE, and the role of the substratal influence from earlier language contact situations between Africans and Europeans. Like Poplack and Tagliamonte (2001), Wolfram and Thomas argue that AAVE has developed from an earlier African American English, and that several factors (e.g. linguistic, sociolinguistic, socio-historical, socio-psychological, ideological) have contributed to its development. Lanehart's (2001) edited volume, Sociocultural and historical contexts of African American English, does have a whole section including chapters by Guy Bailey, Patricia Cukor- Avila and David Sutcliffe in which the authors offer insights into the evolution of AAVE. The chapter by Sutcliffe (pp. 129-168), in particular, provides further support for the idea of an earlier African American English as the source of contemporary AAVE. Taken together what these and related studies show is that AAVE is unquestionably a variety of the English language. Indeed, AAVE does have features whose origin can be traced to West and Niger-Congo African languages. However, such features do not, by any account, make AAVE an African language. The media hyped the debate on AAVE not only because OUSD sought to use AAVE as a bridge in teaching Standard English to African American students, but also and perhaps most importantly because OUSD claimed, like Kifuno and Smith do in their paper, that AAVE is a separate language. This approach must be challenged. It is isolationist, disempowering and detrimental to the academic and social welfare of African American students.
All in all, Ebonics is an excellent addition to the literature on African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Its clear style makes it wholly accessible to anyone who is interested in issues in language and education/miseducation of African American children. The discussion of such issues tends to mask linguistic discrimination. The latter, as Terrence Wiley observes, "is often a surrogate for more racism and other forms of social prejudice"(p. 12). Educators and legislators in particular will find this book extremely instructive, for it provides a pedagogically sound and convincing argument for AAVE: the variety can serve as a bridge in teaching the standard to AA children because children learn by building on the linguistic knowledge they already have. Finally, I would have liked an update on the current status of AAVE in the American educational contexts. It is not clear from the book what became of the OUSD amended resolution on Ebonics. Assuming that the amended resolution has not been implemented, what approaches do schools in the Oakland District (and throughout the country) use to help African American students succeed in education? Or, is it the case that the issue has simply been shelved in the hope that AA children themselves will somehow find a solution to their language needs? A discussion of these issues should but make the next edition of Ebonics, I should say African American Vernacular English, even richer.
Lanehart, Sonja L. (2001, ed.) Sociocultural and historical contexts of African American English. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins
Poplack, Shana and Tagliamonte, Sali (2001) African American English in the Diaspora. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
Wolfram, Walt and Thomas, Erik R. (2002) The Development of African American English. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Nkonko M. Kamwangamalu is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He teaches Linguistics and English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His current research interests include codeswitching, multilingualism and language policy, language and identity, African Englishes, African American Vernacular English, and African linguistics.