Monday, July 23, 2007

Is "Standard" Grammar Racist?

This is a topic we've been thinking about, so we noted with interest this story in the Hartford Courant:
Ebonics: The Subject Still Stirs Strong Feelings

July 23, 2007

Discussing the gap in language acquisition among students, Faye Gage used a term recently at a national conference on grammar instruction that can still raise some hackles: "Ebonics."

"People are afraid of the Ebonics word," said Gage, director of the Connecticut Writing Project. "I have been told not to use it."

Her mention of it at the 18th annual conference of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, held at Fairfield University, didn't cause much of a stir among the 40 or so audience members. But outside of language circles, it's a topic that can kick up strong feelings more than 10 years after the Oakland school board caused a national furor by proposing an Ebonics program for its schools.

Language specialists still discuss the issue regularly, though it's more commonly referred to these days as "African American Vernacular English" or "AAVE." Because it's so socially charged, many are wary of bringing up the matter in more general forums.

That wariness has been a major obstacle in narrowing the disparities in language skills among students, Gage said. "How do we get around that political sensitivity?" she says. "A lot of people have simply chosen not to."

Robert Williams, an African American social psychologist, coined the term in 1973. Few people were familiar with it until the Oakland school board drew up a resolution to officially recognize it as language in December of 1996. It immediately drew harsh criticism from just about every point along the ideological spectrum. In about a month's time, the idea was scrapped and Ebonics pretty much dropped off the radar.

In retrospect, language specialists say the Oakland board's presentation was bungled. For one, most consider it a dialect, not a language; the board's assertion that Ebonics was "genetically based" drew particular criticism (school board members say the term was misunderstood); and many thought the board wanted students to learn how to speak in Ebonics (board members later said this was never the intention). Even the term "Ebonics" - a combination of "ebony" and "phonics" -rubbed some people the wrong way.

Nonetheless, many educators say the basic idea was a good one: Recognizing the speech patterns of inner-city students as a legitimate system of language is the right step toward teaching students standard English.

When students use non-standard subject-verb formations - "The books be on the table," for instance - Gage says they're not speaking bad or corrupted English. They're correctly applying the rules of grammar they've learned at home. By understanding the rules and patterns of Ebonics, she says, teachers would be better equipped to teach students standard English. And that, ultimately, is the goal.

"I respect Ebonics. It's colorful. It's got great imagery," she says. "But it's not
the language of power."

Amy Benjamin, chairwoman of the Assembly for Teaching English Grammar, says instructors need to recognize the legitimacy of all dialects, whether its Ebonics, Brooklynese or the speech of Appalachians.

"We need to move away from seeing it as deficient and need of correction," she says. Students should be taught that their "home language" is fine, but also how to make the transition to what Benjamin calls "the language of prestige." The transition from home language to standard English is known as "code-switching."

"Like all issues of race and class and socioeconomic status, as Americans, we're very sensitive about it," she says. "So some people are very touchy around the subject."

Nonetheless, she says the code-switching movement has picked up momentum in recent years and making progress.

Gage is less optimistic. From what she's seen, language instruction doesn't seem to have evolved much in the last 10 years. She blames that partly on the Oakland school board. As well-intentioned as it was, the board's handling was so inept that it's still difficult for other school districts to address the issue in any substantial way.

"Oakland so screwed it up," she says. "It kills me because it was such a good idea."

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