The language of Maya Angelou or Jesse Jackson

December 27, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- What would Henry Higgins make of this? What if he went to teach a flower girl the King's English only to discover that her local school board had declared Cockney another language?

In Oakland, California, they are involved in a modern remake of the Pygmalion story. A school board faced with the failure of too many African-American students has now decreed slang to be a valid and different language.

Using the dense vocabulary of Academese, the board members also called for classes to be taught partially in 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.''

By fiat, they have transformed black street talk into Ebonics and put Ebonics -- that offspring of ''ebony'' and ''phonics'' first conceived in academic circles -- on a par with French or Chinese. They have made ''I be'' the linguistic equivalent of ''je suis.''

What do you say to a school board so desperate that it has declared its students to be foreigners in their own country? Is it defeatism that says the poorest black children in inner cities live in another country, where they literally don't speak the same language?

What do you say to a local community of parents and teachers so torn between the desire for respect and the desire for learning, that they too become ''bilingual?''

The irony is that too many Americans are tongue-tied, speaking only one language in a diverse world. But Ebonics is a second language for a second-class life. It's a ''language'' defined, or invented by people who did not get their Ph.D.s or their jobs speaking it.

Even the proud Liza Doolittle was realistic and ambitious enough to know that she needed a verbal passport to a better life. When she came to the impossible Higgins for ''English'' lessons, it wasn't to become a Fair Lady but to work in a flower shop. She said, ''They won't take me unless I can talk more genteel.''

Like any American descended from immigrants, I know something about language and culture. In the era when my father, the first American-born child in his family, started school, many teachers were, shall we say, ''unencumbered'' by sensitivity training.

A sometimes stated goal of public schools in my city and others was to ''Americanize'' children from families who were overtly described as illiterate and superstitious, the ''refuse of their teeming shores.'' There were those teachers whose only interest in self-esteem was in their own.

My father would talk of college friends who grew up ashamed to speak German or Italian at home, ashamed of their immigrant parents and ashamed of their shame. There was a lot of heat applied to the melting pot that we look back upon with such nostalgia. But there was also a commitment -- however ruthless -- to integration, to preparing children to enter the new world. The community was invested in their collective future.

I do not think you have to destroy a child's self-respect or respect for parents in order to make her life better than theirs. It's not hard to understand one motive of board member Toni Cook, to ''quit saying there's something wrong with a majority of the children.'' Instead of calling it bad English, call it Ebonics.

But it will not do to shuck children or each other. These children who watch television in their homes do not need a simultaneous interpreter. Black English is not the language of Maya Angelou or Jesse Jackson. Ebonics is not the African English spoken by South Africa's Archbishop Tutu or U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In school districts that are already stunningly segregated by race, Ebonics is now touted as a tool for teaching what is called Standard English. But to validate slang as the ''real black talk'' undermines the English lesson. It teaches that the poorest inner-city culture is the ''real'' black homeland.

English is a rich and diverse language. In America alone, there are distinct dialects and speech patterns that go far beyond the inner cities, ranging from the hollers of Appalachia to the down-east reaches of Maine.

But it is also known that if you speak only your mother's tongue, you may lead only your mother's life. Any child who wants to

travel to a wider world needs to talk his way out.

That's what missing in Oakland's debate about language: straight talk.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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