Teaching black English Oakland plan: A risky experiment to improve the education of urban children.

December 30, 1996

IT IS ACCEPTED that many African Americans can speak both standard English and black English, which takes additional liberties and shortcuts with grammar and syntax. Some associate black English with illiteracy, but many well-educated African Americans use it when among friends and relatives who find the vernacular most familiar.

The roots of black English are not certain. The frequent dropping of consonants may be traced to West Africa, where the slave trade flourished. Or the pattern of speech could have more to do with the poor education of rural Southern blacks who brought their customs, cuisine and way of speaking with them as they migrated north and west in the 1920s and '30s.

Neither theory has stopped African Americans from excelling as orators, writers and in other experiences which demand their use of the English language be precise. But large numbers of children, many still living in segregated environments in which standard English is only heard on television, are having problems communicating in school and other situations where they are expected to speak correctly.

These children's inability to communicate effectively, to understand and be understood, impedes their education. Added to other environmental factors that may be present, the difference between the way they speak and the way their teachers speak could determine their success or failure in life. Recognizing this, the Oakland, Calif., school system has declared black English a separate language and proposed a bilingual education program for black children that could be similar to what exists for Hispanic and Asian-American students.

But Oakland has been vague about its plans. One apparent motivation was to receive federal funds for bilingual education, but U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has said that won't happen because his department isn't going to recognize "Ebonics" as a second language. Now the school system must dispel fears that its linguistic jockeying is only going to make a bad situation worse.

It can do that by coming up with a strong program to bolster standard English instruction. There is nothing wrong with recognizing Ebonics if it means additional grammar instruction for students who are exposed to very little standard English away from school. There is nothing wrong with helping teachers understand black English so they can be more effective with their students. But there should be no implication that African-American students are incapable of learning how to speak English well, or that they don't have to.

Pub Date: 12/30/96

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