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Sender: o-imap@webmap.missouri.edu
Date: Tue, 14 Jan 97 17:35:12 CST
From: Marvin.Berlowitz@UC.Edu
Subject: A Linguist Looks at the Ebonics Debate
Article: 3855

)Date: Sat, 11 Jan 1997 15:26:33 -0500
)From: Stan Trent <strent@MSU.EDU>
)To: Multiple recipients of list HGHSN <HGHSN@MSU.EDU>
)Subject: Fillmore's Response to Ebonics Debate
)>Date: Sat, 11 Jan 1997 04:11:14 -0800
)>To: Holmes Group Scholars <HGHSN@msu.edu>
)>From: wvmasuda@garnet.berkeley.edu (Walter Masuda)
)>Subject: Fillmore's Response to Ebonics Debate

A Linguist Looks at the Ebonics Debate

By Charles J. Fillmore, Department of Linguistics,
U. C. Berkeley, 11 January 1997


Many of you may be familiar with Lily Wong Fillmore's work in bilingualism and second-language acquisition. Her husband, Charles Fillmore, is a professor of linguistics at Berkeley. He has taken a hard look at the Ebonics debate and has drafted a critical response to the recent misunderstandings surrounding this issue. This is a long posting, about 24K in length. If you're not interested in the topic, delete this message now. Oh--I will not be able to attend this year's meeting in St. Louis. My best wishes to all scholars who will be attending and to Nuria for her recent accomplishments! I know what she must be feeling. I just picked up my complimentary copies of the _Handbook of Classroom Assessment_, edited by Gary Phye, from my campus mailbox--it's quite something to see your own work in print (last year I co-authored a book chapter with Bob Calfee at Stanford, and the edited volume is finally in print).


One uncontroversial principle underlying the Oakland Unified School District's December 18th "Ebonics" resolution is the truism that people can't learn from each other if they don't speak the same language. Anyone who doubts this has only to read the current public debate about the resolution itself. Educators, bureaucrats, and experts have been weighing in on the meaning of the resolution in the last two weeks. You might think all that these people speak the same language, but the evidence contradicts the appearance. All of the key words that keep coming up in these discussions clearly mean different things to different parties in the debate, and that blocks successful communication and makes it too easy for each participant to believe that the others are mad, scheming, or stupid.

As far as I can work it out (not from the language of the resolution but from the board's recent "clarifications"), the pedagogically relevant assumptions behind the "Ebonics" resolution are as follows: The way some African American children speak when they show up in Oakland's schools is so different from standard English that teachers often can't understand what they are saying. Such children perform poorly in school and typically fail to acquire the ways of speaking that they'll need in order to succeed in the world outside their neighborhoods. Schools have traditionally treated the speech of these children as simply sloppy and wrong, not as evidencing skills and knowledge the children can build on. The proposed new instructional plan would assist children in learning standard English by encouraging them to compare the way they speak with what they need to learn in school, and this cannot be accomplished in a calm and reasoned way unless their teachers treat what they already have, linguistically, as a worthy possession rather than as evidence of carelessness and ignorance. An important step toward introducing this new practice is to help teachers understand the characteristics of their students' speech so they can lead the children to an awareness of the difference.

If would have been more natural for me to describe the plan with such words as "building on the language the children already have to help them acquire the language they need to learn in school." But instead, I avoided using the word "language", since that is one of the words responsible for much of the confusion in the discussion around the school board's decision. The other words causing trouble are "dialect", "slang", "primary language", and, regrettably, "genetic". Neither side in these debates uses these words in ways that facilitate communication. Perhaps a linguist's view might introduce some clarity into these discussions.

The words "dialect" and "language" are confusingly ambiguous. These are not precisely definable technical terms in linguistics, but linguists have learned to live with the ambiguities. I mentioned "the language of the resolution" where I meant the actual words and phrases found in the text of the board's resolution. We can use the word "language" to refer simply to the linguistic system one acquires in childhood. In normal contexts, everybody grows up speaking a language. And if there are systematic differences between the language you and your neighbors speak and the language my neighbors and I speak, we can say that we speak different dialects.

The word "language" is also used to refer to a group of related dialects, but there are no scientific criteria for deciding when to refer to two linguistic systems as different dialects of the same language, or as different languages belonging to the same language family. There are empirical criteria for grouping ways of speaking to reflect their historical relationships, but there is an arbitrary element in deciding when to use the word "language" for representing any particular grouping. (Deciding whether BBC newsreaders and Lynchburg, Va., radio evangelists speak different dialects of the same language or different languages in the same language family is on the level of deciding whether Greenland is a small continent or a large island.)

There is a different and misleading way of using these words for situations in which, for social or political reasons, one dialect comes to be the preferred means of communication in schools, commerce, public ceremonies, etc. According to this second usage, which reflects an unscientific "folk theory", what the linguist would simply call the standard dialect is thought of as a "language", the others as "mere dialects", falling short of the perfection of the real language. An important principle of linguistics is that the selection of the prestige dialect is determined by accidental extralinguistic forces, and is not dependent on inherent virtues of the dialects themselves. But according to the folk theory, the "dialects" differ from the language itself in being full of errors.

I've been reading the San Francisco newspapers these last two weeks, and I see continuing chaos in the ways commentators choose to describe and classify the manner of speaking that is the target of the Ebonics resolution. The resolution and the public discussion about it have used so many different terms, each of them politically loaded ("Ebonics", "Black English", "Black Dialect", "African Language Systems", "Pan-African Communication Behaviors") that I will use what I think is the most neutral term, "African American Vernacular English", abbreviated as AAVE.

(1) Some participants in this debate think that AAVE is merely an imperfectly learned approximation to real English, differing from it because the speakers are careless and lazy and don't follow "the rules". It is "dialect", in the deprecating use of that word, or "slang".

(2) To most linguists AAVE is one of the dialects of American English, historically most closely related to forms of Southern speech but with differences attributable both to the linguistic history of slaves and to generations of social isolation. (For a linguist, to describe something as a dialect is not to say that it is inferior; everybody speaks a dialect.)

(3) And some people say that while AAVE has the superficial trappings of English, at its structural core it is a continuation or amalgam of one or more west African languages. The views summarized in (1) are simply wrong. The difference between the views identified in (2) and (3) is irrelevant to the issue the board is trying to face.

The Oakland resolution asks that the schools acknowledge that AAVE is the "primary language" of many of the children who enter Oakland schools. What this means is that it is their home language, the form of speech the children operated in during the first four or five years of their lives, the language they use with their family and friends. An early explanation of the purpose of the new program (Chronicle 12/20) is that it "is intended to help teachers show children how to translate their words from 'home language' to the 'language of wider communication'."

Understanding this as the meaning of the phrase, it makes sense to ask if something is or is not some particular person's "primary language", but the simple question of whether something is or isn't "a primary language" is incoherent. The people who have expressed such concerns clearly think the term means something other than what I think the school board intended.

The Chronicle (12/20) asked readers to send in their opinions "on the Oakland school board's decision to recognize ebonics, or black English, as a primary language". The Examiner (12/20) attributed to Delaine Eastin, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, the worry that the decision to "recognize" AAVE could lead students to believe "that they could prosper with it as their primary language outside the home." An Examiner writer editorialized (12/20) that "[i]n the real world of colleges and commerce and communication, it's not OK to speak Ebonics as a primary language. Job recruiters don't bring along a translator." The Chronicle (12/24) accounts for Oakland's sudden fame as happening "all because the school board voted to treat black English like any other primary language spoken by students."

These commentators were clearly not worried about whether there really are people who have AAVE as their primary language. They all seem to understand the term "primary language" in some different way. Perhaps the term "home language" wouldn't have created so much misunderstanding.

The critics have also worried about whether AAVE "is a language". One way of understanding the question is whether it is a language rather than a mere collection of "mistakes". This seems to be the way Ward Connerly understands the question, and his answer is that it isn't a language. Another is whether it has the full status of a language rather than a dialect, in the folk use of these words mentioned above. This seems to be the view attributed to James Baldwin, in a 1979 article quoted by Pamela Budman, Chronicle 12/26. Baldwin thought it "patronizing" to speak of AAVE as a dialect rather than as a full-fledged language.

But on the question of whether there is a definable linguistic system, spoken by many African Americans, with its own phonology, lexicon and grammar (and dialects!), there is already a huge body of research. (For an useful bibliography see the web site http://www2.colgate.edu/diw.SOAN244bibs.html.) The question of whether twenty-seven thousand African American children in Oakland schools come from families that speak that language has to be an empirical question, not an issue for tapping people's opinions.

The Chronicle (12/20) reports the nation's shock at the news of the resolution by "the Oakland school district's decision to recognize the African American vernacular as a language." Under the headline "Ebonics Isn't a Language" in the Examiner (12/25), Education Secretary Riley is reported as warning about the dangers of "[e]levating black English to the status of a language".

When the Examiner issued its invitation for readers' opinions (12/23) the phrasing was: "Will recognition of black English as a language help African-American students succeed?" Some readers might have understood "recognition ... as a language" as involving whether there is such a [text breaks off here]