Rachel Jeantel, Black English and Linguistic Authority

aave6As a linguistics undergraduate who was interested in preserving Endangered Languages, I realized quickly that the general population of the United States holds mostly contrary views concerning language compared with  linguists.  For whatever reason (take your pick, honestly) the average US citizen is either consciously against the idea of promoting or using non-standard dialects, or they are oblivious to the idea of “other” dialects.

This usually comes from a place of well-meaning.  Speakers of minority dialects (who also never learned the standard variety) often suffer from other problems, like poverty.  They usually live in either very rural or very urban areas, where access to the best education is harder to come by and they have fewer resources to deal with that.  How people speak is often the first or second thing you come to understand about another person.  And like the first look, the first words are all part of that “first impression” that can leave us with a premature judgement of another person.

So, when people are against “Ebonics”, what they think they are arguing for is helping these people who speak non-standard varieties to acquire the traits that will lift them from their poverty, from the poor first impressions people may have of them or from whatever else.  It does come from a place of wanting to help.

That doesn’t make it any less misguided.

The pop-linguistics world has been debating this (old) topic recently because of the George Zimmerman trial, and the now infamous witness, Rachel Jeantel.  Her African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) proved to be difficult for most of the United States, who cared enough to comment.  And even after linguists chimed in to help dispell myths, most people remained unconvinced.  AAVE is just bad, they say.  It keeps people poor, they say.  The first step out of poverty is learning Standard American English.

Sadly, they are missing the point.  On the r/ Linguistics forum at Reddit.com, user, u/ Choosing_is_a_sin  explains fairly simply why we need to recognize AAVE (and other minority dialects) in our education system.  Why the Ebonics debate of the 1990s was mis-interpreted (and is still, frustratingly, misinterpreted).  Presented here in its entirety:

Grr, I typed out a long response, and the thread was deleted. So I’m posting it here.

Reinforcing AAVE in young children is setting them up for failure. It teaches them to rely on a dialect that is perceived as ignorant and racially charged. Students being taught AAVE will leave school unprepared for life in the real world, unless they plan on staying in Oakland for the rest of their lives. It is simply another way to restart the cycle of poverty and keep these kids trapped in the lower classes.

It’s hard to see how telling kids that the way they and their family, friends and neighbors speak is unacceptable, deficient, or otherwise undesirable is setting them up for success. From an early age, they are taught that how they speak is wrong, rather than different. By teaching them that the way they speak is natural fully grammatical, you instill a pride in how they speak rather than reinforcing a prejudice. It also allows you to draw a distinction between home language and school language. Just as kids have different rules for behavior at home and at school (e.g. needing permission to go to the bathroom at school but not at home), there are different ways of speaking and writing for home and school. Neither is better, but they each serve their own function. Furthermore, the home language can then be used as a legitimate source of comparison with the school language. Kids not only learn explicitly what the differences are (rather than expecting them to simply figure it out), but they also get a chance to develop metalinguistic awareness, that is, knowledge about how different varieties work. This was the plan of the Oakland School district, as described in the source you linked to: teach kids Standard English using AAVE as a starting point. As the article points out, it would have been nonsensical to teach the kids AAVE, since they already came to school speaking it. It would be like spending time teaching kids the order of English adjectives: no native speaking child of English says the red big boat, and accordingly schools spend no time teaching them how to order them. Instead they focus on teaching things that are unlikely to be part of children’s language input such as who vs. whom and me and my friendsversus my friends and I— things that are part of a formal register that would cease to be used if schools didn’t impose them. AAVE-speaking students would also learn how standard English be is learned, and how street is pronounced in standard English and their home language.

Your suggested way of pedagogy is like abstinence education. Show them only one way to do things and then just hope for the best that they take it heart. Like abstinence education, that technique was failing in the Oakland schools. As you know, Oakland is not exactly a model for educational achievement in the US. The school board wasn’t trying to find new ways to hinder success. They were trying to improve achievement on tests written and evaluated through the lens of standard English. They hoped to exploit the differences between the two varieties to help their students break out of the cycle of poverty.

If a legal witness is giving their statements in something we are considering a non-English language, shouldn’t they require an interpreter? A witness speaking Spanish would be given a translator – the press wouldn’t accuse the jury of bigotry for not understanding Spanish, so why are they bigots for not understanding AAVE?

It might very well have been helpful for there to be an interpreter. The Department of Justice has in the past recognized the need for specialists in AAVE, which shows a sensitivity to the differences that exist and the need for people who know it and Standard English really well. But lawyers and judges don’t always realize that the differences that exist between AAVE and standard English are important and have the potential to mean very different things (see the discussion in the article you linked about the errors in the mock dialogue by a black non-AAVE speaker). There was also a case that I heard about just today where a speaker of Jamaican Creole (also known as Patois/Patwa) had no interpreter in a death penalty case in Florida, and as a result, some of his statements were misinterpreted. Jamaican Creole is much more obviously a separate language than AAVE is, but it’s close enough that people think they can understand it, even when the two diverge. So perhaps speakers of AAVE who are not also speakers of Standard English should indeed have access to interpreters (note that translator is usually reserved in technical contexts for written translation, while interpreter is used for spoken), just to be sure that their statements are construed as they intended.

And no one is bigoted for not understanding a language or not understanding how someone speaks. They are bigoted if they say that how a native speaker speaks their language is wrong or bad because it is different from the variety that they prefer. The use of AAVE in a courtroom is situationally dispreferred, especially since the judge and jury cannot be assumed to speak it. But the same would be true of other non-regional varieties of English. Was there somewhere in the press that said the jurors were bigoted (or even that the jurors didn’t understand)?

I believe that supporting AAVE is simply a politically correct reaction, and that educators are unwilling to call it a mistake, because that might imply a racial bias. Would those educators willingly teach South Georgian dialects as legitimate language? What about Bostonian slang, is that a legitimate language?

Usually when we call something a mistake, it indicates that it’s some anomaly, one that’s done either when someone knows the right way or when it’s just a procedural error by someone who hasn’t learned the correct way. But the use of AAVE isn’t inherently a mistake. It’s a variety that developed through segregation and one that continues in large part because of de facto segregation. It is also a rule-governed variety. It’s not just Standard English with random, unpredictable mistakes like we might expect from a Hungarian or Vietnamese immigrant. There are systematic differences between AAVE and Standard English, differences that are documented in the article you’ve linked. Why, if we can identify systematic, meaningful differences, would we turn around and just call them mistakes? It makes no sense. As far as teaching southern Georgian or Bostonian characteristics, I’d point out that Jimmy Carter knew southern Georgian and John F. Kennedy spoke like a Bostonian and they did just fine (well, it wasn’t their language that caused them problems). And the idea that the home language should be used as a medium of instruction to teach a standard language is popular around the world, and I’m sure that if students in Boston or southern Georgia were having trouble filtering out grammatical features of the area from their standard English, there would be teachers would not hesitate to point out that there are differences between the two and that only one is what’s used in school. I’d also point out that ‘slang’ is not a language. The article you link says it quite well: Comparing slang to language is like comparing a few drops of hot sauce to dinner.

So in conclusion, teaching the legitimacy of AAVE is an excellent way to teach standard English, and can ultimately help to improve the standing of African Americans in a way that does not denigrate the way they speak as somehow deficient.


Extremely Embarrassing Spelling

I’ve finished grading essays and spent the last couple of days evaluating my students speaking abilities, of which I do have some things I want to say.  But before I write that piece, I want to write this one.

Before work today, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across this little ditty from a local TV network (local as in, Utah), KUTV:


The headline reads: “Florida transportation officials are dealing with an extremely embarrassing mistake. This sign was about to go up before a worker discovered the error” (italics mine).

Maybe it’s just because it is early in the morning, but I was annoyed that they would choose to describe a simple, simple typo as an “extremely embarrassing mistake”.  But then I went to the comment section:

“When you hire people who don’t speak english, this is what you get.”

“Ah no problem the tax payers will pay the mexicans to make it again”

“What happens when you outsource to China?”

“engrish only please”

And so on… Not all the comments were racist, nor were they all offensive.  Some simply said, “funny!” (which could be true).  Some called other people out on their racism, not all hope is lost.

In thinking about the sign, the news story and the public reaction (in Utah), I started thinking about what it means to spell correctly in our society, and in the English-speaking world.  English spelling is notoriously difficult (but even that criticism is overblown).  Not all languages and cultures have a thing called a Spelling Bee.  But in America, the contest over best speller is broadcast over ESPN (which is awesome).  We put a bit of emphasis and pride on our ability to spell correctly.

But I also started thinking about the racism involved.  Have you noticed who we don’t expect to spell very well? Mexicans, The Chinese, anyone who learns English as a second language.  Certainly anyone in the process of learning a second language will have difficulties with spelling and speaking, but at a certain point, errors in spelling become one of category and not one of degree. Lesly Wade-Woolley and Linda S. Siegel discovered that second-language speakers of English make different not more spelling errors than native speakers.  And this makes sense.  ESL speakers rely on many different techniques to learn the language, one of which is using writing to help learn words and grammar.  Native speakers learn the language orally and then learn how to write.  This helps explain why native speakers of English often have such a hard time with There, Their and They’re, or two, too, and to.

Ok, sure, we’ll buy this idea.  Nobody really has to argue very hard against racism.  But I think there is something else that is at work here that is wholly intra-native-speaker.  While racism explains the comments of some of the viewers, another question might be, why is this news-worthy at all?  It is foolish to simply dismiss it as, “well, it’s not!”  Many people commented on the news bit, there is obviously a market for pointing out grammatical/spelling errors.  It is news.

One explanation (that I like) has to do with the role of the Grammarian in our society.  No one thinks about the local language-authority as anyone particularly special, but I have in the past described them as cultural heroes.  The people who set forth the rules and edicts of the proper use of any language.  We spend much of our education learning the proper syntax, spelling and word choice to use in our language.  Which seems very odd, since we were essentially fluent in our language by the age of 3 or 4.  And yet we spend years and years afterwards perfecting what are often completely made-up rules about language. Don’t strand prepositions, don’t split infinitives, don’t use “hopefully” to describe an uncertainty and so on.

I personally like the explanation put forth via Veblan Economics of the Leisure class.  I’m but a novice-amateur in the field of Economics and its history, but it provides a framework that is helpful, I think.  Essentially, what Veblan puts forth is that we are driven via biological, evolutionary principles towards “conspicuous consumption”.  It is desirable to have things, and even more so to have things that you can waste.  This is the difference between Lord and Serf, and in our modern times, our conspicuous consumption is often things having to do with time.

How much time do you spend on vacation versus working?  How much golf do you play?  How many days did you spend out of the office?  These things signal your ability to consume, rather than produce.  Clothing is similar.  The business-suit is desirable, in part, because it is wholly unsuitable for manual labor.  It shows the wearer to be above the tasks of the working class.

And in this line of thinking, knowing proper grammar and how to spell correctly are evidences that you have spent years educating yourself in those tasks.  Notice, knowing how to spell correctly and use prescriptive grammar are not productive.  They don’t produce anything.  Being able to point out the mistakes of others is not actually about grammar. It is about signaling your ability to consume.  You had the privilege to spend your time learning non-productive pursuits instead of productive ones.

To be clear here, I am using “productive” here in a very literal sense, not the connotative sense of “hard-worker”.  Grammar-nazis can be very productive in what they do, but they aren’t actually producing anything.

And so we point out when someone makes a spelling mistake, but we don’t just point it out, we describe the event as, “extremely embarrassing” as if misplacing an “I” were somehow similar to pissing yourself in public.

— Of course, in writing this little ditty, it could be argued that I am engaging in the very act that I am describing.  I am demonstrating my knowledge (presumed knowledge, until someone stumbles across this blog and shows my ignorance, an event I am sure KUTV would describe as “extremely embarrassing”) of Veblen Economics, of Grammar, and Spelling.  As XKCD said it: