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.


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