“How We Speak”: Some Observations on Ebonics, Identity, and Language IdeologyPosted: March 3, 2016
In the 1970s, U.S. educational psychologists devised a program to ‘correct’ children’s language ‘deficiencies’. A documentary was made about the program. Here’s the transcript from one scene:
White Teacher (showing coffee cup): This is not a spoon.
Small Black girl: Dis not no ‘poon.
Teacher: No. “This is not a spoon.”
Child (softly): Dis not a ‘poon.
Teacher (annoyed): “This is not a spoon!”
Child (exasperated): Well, dass a cup!
So who’s the deficient one that needs ‘correcting’: the kid whose language communicates its message efficiently or the adult who says stupid, self-evident things to help the kid conform to standard grammar rules?
Ebonics – sometimes known as African American Vernacular English or AAVE – has a bad reputation among the self-appointed gatekeepers of the English language. They use a number of arguments to denigrate the dialect: people won’t take you seriously; you don’t know the rules; no one will understand you; if you want to get on in life, you need to speak real English.
These arguments are spurious and bound up with questions of power. Who decides what real English is? Invariably, it’s the elite – those with their hands on the levers of the media, the political scene, and the publishing industry – and ‘elite’ in America and the UK usually means white and wealthy. Why is “Dis not a poon” inferior to “this is not a spoon”? It isn’t. “Dis not a poon” is entirely logical and comprehensible, as is Ebonics in general. AAVE is rule-driven, structurally complex, and more than adequate for expressing ideas. In fact, the richness and vitality of the spoken word is central to African American life, and linguistic ability is a prized asset. This is the demographic that gave us rap and hip-hop, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.
The problem lies not with Ebonics itself but with the gatekeepers – Steven Pinker calls them language mavens – and what they deem to be acceptable. But acceptability is context-driven. Walk into a Detroit tenement or a Johannesburg shanty town or a Milton Keynes tower block and try speaking the Queen’s English. “Acceptable” and “standard” are culturally loaded terms.
The problem also lies in a lack of intercultural competence and a colonial attitude towards minority languages and dialects.
Take this anecdote from Suzanne Romaine’s Language in Society:
A senior professor of education visited a London comprehensive school and discussed with one class the languages they spoke at home. One boy put up his hand and said that his family spoke a French Creole. In an unguarded moment the professor replied, “That’s nice.” “What’s nice about it?” asked the boy.
This paternalistic view of the ‘other’ language is all too common. Some regard the home language as a cute game for children, while English, with its Shakespeare and Chaucer and the New York Times and the BBC and CNN, is the language of the grown-ups.
Ideology is at its most powerful when it’s invisible, when unsubstantiated ‘facts’ go unquestioned. When any form of oppression has worked completely, the oppressor doesn’t need to act, because the oppressed have internalized their ‘inferiority’. This happens in relation to language use as much as any other form of human interaction. It’s one reason why first-generation immigrants dissuade their offspring from speaking the mother tongue. They have internalized the idea that English is good and the mother tongue bad. It’s why African American parents are sometimes heard scolding their children for speaking AAVE. It’s why John Prescott, a British politician known for mangling his sentences, apologized for not mastering the grammar of his own language. It’s why arbitrary ‘rules’ survive and thrive, such as the ridiculous notion that one should never end a sentence with a preposition.
Communication and Comprehension
How then should we approach regional and ethnic variations of English? The first stage is openness. When Native Speakers are confronted with someone addressing them in English as a Second Language or in a dialect, they have a choice: listen to comprehend or do the opposite.
All communication works two ways. Listeners need to empathize, find common ground, and mentally turn the speech signals they hear into plausible propositions. As we listen, we constantly make judgments about these signals, from the phonemic level (the most basic of sounds) up to the pragmatic level (what the speaker is actually trying to achieve). We use everything we know in order to comprehend the incoming noise, and we reject all options but one. The ‘one’ is what we ultimately believe we heard. This process requires openness of both the ears and the mind. As the saying goes, ‘a wise man listening to a fool will learn more than a fool listening to a wise man.’
The Oakland Ebonics Controversy and Identity
Twenty years ago, the school board in Oakland, California controversially allowed some education to be conducted in AAVE. In the furor that followed, the TESOL organization (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) offered a voice of reason: “Research and experience have shown that children learn best if teachers respect the home language and use it as a bridge in teaching the language of the school and wider society.”
How we speak reflects our life story: our upbringing, education, class, social status, ethnicity, gender. It’s an essential part of our identity. When we demean another person’s speech, we demean that person and their history. We also perpetuate false assumptions about the superiority of one way of speaking. The truth is: everyone has an accent. It’s just that society values some accents more than others.