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For Hire, Ebonics Translators

August 26, 2010

Big Brother is watching you.

And now he wants to understand you.

Okay, so we are being a little facetious. But the point is that African American English, familiarly known as Ebonics, is again in the psyche of the U.S. government. On August 23rd, The Smoking Gun (via Gawker) reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration  (DEA), Atlanta Division, is looking to hire nine linguists specializing in African American English (among other languages). These individuals would  help decode wiretaps collected during investigations that could be used for prosecution.

But this isn’t the first time that AAE has been acknowledged by the U.S. government. It first showed up in the U.S. courts just over 30 years ago, in 1979, during what is labeled as the ‘Black English Case’.  Judge Charles W. Joiner ruled that teachers at the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School in Ann Arbor  Michigan be sensitized to the ‘black English system’, which he deemed a ‘distinct, definable version of English…[with] definite language patterns, syntax, grammar and history’. By not being educated about AAE and taking it into consideration in preparing the curriculum, teachers were seen as disadvantaging or discriminating against AAE-speaking students.

Since the ‘Black English Case’, linguists, psychologists and educators have attempted to educate the public and government about AAE, their voices oftentimes falling on deaf  ears. We wonder if the acknowledgment of AAE by the DEA, in terms of deviant behavior, helps or hurts in the education about issues pertaining to African Americans who speak this variety of English. What do you think?

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. Francesca permalink
    October 19, 2010 10:03 pm

    I think this is a step in increasing the prestige of AAE because it acknowledges that AAE is a distinct linguistic variety. Recognizing this at the federal level is great. At the same time, it’s interesting that the Justice Department refers to it as Ebonics as this term has a negative connotation in the public and has largely fallen out of use among linguists who use terms like African American Vernacular (English), African American English, Black English, etc.

  2. Susannah L. permalink
    October 20, 2010 11:27 pm

    This is definitely a step forward, but I feel the only way AAE might truly be accepted by the majority of the public as a valid dialect of Standard American English is to introduce it into the general curricula of schools. By this I mean teachers, first and foremost, should be educated that AAE is a valid form of English, and students who enter the school system speaking AAE should be taught how to adopt Standard English and when it is appropriate to do so. If this additive approach were taken, the stigma against AAE would be greatly diminished.

    I agree with Francesca in that the term “Ebonics” now carries a generally negative connotation, but I also feel that “Black English” may do the same thing. AAE needs to be regarded as a dialect instead of a “lesser version” of Standard English, just as various regional accents and dialects are. I feel that if AAE was spoken exclusively by a white subgroup/regional group of America, then perhaps it would not carry the stigma it does; throughout history, and even now, many of the “problems” found with AAE seem to be used as excuses to perpetuate and justify acts and thoughts of racism against black Americans.

  3. Rachael A. permalink
    October 29, 2010 3:17 pm

    I agree with Francesca that this is a good step towards recognizing AAE as a valid language system, however I don’t think that necessarily means that it is gaining prestige. It is one thing to acknowledge that AAE exists and that in some cases translation is needed, but it is another thing for the general pubic to accept it as a useful way of speaking in everyday life.

  4. Na X. permalink
    October 29, 2010 8:32 pm

    The ‘Black English Case’ is definitely a landmark court case that should be applauded for its decision. AAE is often stigmatized because it deviates from Standard English yet still shares a lot of elements, especially phonological features, as that of Standard English. By making teachers recognize that AAE is not incorrect English or slang, they can help students learn the same. It is proven that students who have dialect awareness scored better on standardized tests than those who didn’t. That is because most African American students are often dissuaded from incorporating their culture, their language, into learning. But by establishing that schools have to ensure a cohesive environment for all types of students, African Americans children will finally be willing to learn. They won’t be told that the features of their language are wrong, instead, they can contrast them with those of Standard English, and learn to code-switch so they can be respected members of the professional world. I think AAE education is equivalent to ESL or any other bilingual programs in America. It just needs more bureaucratic support.

  5. Sarah K permalink
    October 30, 2010 9:35 pm

    I’m not sure that this is a step in the right direction for AAE. The fact that the government is advertising for linguists using the term “Ebonics” that has negative connotations in the context of listening to wiretaps for criminal investigations is not a prestige-garnering situation for AAE. I agree with Susannah, that in order for AAE to gain prestige it has to be present in the school system and other positive contexts, and I fear that this negatively advertised situation will be more harmful than helpful to AAE.

    Also, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious recognition of AAE as a legitimate grammatical system, but instead only that it is “indecipherable” to government workers who speak SAE.

  6. Sonya K. permalink
    October 31, 2010 11:50 pm

    Like many people, I don’t think the acknowledgment of African American English in the context of investigating deviant behavior helps clear the misconceptions that surround it. In a way, it even emphasizes the stigma attached to the dialect. Despite all this, however, it would be nice if schools could recognize the implication that AAE is actually a valid dialect that linguists can systematically “decode”.

    I am in complete agreement with Susannah that awareness of AAE should be introduced in the schools. I feel that the reason why the majority has such a hard time acknowledging the validity of AAE is because so many of its features are what teachers have constantly pounded over the students’ heads as being “bad grammar,” such as the use of double negatives and the absence of the plural -s. Instead of making such a clear delineation between “good” and “bad” grammar, it might be a good idea for teachers to emphasize the difference between what is standard and non-standard. That way, the prestige of standard grammatical rules compared to those of other dialects seem less absolute and more arbitrary. After all, as mentioned above, if AAE had been spoken by a more privileged group, it might not have been as stigmatized as it is today. I think this can make students more open to different dialects starting from an early age. It can also help speakers of non-standard dialects focus on learning how to use each dialect appropriately for each situation instead of trying to overcome the disadvantage the current education system imposes on them.

  7. Ginny permalink
    November 1, 2010 12:02 am

    I don’t think the DEA case will have much of an effect on AAE’s prestige. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be groundbreaking news, so your average citizen probably won’t know about it. The Michigan MLK school requiring its teachers to learn AAE probably did a lot more to draw attention to the issue, since it involved children and education. I bet there were a lot of angry parents who loudly voiced their complaints, meaning that all of the community knew what was going on. With this case, I can’t imagine many people would be outraged over trying to catch criminals as they would when it comes to their children’s education. Unfortunately, I think it takes those outspoken types to cause a fuss over something before it garners national attention, and I don’t see that happening in this DEA situation. Therefore, maybe a group of people at the DEA will be enlightened to the legitimacy of AAE, and of course the linguists working for them will be, but other than that I think AAE’s prestige status will stay the same.

  8. Peggy O. permalink
    November 1, 2010 12:35 pm

    I think that in order for AAE to actually be recognized as a true dialect of Standard English by the American public, bigger steps than this need to be taken. As Ginny said, this case has not gotten much media coverage and so it’s not likely that many people will hear about it. Also, the fact that AAE (or Ebonics as it is referred to) is being recognized as a dialect for the purpose of decoding wiretaps on potential drugdealers seems to stigmatize AAE even more. For this reason, it’s probably a good thing that this case isn’t getting much publicity. If people want AAE to be recognized nationally, more work needs to be done in integrating it in public schools.

  9. Lindsay H. permalink
    November 1, 2010 1:09 pm

    I too disagree with Francesca’s suggestion that hiring linguists to aid in the DEA’s investigation of the AA community gives a prestige to AAE. Other than the federal government’s acknowledgment of AAE as a lingual system, the fact that it is only given credence due to its relation to drug enforcement, further taints AAE and harms the African American community nationwide struggling to bring AAE into schools. It directly links “ebonics” with criminal behavior, like Sarah K. said above; using this dialect to aid in a drug bust does not lend prestige to AAE. This connection between criminality and AAE will further stigmatize the language, whether it reaches the public or not: the government has directly aligned “ebonics” with it’s stereotypical use, with drugs and violence. This suggests that the federal government is willing to devote energy to decoding AAE used in cases of deviant behavior while it refuses to fund schools where AAE is prominent and the students are failing. The government is using AAE against the community by using it for its own purposes rather than using AAE to promote better academic scores and success rates with students. Where these linguists can be used to help educate teachers in educating these AAE speaking students, their involvement suggests that behind AAE’s terms and grammar dissimilar to SAE, the AAE is a way of hiding drug-related talk from the SAE speakers. I’m not saying that finding drug dealers is a bad thing and that these linguists are not being used for a good cause, but the fact that this is the only use the federal government has for AAE is discouraging and pushes the advancement of AAE back once again.

  10. J. Diaz permalink
    November 1, 2010 1:12 pm

    I think it’s important to recognize that despite hiring for a race-related dialect, the DEA didn’t make any racial distinction in its job listing. The “Ebonics” experts that they’re looking for could just as easily be White or Asian or African American. In that way, it recognizes the dialect not as some linguistic perversion only black people understand, but a systematic form of communication anyone can learn. Perhaps the DEA should offer classes in “Ebonics” to its current employees and the US government can finally take steps towards promoting it rather than squashing it.

  11. Caroline H. permalink
    November 1, 2010 1:22 pm

    I do not think the fact that the government is hiring linguists who understand AAE means anything noteable. If it were “good,” AAE would be treated as a dialect. The government hiring AAE competent listeners does not mean that AAE is being treated with respect as a dialect. Especially in the case of wiretaping, it seems more probable that the government just wants the information. There is no evidence that by hiring AAE competent linguists, the government is acknowleding it’s worth; rather, it is just acknowledging African American English’s existence.

  12. Sally S. permalink
    November 1, 2010 2:50 pm

    While the DEA’s advertisement obviously stirs some discussion regarding AAE as a distinct dialect, the context of such a government institution’s recognition of AAE seems to only perpetuate the linguistic and racial stereotypes associated with AAE. Afterall, while it would be productive for the linguistic differences between AAE and Standard AE to be taught additively, as other dialects and languages are in schools and such, this is not an ad seeking teachers or instructors who can help spread an understanding of the differences and similarities between the two. Instead, the ad only seems to further the image of the Standard AE-speaking DEA seeking out AAE-speaking criminals.

  13. Christopher P. permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:09 pm

    While on the one hand AAE gets a fairer shake as something more than incorrect English, the context of the callout (DEA investigations) might balance out any positive prestige that might accompany the realization. Though it’s questionable that merely knowing that AAE is different from English would garner more positive thoughts, it certainly would serve to start tearing down the harmful stereotypes that surround it.

  14. Kathryn S. permalink
    November 1, 2010 11:57 pm

    I agree with Sarah K.’s assessment that the only reason this is happening is that AAE “is ‘indecipherable’ to government workers who speak SAE” and Peggy O.’s realization that the views of the general public are not going to be shaped by a government job ad that only linguists would notice, and would add to these ideas a reminder that NINE positions is a very, very, very small number, and that the government has the resources to invest in many silly, trivial, experimental positions, should it feel so inclined (Any Roswell believers out there? lol).

  15. apt241 permalink
    November 1, 2010 11:58 pm

    I do not believe that this acknowledgment of African American English by the DEA is entirely crippling to the education of issues that affect some speakers of the variety of English. I chose to call attention to the word “translate,” apparently used by the DEA in this job call. This word carries connotations of validity when used to refer to interactions people have with things others have said. Translating, essentially conversion, is used in prestige settings where standard varieties of languages are being exercised (i.e. the United Nations). Since the activity of translating is accepted to occur between other widely acknowledged languages, this only helps reposition negative point of views of AAE’s linguistic status. There are other languages on the DEA list for needed translators, so a firm argument could be made that deviant behaviors occur in any language or language variety. Therefore, any deviant behavior may not be linked to the entire AAE speech community.

  16. Casey W permalink
    April 10, 2011 10:39 pm

    I have mixed feelings, like many of the posts above, about the DEA hiring African American English speakers. I feel that the idea is great in the sense that I can only imagine how many misinterpretations and misunderstandings by DEA agents have unfairly landed African American English speakers behind bars. However, I wonder how are these specialists in African American English going to be selected? I question the ability of the DEA to hire appropriate and qualified individuals for the job… This hypothetically great idea could just as easily turn into a terrible idea (like it probably will). Think the good-hearted intentions that were behind the “No Child Left Behind” in education…

  17. Kara S. permalink
    May 3, 2011 9:00 pm

    Quite honestly, I believe that this, the hiring of AAE speakers/linguists by the DEA, will have more of a negative impact than a positive one. While it’s great that a government agency recognizes the legitimacy of AAE as a language, the specific association with the DEA will only solidify certain ideologies that suggest that AAE is linked or should be linked (whether intended or not) to criminal activity.

    To touch on a larger point made by previous commenters, I do believe that AAE should be taught in schools. This proves to be difficult due to what people consider “bad grammar” is connected to AAE, even though there are established grammar and syntax rules within the language. I think that teaching AAE as a form of non-standard English can be beneficial to all students, including those that don’t necessarily speak AAE. (I believe Sonya above also made this point).

  18. Kate L permalink
    May 3, 2011 9:46 pm

    Recognizing African American English as a linguistically functional and rule governed variety of English is, in my opinion, the first step that needs to be taken in order to influence any ideologies concerning it. Before this dialect can be considered a viable alternative to communication to “Standard English,” it has to be viewed as an equal candidate. I agree with the opinion that AAE education should be incorporated into school curricula and acknowledged as a valid dialect of English. If the attitude towards AAE is a positive one, then its usage by individuals of the African American community and beyond will not be rebuffed, but accepted. As long as there exists an ideology of inferiority concerning the use of AAE, then the speakers of this dialect will be influenced by misinformed and prejudiced preconceptions. If AAE speaking children enter the school system and are taught by educators who view their dialect as inadequate, they may immediately be profiled as academically disadvantaged or even incapable of productivity. In order for these students to benefit from their education, their teachers ought to acknowledge their native English dialect, accommodate them academically, and be open-minded about the linguistic variation present in these students’ communities.

  19. Lindsay Kelley permalink
    May 4, 2011 4:03 pm

    I have to agree with everyone else; the DEA linking African American English and therefore African Americans to criminal behavior will only further the negative stereotypes of the dialect and the people who speak it, not increase its prestige in the mainstream. But for me it opens up an interesting potential. While the government recognizes the need for linguists to “decode” wiretaps, it doesn’t necessarily validate AAE as a legitimate dialect of English, especially if they are still calling it “Ebonics.” (You can decode Pig Latin, too, and that doesn’t make it a legitimate variety). However, if linguists continue to push this issue, the argument could be made that the DEA recognizing the distinctiveness of AAE opens up the possibility for public schools to receive funding to serve African American English speaking students. Otherwise, it is especially problematic the way the government can recognize AAE when it is useful to them and yet gloss over any problems where addressing them would come at an additional financial cost. But no surprise here…we have been waiting a long time for our country to accept African American English as its own legitimate entity and adequately serve the community of its speakers.

  20. Anton permalink
    May 5, 2011 9:59 pm

    I believe that the government did the right thing by acknowledging AAE as a “distinct” entity. However, the association of the language to deviant behavior far outweighs the government not acknowledging AAE in terms of how much damage it can do in the long run. Even if the AAE wasn’t recognized as distinct, it would still be recognized as a phonologically distinct dialect. After all, as the linguist Max Weinreich once said, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Politics dictate what a language is and what isn’t. In reality, the array of languages in the world can be seen as a spectrum. No two spots are the same, and each has its own unique characteristics. In short, the hiring of the nine linguists translates to more discrimination and marginalization in the future for AAE speakers, which in turn will eventually lead to a growth of a strong stigma on AAE. And in my opinion, if I had a choice between a blatant besmirchment of my identity and the government not recognizing my dialect as a distinct language variety, I’d go with the latter.

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