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Ebonics & Education, A Dystopian Fantasy?

April 12, 2010

Although  African American students have been identified by educators as non-standard English speakers, and their inability to succeed academically has been documented, very little has been done to ameliorate the situation on a large scale. That is, with the exception of the Oakland Unified School District task-force composed of educators concerned with the poor academic performance of African American students, particularly in language arts. They arrived at the conclusion that African American students were speaking African American English (a variation of English influenced by African languages) and thus, like most other non-standard English speakers, having difficulty understanding content taught in standard English.

Over a decade ago, these well-intentioned educators created the Oakland Resolution in attempt to address this dialectical issue. They felt that if students had trouble understanding the material in standard English, then the school should attempt to educate them in other ways that they could understand. One of these alternative ways included the incorporation of African American English in the classroom, in a similar fashion to the way English Second Language/ Bilingual courses are conducted. Unfortunately, because there weren’t any linguists involved in the creation of the original Oakland Resolution, the document made controversial statements about the native language of African American students. It incorrectly claimed Ebonics was an African language, as opposed to one influenced by African languages. Needless to say, chaos exacerbated by the media ensued, stigmatizing the African American English dialect and any hopes of its implementation in the education system. By the time linguists were able to ammend the Oakland Resolution, it was too late.

Had the media not created a “freak-show” of the situation, but rather allowed linguists to address the public, African American students might have received much-needed academic services in the public school system.

To see whether or not the Oakland Resolution’s proposed programming might have been successful, we need only look at similar (though small-scaled) programs that preceded it, such as the California Standard English Proficiency program which had already been incorporating Ebonics into teaching since 1981.

More soon on African American English programs, such as the California Standard English Proficiency program, and their successes.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. francescah permalink
    April 12, 2010 5:35 pm

    I think it’s also important to note that the wording of the proposed resolution was misleading. Due to this and media spinning, much of the public was lead to believe that African American English would be taught in classrooms instead of simply used to help AAE speakers be able to speak Standard English and understand the grammatical differences between the two.

  2. Brittney permalink
    April 12, 2010 10:55 pm

    I agree. I think it’s interesting how the media is so effective at manipulating the public. Although in this case, the Oakland supporters brought it upon themselves by lack of careful wording and thorough explanations. However, they probably feared the proposal would get rejected and would not be supported unless AAE is considered its own language, like Spanish or Chinese. Of course, they were right.

  3. zekea permalink
    April 13, 2010 5:54 am

    As far as I can gather, the general public is hardly aware of linguistics at all. While those who have studied it know it to be a vast field of research involving serious science and clearly important discoveries, most people take language for granted. To the many, many folks who reacted with offended shock at the Oakland Resolution, language is such an ordinary thing that it couldn’t possibly involve complex rule structures and dialectical divergences. They dimly perceive the contours of linguistics, noting that British people sound different from Americans, but the average bear is depressingly far from appreciating the profoundly elaborate enmeshing of history, biology and sociology and accounts for how people speak. Had the Oakland Resolution been crafted in words so pristinely careful as to escape all offensive misinterpretation, the masses would still cock their heads to one side and give a collective “Huh?”

  4. Emilie permalink*
    April 13, 2010 5:16 pm

    @ Zekea
    Wow, that was harsh. Yet true, in a sense…

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