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William A. Stewart

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The ground-breaking pioneer William A. Stewart died of congestive heart failure, induced by type 2 diabetes, on March 25, 2002 in New York Presbyterian Hospital of Colombia University. The linguist was one of the strongest early advocates for the Creole Origins of African American English (AAE) and the bidialectical approach to education for African American English-speaking students.

Professor Stewart is best known for his study of “creoles,” which are languages such as Gullah that result from contact between two different languages. His essay “Creole Languages in the Caribbean” was the first study that linked creoles from different origins. He was the first linguist to prove that African-American English (AAE) was a creole formed from contact between the languages of African slaves and the English of American settlers. His arguments for the creole origins of African-American English and the process of decreolization gave the first understanding of African-American English as the product of historical linguistic and sociolinguistic processes, thus removing it from a contemptuous perception.

His research on the grammatical features of AAE — such as he busy (meaning he is busy at the moment) and  he be busy (meaning he is habitually busy) — as evidence that African-American English amounted to a rich, distinct form of speech. Stewart’s findings had critical implications in the realm of education, especially in regard to African American English-speaking students, since simply conjugating the verb to be (in the example above) to match Standard American English would not reflect what the student was trying to say. This work led to an understanding of how such grammatical differences between African American English and Standard American English can lead to misunderstandings in the classroom. African-American English-speaking students in American schools were testing far below their Standard American English-speaking peers in reading and writing.

To combat the difficulties encountered by African American English-speaking students in the classroom, Professor Stewart promoted methods of teaching Standard American English that were used to teach English as a foreign language. Stewart believed that the failure to teach them as nonnative speakers, as opposed to intrinsically deficit, was the cause of poor academic performance exhibited by many African American students. He argued that education’s focus on neurological or emotional defects, or certain features of a lower-class environment (such as depressing surroundings, excessive noise, poor childcare, substandard nutrition, and physical abuse) did not help students to succeed. He wrote that education failed to efficiently or fairly educate “linguistically-different” children and thus contributed to their poor performance.

From there, Professor Stewart published a series of articles that demonstrated how African-American children’s failure to learn was due to teaching materials. In his 1966 essay “Social Dialect” Professor Stewart attacked the theory that the English of African-American children was evidence of their diminished capacity for learning. African-American English was then, as it is today, confused with street slang that employs a specialized vocabulary and nonstandard pronunciation. Speakers of African-American English were often regarded as careless, lazy, ignorant or stupid. Stewart recognized that they were speaking a dialect with its own rules, and it was a matter of language difference and not language deficit that was to blame. Thus he was an early observer that test scores reveal the cultural bias of the test and not the abilities of the tested population.

“He was one of the founding figures in the movement to teach black children standard English as a separate language, and argued passionately for that approach until the end of his life,” said John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at University of California, Berkeley.

In addition Professor Stewart suggested that teachers be educated in the rules of African-American English so they could better help their students adapt to Standard American English and prepare curricula that reflected their student’s knowledge. He also argued that primers used in the teaching of students who did not speak Standard English should reflect their dialect, so that the material would be relevant to the students and that language differences would not interfere with their learning to read. Primers in Standard American English did not require white students to learn anything new; the speakers of other dialects, such as AAE, had to learn a new way of speaking before they could learn to read. Professor Stewart developed materials that used the modern methods of foreign language instruction to improve the English of nonstandard speakers, including three primers in African American English. Several scholars have built on Stewart’s endeavors, such as the Rickfords’ dialect readers, and the Oakland School District’s efforts to garner English as a Second Language funding to effectively foster students’ academic success.

Professor Stewart was born September 12, 1930 in Honolulu, Hawaii and grew up speaking four languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hawaiian). He earned a BA and MA from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1955 and 1958, respectively.Stewart was awarded a Fullbright scholarship at the Universidade de Pernambuco, Brazil, from 1959-1960. He then became a staff linguist at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, which led to travel in the Caribbean and Africa. By then, he was fluent in German, French, Dutch, Wolof, Haitian, Sranan, Papiamentu, and Gullah, as well as the languages he grew up speaking.

Professor Stewart made the discovery in 1965 that it was not the vocabulary and pronunciation of African-American vernacular English but the grammar, which reflects West African influences that caused reading problems. By comparing the speech of African American English-speaking children and the Academic English used for instruction, Stewart realized that the resulting learning problems were similar to those of trying to learn English as a foreign language. In 1968, Professor Stewart became co-director of the Education Study Center in Washington, D.C., founded to help balance the education deficit.

He was awarded a five-year grant in 1973 by the National Science Foundation to study how Gullah had developed since the Civil War in the coastal area of South Carolina and Georgia. Stewart also developed a method for quantifying the use of multiple languages in a society that is still in use today. He co-edited Linguistic Reading Lists for Teachers of Modern Languages in 1963, edited Non-Standard Speech and the Teaching of English in 1964, and developed the Introductory Course in Dakar Wolof for the Peace Corps in 1965.

Professor Stewart taught Spanish and Portuguese at Georgetown University from 1962 to 1967, and social psychology at Johns Hopkins University, 1967/68. He was a faculty member at the Columbia University Teachers College from 1968 until 1978. In 1973, Stewart joined the Graduate Center of the City University of New York where he taught courses in pidgins and creoles, phonetics, sociolinguistics, applied linguistics, and forensic linguistics. He was also an editor of the Oxford Student’s Dictionary of American English, published in 1983. J. L. Dillard dedicated his book Black English to Professor Stewart, whom he said made the serious study of African-American English possible.

For further information about William Stewart, see this this press release from the CUNY Graduate Center, where Dr. Stewart taught.

–Based on the CUNY Graduate Center press release.

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