Ebonics Isn’t Bad English — It’s a Language for Learning

Black studentsAh, the comment box. Between the three blogs I contribute to, I always get a heap of input — sometimes heated backlash — about the stuff I post. I dish it, so of course I can take it. One post sticks out in my mind. A reader couldn’t focus on the point I was trying to make in my writing for being distracted by the way I was writing it. My language choice was stereotypical and offensive to my people, she balked.

I blog exactly how I talk in real-life conversation, much to the chagrin of that commenter and others who’ve corrected my grammar, apparently. It’s not that I don’t know the straight-laced, more formal way of expressing my thoughts — I have a degree in English (gasp!) and I’m a writer and editor by trade. But Ebonics is the way my family and plenty other black folks talk. It’s familiar and comfortable. That’s why I think it’s appropriate not only for blogging, but teaching black students. 

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I can almost hear the murmurs of disapproval now.

Isn’t it interesting how mainstream America likes to boast about our country being a melting pot, but everybody is forced to speak standard American English in order to be considered smart, professional, intelligent, and articulate? A quick Google search of “Ebonics and teaching” drudges up all kinds of telltale, negative reactions that accuse black linguistics of being a “dumbing down” of pure English (as if any American speaks that). Now that, dear readers, is the stereotypical, offensive part.

Ain’t nothin’ dumb or lowly about black English.

Every community has its own dialect, even dialects within dialects because certainly, Puerto Ricans speak a different brand of Spanish than Panamanians, though they’re both Latino, just like black folks from the South don’t talk exactly like the ones from New York City or Los Angeles. So why should our signature way of speaking be any more low-brow and any less viable than other groups or mainstream English, at that? Especially if using it in the context of the classroom helps students who statistically do better when information is presented in a language they’re comfortable with.

There’s no one-size-fits-all way of teaching and if some kids grasp information delivered via Ebonics more easily than they do all dressed up in prim and proper standard American English, then so be it. At this point, whatever works to close the achievement gap between black and other students is something worth giving a shot.

The only caveat: imparting lessons in Ebonics can be effective but kids still need to learn how to code switch. That is, for those who aren’t familiar or never had to do it, knowing when each way of speaking is appropriate and how to be able to volley from black English to standard American English in certain situations — job interviews, court dates, or public presentations, for example. I don’t hear enough teenagers who are able to do code switching but then again, I’m not sure if they’ve grasped the importance of mastering standard English anyway. 

We live in a society that frowns on “ain’t” over “isn’t” and makes suppositions about how smart somebody is based on how eloquently they can navigate a grammatically correct sentence. That means kids learning under the familiarity of black English still need to master spelling and grammar and parallel structure a la mainstream English in order to succeed academically, sometimes socially, and more importantly, professionally.

Should kids with other language backgrounds be taught in their native dialect?

Image via woodleywonderworks/Flickr

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