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RelativeResourceManager5 - REFLECTIONS ON THE EBONICS...

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Unformatted text preview: REFLECTIONS ON THE EBONICS CONTROVERSY TRACEY L. WELDON, University of South Carolina In December 1996, the Oakland Unified School District in California approved aresolution recognizing thelegitiijnacy of Ebonics and calling‘for teachers in the'distnCt to be better educated about the rules governing the variety, with the goal of imprOVing the teaching of standard English to Ebonics speakers. Unfortunately, some misguided statements in the resolu- tion opened the door for a media frenzy that resulted in the dissemination “af'a‘ififrfib—ei—of linguistic misconception-s; Statements-regarding ~genetic-—_— predispositions and issues of federal funding as well as questions about Ebonics as a separate language and the teaching of Ebonics in the class— room fueled a battle that left linguists scrambling. The following state- ments submitted by university students prior to a public forum on Ebonics' in February 1997 are illustrative of some of these misguided concerns. 276 AMER‘ICAN SPEECH 75.3 (200.0) ' I totally disagree with the formation of the Ebonics program. As a Black person, I ‘ am offended by this program. . . . In most Black families, if problems [in language] exist they are corrected long before the child enters school. The way I understand Ebonics is that it is a class for Black students who don’t speak “proper” English. Does the Oakland School Board really think that the teaching of Ebonics in their public schools to their students will help them enter and excel in the international community? I i It seems to me that Ebonicsv is not really a grant of cultural freedom, but an admission of the intellectual inadequacy of a portion of our population. v new. in. . .A_. _.. "' l" In an attempt to clarify sofn‘e'bf these misunderstandings, the‘Linguis- tic Society of America issued a resolution in january 1997 declaring that Oakland’s decision was “linguisdcally and pedagogically sound." In this resolution, linguists emphasized that Ebonics—or African American En- glish (AAE), the label preferred by most linguists today—is “5y5ternatic and rule—governed like all natural speech varieties." Despite the controversy that Oakland's decision sparked across the country, linguists were unified in this position. However, this was not the message that got communicated to the public at large. When the story first broke, I somewhat naively saw it as an opportunity for linguists to educate the public about language and dialects. Isoon realized, however, that this would not occur. On more than one occasion, Iwas contacted by members of the media to discuss my views on the issues, only to have convenient sound bites extracted from my interviews and twisted to support the media‘s own, typically negative, spin. Even when given the opportunity to address the public without media intervention (e.g., in lectures, public forums, and one—on-one conversa- tions), I found it difficult to present a linguistically informed perspective that would counter my audiences' negative biases. This is where I believe that we as linguists have failed the most. As language experts, we know best that dialects are not evil or linguistically inferior, but are instead natural, rule-governed linguistic systems that allow groups of people to identify themselves in various ways socially.'We know that what language or dialect a person speaks is not genetically based but socially determined. We know that determinations about which language varieties get viewed as standard or nonstandard are based on social rather than linguistic factors. And we know that the prejudices that people have against certain dialects and the prestige values that they assign to others are really about the speakers themselves and not the languages they speak. Yet, on the whole, we have not communicated this information to the public. Perhaps an even sadder reality with regard to the Ebonics controversy is . H '1': Diamond Anniversary Essays 277 that prejudices against AAE and misinfonned notions about it are just as prevalent within the African American community as they are outside it (recall the first student quote cited above). This reality is especially unfortuj ' nate when one considers that AAE is quite likely the most thoroughly researched variety of American English‘that sociolinguists, and particularly quantitative sociolinguists, in this country have focused on in recent de- cades. How can we know so much about this variety and not share it with the community of speakers themselves? ' On a brighter note, although the media frenzy over the Ebonics issue has long since settled, it seems to have sparked quite a bit of productivity among linguists in the form of new books about AAE. While some of these booksare targetedtoward linguistic audiences, many of them are also quite. ac‘Ee‘S’sible to non" suchteits have facilitated theclevelopment of a ‘nfiifibé'r' of college—lev’c—‘el courses on AAE. I recently taught such a course at the introductory undergraduate level, which provided a fairly comprehen- sive look at the history, structure," and use of AAE. Ironically, the section of ’he class that seemed to have the least appeal for students, namely, that covering the STRUCTURE ofAAE, was in many ways the section that was most effective in breaking down their preconceived notions about the variety. One student summed up what I believed to be the sentiments of many of her classmates when she approached me after class one day and statpd, with a look of amazement, “You mean there are rules?” ' . Still, it is quite difficult to educate college students and other adults on such issues once their biases have been formed. It is important, therefore, that we continue to push for dialect awareness at the level of Secondary education through curriculum development, teacher training, and our own public lecturing as linguists. As a quantitative sociolinguist, I am also guilty of focusing most of my research on issues of history and structure without giving back much of what I know to the community of speakers whose language I research. However, I believe-the Ebonics controversy sent linguists. the important message that what we know can make a difference. We owe it to our society to communicate this knowledge, despite the controversy that it is likely to evoke. TRACEY L. WELDON is an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of South Carolina. Her research has focused primarily on the history, struc- ture, and development of Gullah and African American English. The courses she has taught include “Introduction to Linguistics,” “Introduction ‘to Sociolinguistics,” “Language and Gender,” “The History of English,” and “African American English." A ...
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RelativeResourceManager5 - REFLECTIONS ON THE EBONICS...

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