Watch Your Language

Round-Table Conversations on World-Changing Ideas

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Under Discussion

When the Oakland, California, school board introduced a resolution recognizing Ebonics (or what linguists call African American Vernacular English) as a language, it roused condemnation from every corner of the culture.

Author and academic Shelby Steele called it a “gimmick” to enhance African American self-esteem. Former US Secretary of Education Bill Bennett called it “multiculturalism gone haywire.” The Reverend Jesse Jackson called it “an unacceptable surrender, bordering on disgrace.”

But with 16 years of hindsight, the resolution doesn’t seem so obviously outrageous. Would it be a “surrender” if so-called Ebonics speakers qualified for ESL funds to learn Standard English? Why? Would it create unnecessary racial divisions and “steal” ESL funds from those in greater need? Or would it help legitimize patterns of speech long dismissed as “slang” by those in power?

Literature teacher Ann Lauinger’s class, “English: History of a Language,” has been trying to answer some of these still-volatile questions, and to tease out the Oakland school board’s actual intent. “The fun for me,” says Lauinger, “is defusing the issue’s political dicey-ness by giving my students tools of analysis.” What follows is a partial transcript, as the class discussed the moral, social, and practical implications of treating Standard English as a second language for Oakland’s African American students.

Sally Howe ’14: Do you guys agree with Wolfram on this? He says (reading): “Would [the Board’s proposition] really be a flagrant misuse of funds? … The goal of bilingual funding, after all, is to ensure equal access to quality education.”

Alex Vesey ’14: I have some feelings and they’re honestly not about money. At our high school, the ESL kids were off in their own bubble, and even when they were in mainstream classes people didn’t want to talk to them or be in groups with them. It was otherizing. … If you’re going to treat [African American students] as ESL students, why don’t you make the children of parents from England or Ireland—

(Moaning and objections)

Alex Vesey: (continuing)—no, seriously, there was a girl from Ireland in my class and you couldn’t understand half of what she was saying. So this is a way of otherizing the black students specifically. They’re saying this has nothing to do with race, this is linguistics, but I don’t know if that’s fair.

Josh Langman ’14: … But you’re describing a specific way of teaching ESL, where you take the kids out of the classroom and treat them separately and so on. But what if federal ESL funds went toward training teachers to be better able to create a more inclusive classroom for these kids?

Alex Vesey: Awesome. I’m all for that. 

Sally Howe: I think you also have to keep in mind that this school district is 50 percent African American. It’s hard to “otherize” such a big group. 

Alex Vesey: But it creates an even starker division than what’s already there. They can’t just say “These kids don’t talk right and we have to teach them.”

Lucy Randall-Tappley ’12: But that’s a problem of ESL education in general. That’s not a problem 
of including African Americans in ESL education. 

Alex Vesey: But [the resolution] is saying that what these kids are speaking isn’t English! I think that has the potential to become toxic when applied to an actual school environment. 

Lucy Randall-Tappley: But that’s exactly why the media blew up about it!

Ann Lauinger: But what Alex is saying is interesting. You’ve come to object to this enterprise for a completely different reason from the one expressed by people at the time. … You don’t want anything that these children bring to school about themselves to need revision. “Here are some lovely children, who are what they are, and we must honor them for that.” I think that’s what you’re saying, and it’s a deeply human and lovely sentiment. But I’m not sure it addresses the problems of educating them.

Alex Vesey: Can’t we teach children grammar without turning the way they talk into some sort of … (pauses, searching for a word) 

Ann Lauinger: But isn’t that essentially what is going on here? There’s school-talk and there’s home-talk? 

Alex Vesey: I just think it’s otherizing, and it makes me cringe.

Ann Lauinger: I don’t think it’s otherizing if they’re the majority. 

Josh Langman: I mean, there’s a level at which it is very literally otherizing, the level at which they say Ebonics isn’t English. … I think we can all sympathize with their intentions, to build a bridge so that students speaking Ebonics can become fluent in Standard Written English. But Alex, is what you’re saying something like, “Is there a way to do that without starting from the assumption that Ebonics is foreign?”

Alex Vesey: Yes! … I want a way to teach grammar that is not starting from the assumption that these students are speaking some strange foreign dialect. 

Sally Howe: I see what you mean about treating this as foreign—and calling it Ebonics instead of African American English was maybe not a great idea. But it doesn’t seem like [the school district] would want to tell these kids that they’re speaking the wrong way. Rather they would want to translate the vernacular they’re accustomed to speaking into Standard English, so they could become proficient. The issues you’re raising have to do with how this would be practically applied, which is a problem. Public schools? Not always so great at that kind of thing.

Alex Vesey: I just think that a policy that is good on paper but bad in practice is worth about as much as a pile of paper. 

Josh Langman: I think what we might have here is actually the opposite. If this worked the way they intended it to work, we’d have a policy that sounds highly suspicious and that the media goes crazy over but that could in practice work.

Alex Vesey: The key word here is intended.

John Langman: But that’s all they can be responsible for.

Lydia Winn ’13: Right—it’s impossible to translate intent perfectly into words. Anyone who reads [the resolution] can twist it, like people do all the time with the Constitution. 

Ann Lauinger: This all bears on the larger problem of bilingual education, which has had some horrible vicissitudes in this country, mostly by being canceled because people don’t want to spend money on it. It makes me laugh that [critics of the resolution] are saying, “We don’t want to give [Oakland students] our precious bilingual education money!” Well in fact we don’t want to give anybody our precious bilingual education money.