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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Remember Ebonics?

Remember the big debate over teaching "ebonics" in the late 90s? Well, I'm currently watching John McWhorter's lecture course on linguistics, and it has reminded me of something I have known for a while, but thought I'd post since reminded of it: The opponents of the teaching of ebonics had no science on their side. Linguists have consistently found that there are no "inferior" human languages: all of them have a regular grammar, and all of them can express everything every other one of them can express (although some may take more or fewer words to express a particular thought). "Vernacular black American English" is not a "debased" language or a "corrupt" form of standard English: it is its own dialect, with its own rules just as regular as those of standard English. It probably would have been highly beneficial to teach black students (and white students!) that the average American black does not speak "incorrect" English, but a variety of English with its own grammatical logic. Now, I think this should be accompanied by teaching that there is another form of English that you want to learn so that you can use it when you go to apply for a job or give a business presentation: if that was lacking, merely teaching Ebonics might have been harmful. But actually teaching students that they were already speaking grammatically could not have but helped in teaching them to speak in a second grammatical way.

1 comment:

  1. 1984 expresses the real problem.
    Certain abstract ideas are lost, possibly not to be remembered again, because the new grammar/vocabulary is learned instead of the old. My local bank has adopted the 'ring my bell if I give good service' corporate meme that has apparently infected most grocery stores. I find it crass and offensive, and yet here is a bank full of female employees apparently just fine with it. The vocabulary relating to sophistication and refinement is largely forgotten- or worse, demonized (remember when 'discriminating' meant you had good taste?)- so folks may get a feeling that something is wrong here, but they are going to have trouble expressing a decent argument against boorish practices.

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