28 July 2005

Ebonics is back in the news

Schools in San Bernardino are being encouraged by a sociology professor to incorporate Ebonics into their curriculum.

When I was in graduate school studying linguistics, we looked at black dialects of English. One of my fellow grad students, although Doogie Howser-white, had grown up in a black area of Dallas and spoke that dialect as well as standard English. One thing I learned from him was that his dialect contained verb tenses that mine didn't. For instance, in addition to "he's sick", his dialect also included "he sick" and "he be sick". The first, as in standard English, was a statement about the present, but could imply everything from a headache to Ebola. "He sick", on the other hand, referred specifically to a temporary illness. And "he be sick" referred to a long-term, possibly terminal condition.

It was clear that this dialect had the complete expressiveness of any full-fledged language, and was not a "debased" English, or a result of "laziness" on the part of the speakers.

The fight over Ebonics, and other non-English languages, in the schools seems to me to be over what the purpose of a school is. That purpose includes learning about one's history and culture, acquiring knowledge in "letters, science, and art", preparing for entering the workforce, becoming a responsible citizen, and learning how to learn. Much of that could be done in any language, but if students do not become fluent in the dominant language and culture in which they are immersed, they will forever be at a disadvantage. For that reason, a priority for those students who do not speak standard English must be learning that language, and whatever it takes to accomplish that is what the school should be doing.

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