Controversy of Black English

Fenix A. Gilbert-Manning

Throughout history, African-Americans have tried to find ways to maintain their identity, yet still find success in the United States. Many obstacles have stood in their way, one of those barriers is the dialect they speak. The acceptable language for Americans to speak is titled ìStandard Englishî. ìStandard English is that variety of English which is usually used in print, and which is normally taught in schools and to nonnative speakers learning the languageî (Trudgill 5). That which does not fall into the category of Standard English is labeled nonstandard, and an example of such is Black English. There are 333,746,000 people who speak ìEnglish.î This ìsuggests how strange and how tenuous is any concept of ëStandard Englishíî (George 115). There are too many different varieties of American English for there to be a label such as Standard. If one is to take into consideration the regional dialects and accents that are present in the United States, how could there be a standard? If the idea of a standard isnít reasonable, why is Black English seen as inferior? Where did these ideas come from?

There are many different theories about the development of Black English. The first is labeled as the ìDeficient Theory.î This theory proposes that the brains of minority children are lacking a quality that makes them unable to speak Standard English. It is the idea that Black English is the attempt of African-Americans to speak Standard English, suggesting that blacks are striving to speak SE, but with little success. This thinking led to the construction if DISTAR (Direct Instruction Systems for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading). DISTAR was developed to help minority children become as ìprivilegedî as their counterparts by teaching them how to write and speak appropriately. The inability to accept Black English as a dialect was allowed to perpetuate with this idea of the Deficient Theory (Smith 161).

The next controversy about Black English is the name. In order for research to be done on the subject, the title had to change from Black English to African-American Vernacular English. In the 1970ís researchers found it hard to study the idea of a Black English. It was assumed that if they were to study Black English, that they also believed in the idea of the time, the Deficient Theory. This suggested they believed that BE was an inferior dialect and a poor attempt to speak SE, they were labeled as racist, holding negative views about African-Americans. Consequently, until the name and the theories were changed, BE was a scarcely studied dialect.

In order for the dialectologists to change the name, they first had to realize the problem with the title ìBlack English.î The term ìBlack Englishî implies that all black people speak this dialect. This fails to recognize the fact that many Caucasians speak this dialect also. In fact, the designated speakers of BE are those who live in urban areas, and the majority of these inhabitants happen to be African-American. However, not all blacks live in the inner-city, and not all of those who live in the inner-city are black. The label Black English keeps this dialect from being researched further. Therefore, with all ideas taken into consideration, linguists changed the term Black English into African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). The term ëvernacularí implies that other races, in addition to blacks (and not the entire black population) speak this dialect (Trudgill 49).

The next step after changing the name, is to change the perception of AAVE. One of the main problems is ìwe do not accept the fact that BEV [Black English Vernacular] has distinct rules of itís own, we find that the speech of black children is a mass of errors and this has indeed been the tradition of early education research in this areaî (Labov 36). The goal is to not to think of Black English as being different and inferior, but different yet equal to Standard English (SE). Fortunately, a linguist named Labov worked on discrediting the Deficient Theory. He proved that Black English was in fact a dialect. He showed that the language is actually governed by rules and speech patterns (Dandy 14). The first example, the existential use of the word ìitî, allows sentences such as ìIt is a Godî which replaces ìThere is a Godî. Another example, the invariant ìbeî as a verb form means in AAVE the verb ìbeî suggest a noncontinuous action. ìThere is therefore a verbal contrast in AAVE which is not possible in Standard Englishî (Trudgill 55). These examples (and many others), allowed Labov to suggest that AAVE was an actual dialect that was different, yet equal to Standard English.

Another controversy deals with the recognition of AAVE on a societal level. ìLinguists say... that the current generation of inner-city youth rely more heavily on black vernacular than everî (Lee A1). The growing rate of the use of AAVE leads to many other problems that need to be addressed.

One of the situations that needs to be recognized is the use of AAVE in the classroom. Many people have various ideas on how this situation should be handled. Should teachers address the issue of differences?, Or should they ignore the differences and continue their usual methods of teaching? However, one must keep in mind that ìwhite standards control our official and popular judgments of verbal proficiency and correct, or incorrect, language skills, including speechî. With this idea in mind, one has to conclude that ìwhite English is Americaís Standard Englishî (George 115). These beliefs are generally true, yet are not often recognized. African-American youth are expected to speak the Standard English dialect, yet it is not their standard, it is the standard that the white population has set.

It is the role of teachers to instruct students how to read, write, and speak in Standard English. However, the majority of minority inner-city students have Caucasian teachers. This creates a problem when the student tries to identify with their instructors. ìListening to nonstandard English in the classroom seems to make teachers very uncomfortable. They seem to feel a deep responsibility to say, ëDonít say ainítí.î Studies have shown that a teacher is more likely to correct an African-American student who is speaking in AAVE, then they are to correct a Caucasian student who may answer the question in nonstandard English. Although they may both give the correct answer, the black students answer will not be accepted as correct because it was not stated in the correct form (Smith 19).

The teachers inability to recognize the childís speech as correct in their own dialect of AAVE affects the learning of the student. When a teacher is constantly criticizing and correcting their speech telling them they are wrong, the student begins to shut themselves out and not answer the questions asked of them. They tend to sit farther away from the teacher so that they will not be called upon to answer any questions and to avoid further ridicule. This problem also brings about another controversy: the unfair placement of African-American students into Special Education Programs. There are 41.6% of black youth in Special Ed. Programs that do not belong. They are placed in these facilities because the teachers believe that they have learning difficulties when in actuality, they are answering every question correctly, but in a form that the teachers do not understand. Instead of the teachers learning more about AAVE, they place the children in these programs, forcing them to get treatment that they do not deserve. This was the subject of a case that was brought to court. The parents of 11 students that attended Ann Arbor Elementary ìcharged that teacherís negative and uninformed perspectives about their childís black dialects unnecessarily place them into remedial classrooms targeted them for special education and made them consistently poor readers.î This event was covered in the local news and when cameras panned the classroom, they focused on a little black child in the room stating ìthese are the children whose language is unintelligible to their teachers.î However, these reporters did not know that the child they focused on was a honor roll student who spoke SE at home and at school yet they assumed she did not because she was black (Holloway 82).

The subject of African-American Vernacular English brings about many prejudices. It is assumed that all blacks speak it, and that AAVE equals lack of intelligence. There is no general consensus on how to deal with AAVE on a societal level, yet something must be done. America must become more aware of the different dialects that are present in this country and not allow ourselves to stay ignorant, and force those who do not speak the ìstandardî to suffer

This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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