Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Spoken Soul

In light of the resurgence of the Ebonics controversy, last week I stopped off at the NYPL and picked up a copy of Spoken Soul: the story of Black English by John Rickford and Russell Rickford. (BTW, the Midtown Manhattan branch has like a dozen copies, so get yours today.)

I am almost finished reading it. The danger for me in this type of book is that I find a lot of stuff that I agree with or already know. Fortunately, the book covers more than just the grammatical structures of Black English. There is a lot on the history of people's attitudes toward the dialect which gives a nice perspective on the Ebonics controversy.

There is also a chapter on the media reaction to the Oakland School Board's proposal. This was good stuff. The basic point is that much more space was given to editorializing about Ebonics than to the actual facts--either the Oakland resolution itself or Ebonics as a dialect. This led to a lot of misinformation and downright lies being spread. And also a universal condemnation of the dialect.

All this prompted me to do a search on how the book was reviewed. The Proquest search I did showed no newspapers reviewed the book. This is frightening. And this is why the misinformation continues. I have yet to see anyone who holds these types of opinions come out and challenge the work of linguists on this dialect. And yet they continue to say the same shit over and over again. Ignoring years of scholarly work. It's getting old.

8 comments:

cawshis said...

I don't get it, OE. Where do you sit on this debate? I find the very term "Ebonics" offensive on so many levels ("Black Sounds"? Are you kidding me?) and though I do understand the reasoning behind the ruling, I'm confused on what they hope to accomplish. Is this required for all black children in the district or only the ones having difficulty? Is it just the English courses that this will be taught in?

Is the educational community so out of ideas on how to help these kids succeed that they are going back to a policy of separate but equal? I don't see any classes for "white" speech patterns or "latino" speech patterns….why do blacks need it?

What sort of message does that send black children? To their parents? To their community?

I can see the academic debate of the use of the word language, dialect, pidgeon, etc as immensely stimulating…but jesus h. christ…can you really ignore the politics of race and the message you are sending to the black communities of the US? Your people talk so differently from us educated folk that we need to learn how to communicate with you before you can learn from us.

Holy shit. Typing that out gave me heartburn. Please, educate me. What merits are we gaining from saying to the black community that we're going to teach you in black sounds how to talk like us.

Eric said...

I recently bought & read John Baugh's Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. (Here's a review -- no idea if it was published.) I wasn't too impressed with the book itself; lots of interesting information about the history behind the term "Ebonics" and other things, but very little in the way of a new contribution to hold it together (and not written in a style I'm very fond of). Would you be interested in trading when you're finished, maybe?

liberal elite said...

Eric: I WOULD be into trading, but mine's a library copy. Not sure the NYPL would be too happy about that. I can ask if you want.

cawshis: I can refer you here for a primer on Ebonics. You might be interested in the opening paragraph describing the name:

term was created in 1973 by a group of black scholars who disliked the negative connotations of terms like 'Nonstandard Negro English' that had been coined in the 1960s when the first modern large-scale linguistic studies of African American speech-communities began.

I think you are reacting to a very important problem with many names for this dialect, not all African Americans speak this dialect and not all speakers are African Americans. But that can be said about all the names for dialects of English. Not everyone in Brooklyn speaks Brooklynese.

As for the Oakland ruling, you can read it here. It's clear that the intent was to recognize the differences between the two dialects and use that information to inform how you teach something like Standard English. As I mention below this type of contrastive analysis has been shown to be effective.

Why do blacks need this? Well, one thing, look at the numbers. Our schools are failing black children. But beyond that, it really doesn't need to be restricted to Ebonics. It's just that most other dialects of American English are sufficiently like Standard English that students manage to learn to read without extra help. But I'm sure there are other dialect groups out there that might be having trouble. And a program like this for them would be the right thing to do.Two studies in Norway and Sweden have shown that this type of approach works with children who speak nonstandard dialects. These were white Norwegian and Swedish kids.

Maybe we could talk about this more dispassionately if it were proposed for regional dialects instead of a racially-based dialect.

As for the message sent to the black community, I think it says we care about your children and we are trying to help them learn. Your question implies that Ebonics is something to be ashamed of. I don't see it that way. No one should be ashamed of the way they talk. And for the record, no one speaks Standard English. It's a myth. We all speak dialects.

Eric said...

Whoops. Just realized that NYPL = New York Public Library. Guess I've been living on the Wrong Coast for too long. I'll just send you the Baugh book, and you can give me a synopsis of the Rickford & Rickford book over the phone sometime ...

cawshis said...

Homosexuals call each other queers as well, OE, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. I don't like the term Ebonics and just because the name was created by black scholars doesn't make it any less offensive to me.

Are you saying that blacks are failing in schools simply because they speak a different dialect? I can accept the academics behind it, OE, but I find it hard to swallow that this is the magic pill that is suddenly going to make the underfunded and unsupported school systems in black areas suddenly start to succeed. On top of this, the "Ebonics" dialect is hardly one restricted to blacks (you said it yourself)…yet the resolution (which I read before posting, thanks) explicitly states:

"...devise and implement the best possible academic program for imparting instruction to African-American students in their primary language"

Semantics on the use of the word language put aside, this resolution clearly states that it is for African American students (not Carribean or South American for example) and also states that they will be taught in their primary tongue (dialect, language whatever). It doesn't provide for a contrastive analysis or ESL type education, so I can see the kneejerk reaction (and hence mine). Despite the fact that no one speaks "Standard English", there is an accepted form and eventually kids should be taught it, no? The wording in this resolution doesn't appear to allow for this.

Though a rephrasing to regional dialect would deflect the racial debate, I still think a separate but equal education policy invites into the school system a precedent for segregation (again) and future political woes. Is it worth a try? Perhaps if the studies from other countries have shown some improvement. But it is easy to implement an alternate reading program in a homogeneous community like Norway. Teaching a bunch of white kids a little differently from another bunch of white kids doesn't have nearly the same political ramifications as separating a group of black children from all the other children so they can be taught "in their tongue." Especially when most times there is a huge difference in the quality of the schools based on class and race in the first place.

liberal elite said...

Cawshis, you're free to not like the term, I don't like it myself--I think it's hokey. But the point is that it was developed by Black scholars specifically to be nonoffensive. I don't understand why you think it's offensive. Because it mentions race?

"Are you saying that blacks are failing in schools simply because they speak a different dialect? "

Not at all. And this program was never meant as a panacea for everything that is wrong with education of minorities in this country. It was specifically meant to address the fact that these students do poorly on English tests. So why not teach them in a way that is demonstrated to work. I really don't understand your resistance to the program. It's proven to raise scores.

"Despite the fact that no one speaks "Standard English", there is an accepted form and eventually kids should be taught it, no? The wording in this resolution doesn't appear to allow for this."

You have to read closely:

"WHEREAS, these studies demonstrate that such West and Niger-Congo African languages have been officially recognized and addressed in the mainstream public educational community as worth of study, understanding or application of its principles, laws and structures for the benefit of African-American students both in terms of positive appreciation of the language and these students' acquisition and mastery of English language skills; and"

"WHEREAS, the standardized tests and grade scores of African-American students in reading and language arts skills measuring their application of English skills are substantially below state and national norms and that such deficiencies will be remedied by application of a program featuring African Language Systems principles in instructing African-American children both in their primary language and in English; "

By your "seperate but equal" reasoning, I don't see how you could implement any program to help these kids. Since any program is going to point to the fact that it's Black kids who are having problems.

I admint that the wording of the Oakland proposal is awkward and clunky. But at heart this is a reasonable program.

"But it is easy to implement an alternate reading program in a homogeneous community like Norway."

You clearly don't know anything about the politics of Norway :)

cawshis said...

Ha! I don't know anything about Norway except for the fact that it rhymes with "Snorway", so forgive me there.

I don't like the term Ebonics, but my resistance is more to the wording of the resolution and the probable way it will be implimented and viewed (as special ed for black kids who fail to succeed). I'm resistant to special education classes in general as they tend to single out ethnic communities that are then isolated from the other kids. Grades are important and so is academic success, but school is also extremely important as a socializing tool and I hate the idea of separating an entire group of children from the others. Why not teach all the kids to appreciate Ebonics? As for my separate but equal statement, I stand by it. This resolution isn't about providing eductional options to all kids, it is singling out and further isolating blacks from the rest of the school community. The next natural step is to simply open schools just for black kids so they can learn the way they need to learn in an environment custom made for them.

Am I wrong in believing that the "WHEREAS" parts of a resolution are the why and the later part is the "how"? So, though the resolution does say that all that blah blah blah about teaching, the actual method they have resolved to use doesn't include any of the all important blah blah blah?

Who did I read that said that the Oakland board should revisit the wording and it would help to alleviate a lot of the arguments surrounding the resolution? It was a link off of one of your links…wish I could find it. Argh.

liberal elite said...

"Am I wrong in believing that the "WHEREAS" parts of a resolution are the why and the later part is the "how"? So, though the resolution does say that all that blah blah blah about teaching, the actual method they have resolved to use doesn't include any of the all important blah blah blah?"

I think the WHEREAS parts include the how. Also missing from the resolution is the proposal of the "Policy Statement of the District's African-American Task Force on language stature of African-American speech" which was attached to the original.

"Who did I read that said that the Oakland board should revisit the wording and it would help to alleviate a lot of the arguments surrounding the resolution? It was a link off of one of your links�wish I could find it. Argh."

I know Jesse Jackson changed his mind somewhat after talking to the school board. He said something to that effect. A lot of linguists did too.

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