Black English Vernacular
(Ebonics) and Educability
A Cross-Cultural Perspective on
Language, Cognition, and Schooling
Copyright © 1997 by Alondra Oubré, Ph.D All Rights Reserved
The Oakland Public Unified School Board's recent attention to Ebonics, or Black English Vernacular, as one of the main causes of the scholastic shortcomings of Black youth has opened yet another controversial chapter in an ongoing national debate on the educability (that is, the ability to learn) of Black youth in America's inner cities. Few would disagree that the ultimate goal of Oakland’s School Board -- as is true for others throughout the country -- is to ensure the academic achievement of all its students. Since Oakland has a high percentage of Black students now notorious for their average grade point average of only 1.8 (on a scale of 1.0 to 4.0), and since an estimated 71% of Black students in this city's public school system are placed in special education classes, the Oakland School Board's primary mandate is clear-cut: raise the academic achievement of Black students. In comparison to this responsibility, almost every other goal of the School Board seems paltry.
Concomitant with this goal is an imminent need to increase the mean IQ score of African Americans (which throughout the United States is far below -- almost one standard deviation below -- the norm for Euro-Americans). Regardless of the underlying causes -- environmental, developmental or genetic -- Black Americans earn IQ scores averaging 85 points compared to scores of about 100 for Euro-Americans and about 106 for Asian Americans of East Asian (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Korean) decent. IQ scores may not be an absolute or totally accurate measure of innate intelligence. But certainly they do say something about a person's cognitive ability to successfully function in American society. This is not to suggest that there is a perfect correlation between poor performance on IQ tests and low scholastic performance. But surely there is an association, and the same constellation of causes (which arguably are social, cultural and developmental rather than race-based genetic) probably accounts for both syndromes -- low IQs and poor grade point averages. The sad reality is that Blacks' poor performance in school only further reinforces for many Americans stereotypes of the intellectual inferiority of Black Africans and their Diasporas.
Innovative and creative potential solutions to widespread African American academic underachievement, therefore, warrant appraisal -- at least preliminary evaluation. One innovation revolves around the linguistic approach -- an approach predicated on the idea that African American students who speak traditional Black dialects of the English language are less apt to do well in school because they generally cannot comprehend standard English in terms of its deeper meanings. This idea is not just hypothetical. The consistent structural features of the grammar and syntax of Black English Vernacular have been well documented by experts in the field for several decades. In addition, as cognitive anthropologists and psychologists have noted, the ways in which many Black Americans (youth and adults alike) use words and phrases of the English language both reflects and reinforces somewhat different cognitive constructions of the world than those associated with standard English.
Social scientists almost unanimously agree that culture, class, gender, and social status all influence how an individual uses a language to communicate. Clearly, speech and language patterns reinforce the stratification of American ethnic and socioeconomic (SES) groups. Although other societal indicators -- social, political, and economic -- can be revealing, speech usually gives an immediate clue to an individual's social status. Nearly everyone acknowledges the need for African American youth to improve their scores on intelligence tests and scholastic examinations, and to increase their overall academic achievement. The relevance of learning to fluently speak and write standard English to improving academic performance cannot be overemphasized. Indeed, the language factor may be one of the chief underlying causes of poor academic performance in many Black students, particularly those residing in inner cities.
Language and Socialization: The Basics
Many scholars in the social and behavioral sciences contend that the lexicons and grammars of different languages -- and sometimes of different dialects within the same language -- are associated with somewhat different cognitive patterns. All human languages share underlying structures (rooted in universal biological features of the human brain). Yet cross-cultural researchers report that groups who speak different languages often categorize their experiences in very different ways. The lens through which a cultural group looks at the world is tied to its language patterns. The speakers of distinct dialects often use different terminologies for classifying things such as kinship, colors, parts of the human body, plants, animals, and even linguistic features (for example, pronouns). This linguistic divergence presumably is not due to genetic variation among ethnic groups but instead to differences in their cultural conditioning and environmental exposures.
Dialects are perhaps best defined as similar languages which are mutually intelligible. Black English and standard English are dialects because they are, for the most part, mutually intelligible. Black English Vernacular (BEV)) (where vernacular refers to "everyday speech") may be a preferable term. What some call contemporary slang of Black youth, epitomized partly by "rapping", is but one form among several varieties of Black English Vernacular. "Black slang" thus can be considered a variant spoken by African American youth in the 1990s. Contemporary Black English Vernacular of Black inner city youth reflects a "street world" where male friendships are established and male reputations built. Peer pressure exerts a formidable influence on the use and perpetuation of "rapping", as well as on other present day variants of Black English Vernacular among inner city youth.
Different renditions of a parent Black English Vernacular conceivably have existed among the younger generations of Blacks residing in northern urban environments of the United States ever since large migrations of Blacks from the rural South began in the first half of the twentieth century. In other words, Black urban "street vernacular" of the 1920s may have differed from that of the 1940s, the 1960s, and certainly the 1990s. Yet, the parent and derivative forms of Black English Vernacular share common grammatical features. It is for precisely this reason that Black English Vernacular is not accurately described as slang. Rather, this dialect is characterized by a systematic grammar (for example, the frequent use of the habitual tense), particular sound patterns, and in some cases, words that deviate in their meanings from standard English. All these elements are thought to have some linguistic basis in West African languages, particularly those belonging the Niger-Congo language family. (This contention, however, is still under debate by some experts in the field).
Ebonics, a term introduced by Black linguists in the mid-1970s, refers not only to a particular grammar and syntax, but also to paralinguistic (i.e., noises such as laughing and crying) and gestural (movement) features of African American communication. In 1976, Dr. Sheila Mayers, a Black linguist, wrote that African American modes of communication and expression, or what she called Ebonics, are grounded in African World View -- a view which she claimed emphasizes rhythm, analogy, metaphor, and intuition. Over the past twenty years, several other Black linguists have maintained that Ebonics is based on an African perspective which, they say, differs radically from EuroWestern views of nature and reality. Although controversial, ideas about the significance of Ebonics (which also lie at the heart of an unresolved controversy over Afrocentric education) should not be glossed over lightly. This is not to diminish the importance of Blacks becoming proficient in the language of the dominant culture -- standard English -- if they are to become integrated into mainstream American society. Rather, it is to underscore the importance of accurately diagnosing the complex web of social and cultural phenomena -- the putative causal factors -- associated with African American academic underachievement. A penetrating analysis of the subject suggests that linguistic proficiency in this context involves not only an ability to speak and write standard English, but also the ability to use, with ease and a sense of naturalness, gestures, mannerisms, and, to some extent, vocal qualities prevalent in middle class American society. In other words, code-switching between Black English Vernacular and standard English has both verbal and nonverbal components.
Indeed, whether one admits it or not, the differences in spoken English and in the body language of a majority of American Blacks and Whites can sometimes be quite dramatic. And yet the acculturation of African Americans, whether one likes it or not, depends to some extent on mastering middle-class codes of conduct -- both the obvious and the subtle. Among the qualities that supposedly make Black English Vernacular, or Ebonics -- as a system of African world view and communication -- unique are rhythmicity of speech patterns, intonation, voice quality, and certain other culturally learned elements. For example, linguistic tempo, resonance, and articulation control are distinct in some African American speakers. Middle-class individuals of various ethnic backgrounds may find some of these differences in speech patterns irritating. In the context of the classroom, the tragic outcome is that some teachers, whether White, Black or of other ethnic heritage, may unconsciously form initial prejudices about students. These prejudices include biases about a pupil's personality and motivation based not only on his grammar, but also on his voice quality, enunciation, and diction.
A number of social scientists recognize that the spoken language and body motion communication of many African Americans are distinct. These language styles are thought to derive partly from West African cultural heritages transmitted from one generation to the next in Black Americans. Regardless of what one thinks about Ebonics, and regardless of whether any or all of the features of Black English Vernacular should be retained, there is a reality that cannot be escaped: Black American language patterns are largely an outgrowth of the oral traditions of speakers of Niger-Congo tongues. In other words, these patterns are closely aligned with the social and cultural constructs of traditional West African peoples. (Even the pronunciation of "ax" instead of "ask", for example, may be a learned cultural trait passed down through nearly 40 generations of Black slaves and their descendants in the United States. Problems with pronouncing the double consonant "sk" in accord with the accepted English pronunciation is reportedly found in the speakers of several West African languages).
True, recognizing the links between West African languages and Ebonics hardly overshadows the major goal of Black students becoming fluent in standard English. But teachers and administrators would do well to understand that Black English Vernacular -- both its verbal and nonverbal aspects -- is not some form of whimsical, transient, or popular slang. Instead it is an evolving system of communication that, at least in the past, proved adaptive for functioning in a marginalized African American world. The challenge today is obviously to convince the youth who speak Ebonics that their identity within their wider community will not be compromised or ridiculed if they wittingly take the steps to learn and adopt standard English as their primary language. And as a corollary, educators and policy makers ought to realize that all of these students are quite conscious of the fact that taking these steps will, to some degree, alter the very way in which they perceive the world around them.
Language and Cognitive Development: Lessons for the Classroom
Very little of the recent public discourse on Ebonics has been focused at the intersection of, on the one hand, Black English Vernacular and, on the other hand, cognitive development (specifically object formation and formal operations) and intelligence performance within the context of Euro-Western literate societies. Yet, the interlocking multiple causes of African American academic underachievement probably converge at precisely this intersection. This is not to ignore encouraging signs showing Black scholastic achievement. One study, for example, suggests that there is no significant difference between Black/White average IQ scores for individuals reared in middle to upper-middle class homes. These are the home environments in which African Americans are more likely to learn standard English. These milieux tend to foster, at an early (pre-school) age, familiarity with thought processes associated with standard English.
For over two decades, academicians and scholars have pointed out the importance of school personnel acquiring linguistic knowledge about and sensitivity to ethnic minority speakers. The goal of enhancing teacher awareness and understanding of the sociolinguistic and historical roots of Black English Vernacular is ultimately to improve the classroom situation for students. Promoting teacher awareness of Black English Vernacular, or Ebonics, is perhaps best served not by focusing on abstract African philosophical rhetoric. And it need not be limited to training instructors in specific grammatical and syntactical patterns of Black English Vernacular (although this certainly could be a component of any teacher-training program on the subject).
The scholarly research supporting Black English Vernacular as a correlate, if not cause, of poor academic performance is not in dispute. What is under debate today is whether promoting public school teachers' awareness of the social, historical, and linguistic forces responsible for Black English Vernacular can enhance, to any measurable extent, the ability of teachers to motivate African American students to master standard English. Many, but not all, experts agree that it can. Some authorities specializing in cross-cultural education find it discouraging if not preposterous that a teacher -- especially one working in the inner city -- can become credentialed without minimal academic (and ideally experiential) training in cross-cultural communication and cognition. (This is not to deny that many teachers from various ethnic backgrounds -- including some in Oakland -- are well educated about Black English Vernacular). How can one expect to reach children and adolescents if one has no concrete knowledge of the ethnic and cultural variation of a cross-section of Americans? Surely, the average teacher does not have to possess an in-depth working knowledge of Black English Vernacular. And certainly the goal of classroom instruction is not to encourage the use of these dialects or to teach lessons in Ebonics. (Black English Vernacular, however, will undoubtedly persist in some home environments until individual speakers volitionally alter their speech patterns as they make the cognitive shifts accompanying assimilation into the American "white collar" middle class.)
Teachers whose classrooms include a significant percentage of African American students from lower SES background are arguably likely to become more effective instructors if they understand the cognitive constructions associated with Black English Vernacular. Teacher-training that addresses salient issues of how perceptual experiences and cognitive styles relate to dialects are better equipped to communicate with, and in essence to teach, students who speak ethnic dialects. They are more likely to accomplish this goal when their own teaching styles overcome the constraints of ethnic prejudice, value judgments, and social condemnation.
Teachers who work with African American inner city students need to understand that, as is true for any language or dialect, Black English Vernacular has itself evolved over the past 400 years. Even today, this dialect consists of numerous regional subdialects. Instructional improvement thus should center on the common features of African American Vernacular rather than only on isolated words or phrases unique to a given geographical region, generational group, or subculture within the Black community. Yet, educators need to be aware of the universal components of Black English Vernacular -- and more importantly, the mind-sets that both generate this dialect and are produced, or reinforced, by it. This understanding ideally should take place at a deeper level in all teachers. It should embody a psychological appreciation for language meaning rather than simply a superficial intellectual comprehension of specific words and syntax. When educators are able to relate to the meanings embedded in Black English Vernacular phrases, they are more apt to recognize subtle and less tangible aspects, including nonverbal signals and thought processes, common to ethnic minority speakers of this dialect. Teachers are then better poised to motivate and inspire their students when they deliver concrete lessons on and in formal English, both spoken and written.
The approach advocated here is cultural and cognitive, or ethnosemantic, rather than simply ethnolinguistic. A strategy in teacher-training based on understanding the cultural matrix of ideas, beliefs, and knowledge systems -- the ethnoscience of an ethnic group -- can complement the conventional linguistic approach of explaining the origins, logic, and continuity of Black English Vernacular. Some linguists and anthropologists point out that people communicate thoughts that are meaningful to them within the context of their own culture. Shared group experiences and cultural beliefs determine meaning. It is therefore not surprising that different cultural groups who use different dialects of the same language may emphasize certain aspects of that language more than others -- in essence they choose those aspects that best convey their own life experiences.
To summarize, when teachers can appreciate the phonetics (speech sounds) of Black English Vernacular, they are better able to decode the literal meanings and in some cases, even the inner cognitive workings of the language spoken by many inner city Black students. In addition, body language and tone of voice may be distinct in some speakers of Black English Vernacular, even though these extralinguistic codes of communication may vary by region, age, and social strata within the wider African American community.
Language and Cognition: The Deeper Structures of Cultural Meaning
Some linguists claim that written English, as the lingua franca of international business, is evasive and deceptive. Native speakers in the dominant (primarily middle-class EuroAmerican) culture readily grasp the subtle signals of standard English, whether spoken or written. But children from minority and lower SES groups often do not learn, at an early age, the subtle codes of standard English. As a result, they are often at a disadvantage when it comes to quickly deciphering the implicit cognitive meanings associated with words, phases, and grammatical structures in standard English. Moreover, their body language sometimes contrasts markedly with that of middle class Whites in their age group.
The correlation between the lack of mastering standard English and low mean IQ score in African Americans is well documented. Language skills enter the equation as one of the most profound mediating variables in determining intelligence performance, or IQ scores (note that intelligence performance is not necessarily tantamount to innate intelligence). Even leading behavioral geneticists such as Sandra Scarr and Richard Weinberg have argued that African American children reared in the dominant Euro-American culture become more familiar with the subjects of school and intelligence tests. As a result of their early exposure to standard English, these children tend to perform on par with White children adopted into higher SES families.
Linguists have noted that within the United States variations in the pronunciation of certain vowels and consonants are regionally based. For example, "r-lessness" has been retained in Boston and parts of the American south. And in New York city, the pronunciation of "r", originally modeled after fashionable speech in England, is different. Eminent leaders in the field such as William Labov have concluded that Black English is "...not [simply] an ungrammatical hodgepodge but a complex linguistic system with its own set of rules". Certain elements of this vernacular, including phonology and syntax, resemble those of southern White speech. In Black English Vernacular, the "r" before a vowel and between vowels is frequently missing. And words such as "Paris, passed, past, and pass," which phonetically have similar pronunciations in Black English Vernacular, may not be audibly distinguishable to speakers of Ebonics. The frequent copula deletion -- the absence of the verb "to be" -- contrasts with standard English (even though this characteristic is also found in other languages, including Eastern European tongues such as Russian and Hungarian). The omission of the copula presumably resulted from a noun-verb contraction that became progressively more contracted.
These findings suggest that Black English Vernacular is a complex rule-governed dialect. An individual learns language from his personal social network, especially his peers. The urban neighborhoods of poorer African Americans are to some extent isolated from mainstream culture. But their dialect is functional within the context of much of the African American community. Unfortunately, however, the dialect that many, if not most, African Americans learn, Black English Vernacular, can prevent access to important social networks in the larger society. These networks provide entry into the competitive job market, and they give greater opportunity for attaining good housing, decent health care, and the benefits of technology. The links among language, school performance, and success in the larger society are straightforward. Accordingly, innovative and creative interventions that potentially can improve the probability of African Americans becoming proficient in both spoken and written standard English warrant full consideration from educational administrators, policy makers, and legislators.
Whether pre-literate or written, all human languages have a high degree of complexity and a universal capacity for expressing a wide array of meanings. Cultural anthropologists and descriptive linguists view language as an influential force that shapes the way we think and behave. Language furnishes templates of expression that predispose people within a cultural group to perceive reality in a particular way. This does not resolve the question of whether language influences thought or whether thought influences language. But clearly language reflects cultural experience, and the association between cognition and language is well known. For this reason, some linguists call language a filtering system that heightens certain perceptions while diminishing others. By understanding cultural differences in cognition, we gain insight into why ethnic and cultural groups are likely to adopt some cultural behaviors more than others.
Because of its deviation from standard English, Black English Vernacular can be (but does not have to be) a severe impediment to literacy and to understanding basic concepts, even those taught in elementary school. And it puts up a barrier to grasping the fundamentals of inductive thinking, certainly a prerequisite for learning science. However, students cannot overcome the limitations of Ebonics as a communications device for coping in the larger society unless their teachers are able to effectively translate (both for themselves and their students) Black English Vernacular into standard English (and vice versa) -- and translate not only words and phrases, but also concepts and cognitive structures.
A person's formation of ideas and, especially, his ability to interrelate abstract and often complex concepts is closely linked to the language -- or dialect -- he uses. In order to function well economically, socially, and professionally in this society, an individual obviously needs to be able to correctly and easily use standard English. What is not always so obvious, however, is that it is not only the outward forms -- the proper pronunciation of words and the appropriate use of grammar -- that are called into question. One must also comprehend the deeper, subtle, and often abstract meanings implicit in the words and phrases of standard English. Without a mastery of the cognitive components of standard English, many Black students are less likely to perform on par with other ethnic groups on IQ tests and classroom assignments.
As mentioned previously, classic African American Vernacular has undergone numerous mutations since this dialect emerged in the early seventeenth (and perhaps late sixteenth) century. As in the distant past, even in the recent past Black English Vernacular has served a social function by permitting communication about life experiences, including certain experiences unique to African Americans -- escape from slavery, contemplation of an extracorporeal realm as a psychological antidote to pain, compensatory feelings to offset a sense of worthlessness, and a host of metaphorical and analogical expressions about emotions, morals, marginality, survival, and ultimately, hope and regeneration.
Black English Vernacular thus represents a unique dialect with social, historical, and cultural roots. To equate this vernacular with slang, as though it were merely an unsystematic and casual form of communication, is not only scientifically inaccurate, but also psychologically denigrating to its speakers. In the long run, this dialect is perhaps best recognized as a system of communication which has legitimate roots but whose social utility is now defunct. To not recognize it as such will ironically only continue to put up barriers between middle class teachers and minority students. This in turn will further hamper academic learning and hinder the processes that enable a larger number of Blacks to become fully acculturated into American society. At the same time, the call for teachers to grasp the tangible relationship between Black English Vernacular and cognitive performance -- regardless of how that teacher "re-education" manifests -- should not be misconstrued as pleas for classroom instruction in, or legitimization, of Ebonics. To be sure, this dialect is not the language of choice in education, commerce, industry, science, or any other domain of conventional American society.
What would happen if teachers were to learn that the dialect which some call African American slang, which Afrocentric scholars call Ebonics, and which social scientists call Black English Vernacular is in fact a distinct variant of the English language composed of a systematic grammar and syntax? One probable scenario is that teachers who acquire an appreciation for the origins and principle features of this dialect will be less inclined to disrespect Black students, and less likely to label them as ignorant and cognitively impaired. If teacher appreciation and, by implication, teacher -- that is pedagogical -- effectiveness lie at the crux of the Ebonics issue in the Oakland Public Schools, then indeed this issue has merit. The approach embraced by the Oakland Unified School Board offers a concrete strategy for improving teachers' ability to help expand and refine the cognitive development of their students.
This objective -- to promote teacher-training -- is a first, though certainly not an only, step in a regrettably long and tedious process to reverse African American academic underachievement. The Oakland School Board's long-range objective is commendable. At the same time, however, troublesome questions remain. How should a process of revamping teacher education be structured and how should its success be determined? (For example, can increased teacher awareness of Ebonics as a legitimate dialect directly translate into improved student performance for Black students on classroom assignments and cognitive tests, and if so, how?) And more importantly, if teacher re-education in this area is justified as an innovative means to an academic end, then how is it to be funded? Highly controversial answers to these questions give cause for concern. But certainly dilemmas over funding priorities should not be conflated with ideological conflicts over the need, or lack thereof, to incorporate teacher-appreciation of Black English Vernacular into standard classroom teaching protocols.
By appreciating ethnic differences -- cultural, behavioral, and cognitive -- without stereotyping individuals, teachers, in theory at least, can encourage appropriate code-switching strategies for their African American students who speak Black English Vernacular. Code-switching mechanisms allow minority students and adults alike to readily change communication styles -- going back and forth between an ethnic or regional dialect and standard English as the situation demands. As suggested earlier, this switching involves more than one's capacity to be facile and flexible in the use of alternate speech patterns. Those individuals who are most successful at code-switching are generally those who are also able to modify their gestures and paralinguistic signals to fit a particular situation (by pulgarin at testsforge Inc). This ability itself --- a kind of bivernacularism (as opposed to bilingualism per se) may be one of the most significant adaptations that African American youth, especially those in poor urban environments, can make to increase their overall academic achievement and success in society. In essence, African Americans must learn viable mechanisms for rapid code-switching -- the adaptive ability to go back and forth from one dialect to another -- from Black English Vernacular to standard English -- as the social context necessitates.
As long as Black English Vernacular is considered defective and its speakers learning-impaired, educators and administrators will continue to overlook one of the most profound social messages of our time -- the notion that variation in average IQ scores among different ethnic groups is the direct result of different environmental forces, including social, economic, and educational influences. This variation is also due to certain developmental factors, including some related to health status. Educators thus must pay attention to the role that Black English Vernacular, as a critical component of the inner city social environment, plays in setting up impediments to classroom learning and academic achievement in African American youth.
None of these arguments in any way diminishes the overarching importance of individual initiative, free will, personal drive, and motivation in learning standard English. All of these qualities are critical to becoming a successful student (in school as in life). Simultaneously, however, the potentially favorable impact of classroom interventions used by teachers should not be underestimated. Previous discussion in this essay has focused on the rationale for teachers acquiring concrete knowledge about Black English Vernacular grammar and appreciation of the cognitive correlates associated with this speech pattern. In order to be effective, teachers must intervene at the level of perceptual and mental operations where cognitive patterns are formed. To some extent, they must be part psychologist and part anthropologist, at least in order to be able to see the world from their students' points of view.
If teachers themselves can successfully make these perceptual transformations, they will be more efficient at translating Black English Vernacular into standard English on a level that captures cultural meaning -- a level that ventures beyond rote memorization of outward word forms and grammatical structures. It is conceivable that over the course of time, this ability, as part of ongoing revamped teacher education, could eventually improve the performance of Black students on cognitive and scholastic tests. This, in essence, is the rationale for recognizing Ebonics as an ancillary teaching tool to foster the academic proficiency of African American youth.
Then again, however, one is reminded of the immortal words of a school official on the East Coast who, upon hearing about the Ebonics flurry in California, recently proclaimed: "We don't need no Ebonics. We ain't got no problem like that over here." He has a point -- after all, two negatives (presumably) still equal a positive. And cognitive shifts seemingly require considerably more than a superficial ability to memorize and regurgitate, in either speech or in writing, the elementary rules of a different grammar and syntax.
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