Date: Mon, 06 Jan 1997 13:24:27 -0500 (EST) From: "John T. Clark" Subject: Ebonics/AAVE debate: student choice Sender: To: MIME-version: 1.0 Precedence: bulk

Dear Linganthers,

Apropos Don Carroll's posting on the "discourse dimension" (e.g. "pause timings , prosodic patterns") in the AAVE/Ebonics debate and Scott Kiesling's cordial invitation that I contribute to the discussion based on my work looking at how African American high schoolers acquire or choose not to acquire elite-aspiring (a.k.a. *Standard English*) rhetorical discourse styles, I would like to point out one aspect of the debate that has received little attention. And that aspect is the students' own choice in the matter of learning elite-aspiring English. I am surprised that this is the case, given the fact that much of the recent media attention _before_ the Oakland brouhaha (in every venue from the NY Times and the Washington Post to the Oprah Winfrey Show) being paid to the question of African American students and their language seemed to focus on the students own choice in the matter, especially when the choice turned out to be the refusal to "talk White." (check out Signithia Fordham's work in which she reports on how successful Black students cope with the "burden of acting White" Fordham 1993, 1996, and Fordham and John Ogbu 1986)

Don Carroll is right to bring up the Gumperzian-crosstalk aspect of how cultural differences in, for example, turn-taking economies can help precipitate hostile encounters. However, the exact role that cultural differences play in the breakdown of smooth communication has become a chicken-and-egg question. That is, did mere differences in conversational cueing precipitate the breakdown, or, as Ray McDermott, Frederick Erickson and other have pointed out (e.g. McDermott and Gospodinoff 1979, 1981; Erickson 1987) did the social actors seize upon these cultural discourse differences in order to accomplish the breakdown? I have found that resistance theory as articulated by Erickson 1987 captures the complexity of the issue: After the linguists and the media have laid out what the language differences (whether morphosyntactic or discourse/rhetorical), are, after talented, dedicated teachers in well-heated buildings become skilled in drawing the students' attention to AAVE/elite-aspiring English differences, it is the students who have the final word. Heck, they have the first word as well as they _know_ what the linguistic differences are, and they are skilled at either deliberately learning them or deliberately not learning them and shunning those who choose otherwise. The pedagogical issue, as Erickson says, is the issue of trust. This trust is both an institutional phenomenon, (located over broad stretches of time and access to monetary and cultural capital) as well as it is an emergent one ("the short time scale of everyday encounters between individual teachers, students and parents")

We linganthers have a responsibility to speak out and to educate the public at large on the basics of the issue. No doubt we feel needed and useful nowadays as this debate rages on. We can all dust off those lists of the core AAVE features and marvel ourselves and others with mini lectures on Invariant Be and so forth. However, I also feel it is our unique responsibility as students of language to know when to stop making reduction of final consonant clusters the primary focus of the public debate, or, if we do insist on talking about this debate in terms of linguistic features, it is with the goal of concluding that mere linguistic differences are really not the major causes of the problem.
John T. Clark Georgetown University