Date: Sat, 11 Jan 1997 11:16:54 -0800 (PST) From: Leila Monaghan Subject: African American English (fwd)
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Mailer: Elm [revision: 70.85]

Forward from a linguistic psychologist.

cheers, Leila>

>---------- Forwarded message ---------- Date: Thu, 09 Jan 1997 14:31:06 -0400 (EDT) From: Jill de Villiers To:
>Subject: African American English

>Dear CHILDES colleagues [Note- CHILDES is a very large database of transcribed talk involving children in NYC, recorded in the 1970's- Jim Wilce]

>We are writing in response to the massive bipartisan attack that we have witnessed against the Oakland School Board's decision to recognize Ebonics, or African American English (AAE). The Linguistic Society of America recently passed a resolution in support for the board on linguistic and educational grounds, but it has received scarce mention in the media relative to the outpouring of mean-spirited and ignorant assertions that claim AAE is "bad grammar," "slang," "a pseudo-dialect" and a "pseudo-language." Most disappointing to us has been the reaction of the normally liberal spokespersons who have managed to construe the recognition of AAE as representing a potential threat and handicap to the thousands of African American children in schools. We are especially alarmed at the solutions being proposed, which invariably seek to use shame and guilt at the natural language learned from one's parents to "attract" the children to the "standard dialect." This "real language" is held up in comparison as "pure" and "grammatical," "logical" and "understandable," in complete and convenient ignorance of decades of linguistic research that reveal the emergence of a standard as historical and political artifact.

>We can find no contemporary linguist who "grades" languages or dialects. As the old saying goes, a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy. But it is true, standard American English is the language of success and power and economic opportunity, often called "the cash language". There has been progress in fighting race prejudice. We must not let language prejudice become legitimate. Prejudice against American Sign Language as a system of "dumb gestures" is being overcome, by studying the intricacy of the sign system, so that we now see signers on TV and 5yr- olds eager to learn their names in Sign. The same effort should be made on behalf of dialects in the US, including regional dialects which are also the basis of prejudice. The US is making some progress in extending our collective vision of success to be inclusive of the way different people look, but we need to incorporate tolerance of language variety for successful adults.

>So what are the real risks that African American children face in the current United States? From ignorance of the dialect by teachers and officials: a substantial increase in the likelihood of being stigmatized as "learning disabled" and "language delayed" as they enter the school system. Because of the media attention to this controversy perhaps a million children who want to speak up in class discussion will not speak in class this week. Speakers of other dialects may be similarly inhibited. Evidence suggests that by fourth grade many children go silent because they do not feel welcome in their schools. Psycholinguistic research has demonstrated the rich system of phonological, morphological and syntactic rules known to AAE-speaking 5 year olds. These rules exemplify the universal principles true of all natural languages, with the logical and semantic precision that is the crowning achievement of the human mind. In addition, they have mastered the language particular properties of African American English so crudely caricatured in the press: the use of negative concord (NOT the same as "double and triple negation"), the use of the unique aspect marker BE (NOT "unconjugated use of be"), and subtle phonological constraints on morphology. Finally, they are already code-switching into standard dialect when circumstances require it, in the recognition that not everyone shares their dialect.

>The Oakland School Board is to be congratulated for recognizing these strengths and for recommending that teachers be trained to encourage the transition to bidialectal competence, not by the traditional and hate-ridden methods of guilt and punishment, but by linguistic education, metalinguistic awareness, and pride in the linguistics skills gained. We are an organization of professionals who study child language: why have we been silent? We are writing to express our embarrassment and rage at the current situation, and we hope you will join us in extending a hand of support and encouragement to all those people who use AAE as their natural language, those who teach children who speak it, and those who have been made to feel ashamed of once having spoken it. If you would like to share this letter with any other newsgroups or colleagues, we urge you to forward it to them and add your name as a co-signer.

>Jill deVilliers Thomas Roeper Harry N. Seymour
>Smith College University of Massachusetts, Amherst

>Co-signers: Peter de Villiers, Smith College
>Michael Walsh Dickey, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.