Should Educators Teach Ebonics?

As you might imagine, the debate is about much more than language.
October 17, 2017
6 mins read

The language of African Americans has long been under scrutiny for its differences from what is considered standard English. Ebonics, a term coined by the mixing of the words “ebony” and “phonics,” refers to the speech generally used by black people. Dr. Robert Williams, an African-American social psychologist, came up with the term in 1973 with the goal of making a word for the sounds that black people make when speaking.

Before Dr. Williams came up with the term Ebonics, there had never been a phrase or term to categorize and describe the multinational linguistic effects of the African slave trade in the United States. Because of racial segregation and a lack of educational opportunities for African-American children, even after the abolition of slavery, they could not get lessons in American English. Because of this disconnect in education, African Americans continued to build up their specific way of speaking, which has now become almost a dialect of American English.

Recently, Ebonics has been making headway into debates across America. The question of whether the dialect should be considered a language and taught in American schools for wide public recognition and usage is at the debate’s center. The debate heated up after the controversy in Oakland, California, in December, 1996, when the school board recognized Ebonics as a “primary” language of African-American students and took it into account when teaching them Standard English. The unique case of Oakland has introduced the topic of Ebonics at school and various conversations weighing the good and the bad.

Some of the negative reactions toward Ebonics in the classroom stem from the misinterpretation of the notion as proposals to teach Ebonics itself, or to teach in Ebonics, rather than as proposals to respect and take it into account while teaching standard English”; others are fearful that Ebonics will replace English as a whole. However, the introduction of Ebonics into classrooms will have rather compelling benefits. First of all, Ebonics is only an extension of the English that has already been established as a universal language, not an entirely new and independent one. On top of that, the method of using Ebonics to study English, “contrastive analysis,” forces students to look for the similarities and differences between the different speeches and critically think about each their contrasting relationship.

Will teaching Ebonics exacerbate racial profiling or alleviate it? (Image via Slate)

Dekalb County, in Georgia, and Los Angeles have been using this method to increase Ebonics-speakers’ aptitude reading and writing in Standard English, and it has worked since the 1960s. Teachers who would like to bring Ebonics into the classroom have stated that instead of teaching Ebonics as another language, they would be acknowledging it as a cultural speech that came out of the United States during a difficult time in history.

Another advantage of building Ebonics into the classroom includes the improvement in communication between teachers and their students of color, which will result in improved learning. According to the American Psychological Association, teachers with close relationships with their students reported that the students were “…less likely to avoid school, appeared more self-directed, more cooperative and more engaged in learning.” By including the cultural product of Ebonics, education can be a stepping stone for a more accepting community.

Ebonics in the classroom comes with some disadvantages, but probably not for the reasons many Americans might think. The disadvantages are less about the language and more about how Americans will receive the speech.

One of the disadvantages is that the acknowledgement of Ebonics in the classroom could cause segregation, as educators would be teaching students of Ebonics and students of Standard English in different ways, ultimately creating a barrier between the students. Stigmatization is also a concern with Ebonics in the classroom, as students and adults alike may regard those who speak Ebonics as of a lower language capability than the standard American.

The complex, institutionalized and asymmetrical power dynamic in America also contributes to this problem of perception toward Ebonics. As it is established, Standard English is more widely accepted than Ebonics, and by social norms, people speaking Standard English has more power and agency. Standard English is the speech of “success and power and economic opportunity,” and to survive in America is to conform to the society and its norms, one of those being speaking “proper English,” which once again brings us back into times of segregation.

Change and difference is not accepted because most Americans know only white culture and sameness. As a result, because of the racial inequity in America, speaking Ebonics could turn into a form of self-impediment rather than a token of cultural pride.

Ebonics has English origins, but many Americans want to believe that this way of speech is “slang,” “mutant,” “lazy,” “defective” and “ungrammatical.” But in all seriousness, how were black people supposed to learn “proper English” when they were enslaved, segregated and banned from education? Isn’t it similar to asking someone to climb Everest without the necessary tools? The tools were not given to African Americans, so they developed a means of communication that is now rendered unacceptable by the very society that denied them the needed tools in the first place.

To bridge this gap between Ebonics and Standard English, educators must first learn, respect and become familiar with Ebonics. Educators can do this by “assessing the phonological and syntactic features of students’ speech.” Teachers’ acknowledgement that Ebonics is different and not deficient will better help integrate more people into this cultural speech.

So, even though there are disadvantages to the use of Ebonics at schools, they can be remedied by changing the narrative behind Ebonics. Remember the three important points in supporting Ebonics acceptance and inclusion: first, the unique features of Ebonic need to be understood; second, Ebonics must be taught with appreciation; third, students who speak Black English must be willing to be open to other forms of communication to ensure a balance between the cultural and the worldly aspects of language.

Maahfio Otchere, Villanova University

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Maahfio Otchere

Villanova University
Global Interdisciplinary Studies and Communication

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