Speaking 'Ebonics'


PLEASANTON, Calif. -- The Oakland Board of Education voted last week to classify African-American students as bilingual because they speak "Ebonics," a recently coined name for their distinctive form of speech.

The motivation has more to do with politics and money than with linguistics. A district with lots of bilingual students qualifies for more federal funding. How much this funding benefits the students is doubtful. Children identified as "bilingual" often get less instruction in English than they otherwise would.

Federal policy on teaching children whose native language is not English was set by the Supreme Court, which ruled, essentially, that children were entitled to an education they could understand; but it didn't prescribe a method.

Advocates for what's called "transitional bilingual education" jumped on the ruling. Children with weak English skills are put in classes taught primarily in their mother tongue, so in theory they learn to read and write in the language they're most comfortable in and then move into all-English classes as their skills improve.

In California, it's mostly Latino children who are funneled into these classes. Few districts have enough speakers of any other language to offer transitional bilingual classes. Unfortunately, their English skills tend not to improve very fast when they're in Spanish-language classes all day.

There's a moral hazard as well. Schools get extra money based on the number of children they have in bilingual programs, and teachers get extra money for having a bilingual credential. The result, in districts like Los Angeles, is that children take from five to seven years to move into English classes. By then, they are years behind in other subjects. Their families often object, in vain. African-American families should be wary of adopting that unsuccessful model.

Linguists disagree on whether black English vernacular is different enough from standard English to count as a distinct language. Mutual intelligibility is the linguistic criterion usually employed. But a lot of politics goes into applying the criterion.

Dutch and German are generally considered different languages, because they are the languages of different countries, and the Dutch are touchy about that. Swiss German is as different from "school German" as Dutch is, but because four languages are official in Switzerland most German-speaking Swiss don't mind if their speech is called a dialect.

On the other hand, China maintains that such vernaculars as Cantonese and Shanghainese are merely dialects of Chinese, although they have historically different origins and they are not mutually intelligible. But it's important to the Chinese to claim they are a unified country.

Distinctive speech

Groups commonly use their language to set themselves apart. Swiss German had been converging with school German for a century, but during and since World War II they've begun to diverge again. The same has been happening with black English vernacular roughly in the last 30 years. Arguably it has passed beyond the line of mutual intelligibility for some inner-city youngsters who seldom have the opportunity to speak anything other than Ebonics.

If speakers of black English lived in a country called Ebonia then the policy makers of Ebonia might well decide that their national unity demanded that the country preserve its own culture and tradition by making Ebonics the language of school instruction.

There's recent historical precedent for that. The newborn state of Israel made just such a choice in resurrecting Hebrew from a liturgical tongue to make it a living language. A lot of it had to be made up for the purpose, but after two generations Hebrew is the mother tongue of most Israelis. But the Israelis did not condemn their children to speaking only Hebrew in a world where pretty much nobody else did. In school, if not sooner, they learn English to such a high standard that most qualify as fluent bilinguals.

Nobody needs to argue that the language African-American children speak is in some way inferior, and linguists certainly don't. The point is that Ebonics is not very widely spoken, an observation that applies with just as much force to, say, Danish or Greek.

English-speaking monolinguals may get by, though that's no recommendation for monolingualism. But people whose native tongue is less common get more mileage out of learning English, whether they grow up in Rio, Nairobi, Tokyo -- or Oakland.

Linda Seebach is the editorial-page editor of the Valley Times (Pleasanton) and San Ramon Valley Times (Danville).

Pub Date: 12/25/96

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