English Equals Any Other Language
|By Robert A.
Leonard, professor of linguistics and director
linguistics program at Hofstra University.
federal "No Child Left Behind" Act is one
year old. It mandates closing the achievement gap between
white and black students.
do black students score lower than whites on standardized
tests? Even when both groups are in equally wealthy
and racially integrated schools? The subtitle of Berkeley
anthropologist John U. Ogbu's recent book says it all:
"Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb:
A Study of Academic Disengagement."
work documents black students, since the 1980s, staying
away from "acting white" behaviors such as
dancing a certain way, speaking standard English - or
even doing well in school. Language plays a big role
in this. Take slang.
does something like slang exist at all? Mostly, groups
use slang to define themselves — who's in, who's
out, who's "us" and who's "the stranger."
Slang terms are passwords. Through 20 years of fieldwork,
my students and I have investigated slang and other
secret vocabularies, and we can document something startling:
White groups take black slang; black groups almost never
adopt white slang.
should strike us as odd, because usually fashion imitates
the more powerful.
It goes beyond slang, to grammar, pronunciation and
other issues. In the 1960s, the renowned sociolinguist
William Labov, under whom I studied at Columbia University,
discovered through field interviews of Harlem adolescents
that more social success went along with less standard
English. Those who spoke standard English were branded
the "lames." Some of the most brilliant, verbally
gifted and socially skilled youths in the study spoke
a dialect as different as possible from standard English.
Standard English was for lames, and whites. The more
the school culture — viewed as white — degrades
behaviors like speaking black English, the more students
see its value as a black identifier. Of course, not
all black Americans speak "black English,"
nor do they all disdain standard English and professional
development. But black English is uniquely anchored
in the black culture. The school culture couldn't wrench
the language out in the 1960s, and it can't now.
is no scientific reason to uproot black English. Any
professional linguist will tell you that, as a language
system of communication, black English and standard
English are equal, in the same way that French and Greek
and Chinese and English are all equal. They do things
differently, but there is no factual way to say one
is better than the other. All languages are equal. Of
course, this equality doesn't apply to the mistakes
we make when we try to speak a foreign language or someone
if black English is not deficient, why do so many people
believe it is? Because
black Americans have a history of powerlessness. And
every society I know worldwide looks down on the speech
of the powerless. We learn this attitude unconsciously
when we learn the million and one rules and beliefs
of our society. Most of what we know we learn without
being explicitly taught — by observation and deduction.
we are not even aware of what we know. Texas researcher
Frederick Williams asked white student teachers to watch
videotapes and rate black, Mexican-American and white
Anglo children on whether their English was standard
and how fluently they spoke. The white children scored
highest. But the videotapes were specially done. Even
though the visuals showed different children, there
was only one voice track: standard English. Stereotypes
were stronger than reality. Imagine an English-speaking
child going to a Spanish school. No one would accuse
the child of stupidity for trying and failing to speak
Spanish, since everyone would realize the child is speaking
another language. But contrast this with students who
speak black English (or Southern English, or New York
English) in an English-speaking school. They are often
treated, in the words of one student, "as if our
parents didn't bring us up right."
would be great if these students could hear: "The
school language here is called standard American English.
It is somewhat different from your native language,
which you learned at home and in your neighborhood.
Linguistically it is no better or worse than your language,
but it carries social prestige; it unites educated Americans.
or wrongly, you will be expected to command this language
if you want to do well on standardized tests, succeed
in school and be accepted by the economic powers-that-be
of the U.S.A. Standard English is the exact equivalent
of a linguistic jacket and tie. As you learn, you will
of course make mistakes, but that will happen with any
new language. You will of course continue to speak your
neighborhood language on the playground, at home and
when you want to beinformal. But when you take tests,
go for a job interview or are in other formal situations,
you will be glad you can speak the standard."
students, like everyone else, want a solid sense of
their cultural identity. The view that black English
is bad English is scientifically baseless — and
it unnecessarily drives students away from doing well
in school because it wrongly defines black cultural
identity as the opposite of school values. If we want
to decrease alienation from school, we should teach
what is right — that standard English should be
added on to a student's home language instead of rooting
|January 22, 2003; Page
Copyright 2003 Newsday, Inc.; Newsday (New York, NY)