ROBERT A. LEONARD,  Ph.D.
ROBERT A. LEONARD,  Ph.D.  
 
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ROBERT A. LEONARD,  Ph.D.
ROBERT A. LEONARD,  Ph.D.
LINGUISTICS
  ROBERT A. LEONARD,  Ph.D.
ROBERT A. LEONARD,  Ph.D.
viewpoints
article
Black English Equals Any Other Language
article
By Robert A. Leonard, professor of linguistics and director of the
linguistics program at Hofstra University.
ROBERT A. LEONARD,  Ph.D. ROBERT A. LEONARD,  Ph.D. ROBERT A. LEONARD,  Ph.D.
tabThe federal "No Child Left Behind" Act is one year old. It mandates closing the achievement gap between white and black students.
tabWhy 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."
tabOgbu's 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.
tabWhy 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.
tabThat 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.
tabThere 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 else's dialect.
tabBut 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.
tabOften, 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."
tabIt 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.
tab"Rightly 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."
tabBlack 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 it out.
article    
January 22, 2003; Page 29A
Copyright 2003 Newsday, Inc.; Newsday (New York, NY)

 

 

ROCK 'N' ROLL SEMIOTICS / FOOD ANTHROPOLOGY SWAHILI LINGUISTICS VITAE BIOGRAPHY cllral@hofstra.edu 516 463 5440 Hempstead, New York Hofstra University 309 Calkins Hall 309 Calkins Hall