Ebonics, Standard English, and Public Speaking (Part 1)

Ebonics, African American Vernacular English, and African-American language are all terms used to describe the language many African-American children learn to speak at home. The Public Speaker explains the issues surrounding the controversy.

Lisa B. Marshall,
March 7, 2013
Episode #194

Ebonics, Standard English, and Public Speaking (Part 1)

by Lisa B. Marshall

In this two-part mini series we’ll be talking about African American Vernacular English, Standard English, and public speaking. 

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I recently received this question from a faculty member at an online university:

“I teach a speech class for a state university and I'm having issues with students who have poor grammar and enunciation in their speeches.  To top it off, I'm teaching this online.  Do you have any resources or ideas on how I can teach/correct poor grammar in students' speeches?  In many cases these are African-American students with minimal training in language skills.  I want to help them and I'd appreciate any tips or resources you could provide.”

Poor Grammar vs. Recognized Language

My initial response to this professor was “I'm afraid you've stepped into a sticky wicket!” Is it simply poor grammar, or is he dealing with another language entirely? I wondered if the professor was aware of some of the issues and controversy surrounding the concept of Ebonics vs. Standard American English, although I prefer to refer to it as African-American Language vs. Standard American English. 

The Controversy

The controversy started around1973, when African-American social psychologist Robert Williams first introduced the term “Ebonics” at a conference on linguistics. The term was intended to show that most African-American children learn what amounts to a different language in the home. The term “Ebonics” is a blending of the words “ebony” and “phonics” and was immediately unpopular. Even those scholars who agreed with the concept preferred the term “Black English” or what was later known as “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE). In more recent literature, you’ll see the term “African-American Language” used frequently.

No one disputes the fact that African-American children are often raised using something other than Standard American English in the home. The subject becomes more controversial when we start talking about how to teach children Standard American English at school. Should it be the only form of English taught and used at school, without regard to the culture and diversity of the population? Or should African-American language be respected by educators and used to reach these children and to introduce Standard American English?

In 1996, the Oakland School Board pushed the controversy into high gear by passing a resolution that recognized “Ebonics” as a language. It also mandated some instruction using AAVE in order to preserve the language and use it to teach Standard American English. While much of the negative response to the school board was due to the wording of the resolution, the national debate centered around the need to accept AAVE in education versus the need to make sure all students learn Standard American English.

Reaching AAVE Speakers

In the article “’You Gotta Reach ‘Em’: An African American Teacher’s Multiple Literacies Approach,” educator Cynthia Hansberry Williams highlights one teacher’s use of both African-American Language and Standard American English in her classroom. Rather than trying to fix what some consider broken English or poor upbringing, she pivots between the two vernaculars in a way that reaches students by using their home language while teaching them Standard American English skills.

This is a good example of how both goals can be accomplished. The article suggests that when we stop looking at African-American Language as simply poor grammar and see it as a child’s primary mode of communication, then we can use what they already know to teach them the standards they have to learn in school and beyond.  However, Dr. Williams’ article was talking about children, while my reader’s question referred to adults in college.  That’s something we’ll explore next week in Part 2 of this series.

In part 2, I’ll talk about my approach to this issue and offer some alternatives to provide additional help to college-age students struggling with the dichotomy of two English languages. This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker.  Passionate about communication; your success is my business. 

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