Ebonics, Standard English, and Public Speaking (Part 2)

Is African American English grammatically incorrect? The Public Speaker, Lisa B. Marshall, explains her approach and gives helpful resources for educators.

Lisa B. Marshall,
March 21, 2013
Episode #196

Ebonics, Standard English, and Public Speaking (Part 2)

Today is part two of our mini-series talking about African American Vernacular English, Standard English, and public speaking.  Please check out Part 1 to familiarize yourself with the controversy surrounding this topic.>

Recently, I received an email from a university professor asking for some advice on how to handle poor grammar in speeches from students who have had minimal training in language skills. In part 1 of this series I talked about the controversy surrounding using African American Vernacular in the classroom and today I’ll cover my approach to this issue when teaching university-level public speaking. I’ll also include some helpful student resources.

My Approach

I’ve been teaching public speaking for many years and I’ve taught students from many different cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In fact, I’ve taught many university-level public speaking classes that included students raised primarily using African American Language.

For me, when it comes to public speaking and language choice, the main question that needs to be asked is, which words will be best for this particular audience?

Language Choice Depends on Your Primary Audience

In the classroom I was the primary audience (although, of course, the other students were also listening). I needed to be able to understand the speech in order to give effective feedback. When students made presentations using African American Language, for the most part, I still understood the overall messages that were being communicated.  

Although I’ll admit, there were instances when I was unclear about the meaning of certain words or phrases. However, usually students noticed the confused looks on my face and would offer to “translate” the terms I didn’t understand. 

In terms of my evaluations, my approach was to focus on what the student was communicating—the message, the organization, and the delivery—rather than on the grammar. I tried to keep my classroom reviews mostly positive—primarily focusing on what the student was doing well as a good example for the other students to follow. In general, I only gave one or two criticisms of the primary elements of the speech that could be improved on.  

How to Handle Grammar Errors

If a student had numerous errors in Standard English, particularly if many of the mistakes could be perceived in the workplace as glaring grammatical errors, I would only highlight one or two and explain how to say the same thing using Standard English. For students who were thirsty for more help, I would provide more guidance privately, but I never made grammar the focus of my critiques.

I often tell students of all backgrounds that when choosing the language of your speech, it is critically important to consider their audience, the topic, and the occasion. For example, after the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the president delivered a speech that contained lofty, serious language—in an effort to uplift the American people. It would have been completely inappropriate to use everyday, casual, or funny language for that speech. 

In the classroom, if the primary audience is a room full of classmates all of whom are familiar and comfortable with African American Language, then blending both Standard English and African American Language in a speech might be appropriate. But if the audience isn’t familiar with African American vernacular or if the topic doesn’t lend itself to it, then the speaker should strive to use Standard English to get their points across. Anything else will confuse the listener and the speaker may lose the attention of the audience.

Additional Help

While some educational institutions may embrace African American Language, it’s important to understand that this probably isn’t the case in most higher learning institutions or in the workplace. In most places of employment, Standard English is still expected, both in written and oral communication. Students needs to be aware that making the effort to learn and use Standard English will help them get into a college of their choice, increase their chances of getting the job they want, and create more opportunities to increase their income. 

I advised the professor who wrote to me to provide additional learning resources for those students who wanted to improve their use of Standard English. I highly recommend Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) They have many great resources for this type of learning and practice. I also highly recommend my Quick and Dirty Tips colleague, Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl. Her podcasts can be downloaded to a smartphone and are short and fun to listen to. In fact, listening to podcasts while following along with a written article is a great way to learn standard grammar usage and pronunciation. Also, students who use online universities, such as the University of Phoenix, often have a one-on-one tutoring help to improve their writing and grammar skills.  

Ultimately, I believe a university professor in any subject, including public speaking, or maybe especially in public speaking, is responsible for helping the student to advance their communication skills. It is also important to recognize that for some students this is a significant challenge especially if they are adult learners.

This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker.  Passionate about communication; your success is my business. 

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