Language is often a contentious issue, perhaps because the languages we speak are one of the most fundamental ways in nations and societies differentiate themselves from on another. Language is often at the core of our identity. It should come as no surprise, then, that the question of Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English as it should more properly be called, should be controversial, particularly since it involves race, another contentious issue in America. For this reason, this a has gotten more attention than it really should, particularly from Conservatives who want to feel outrage
In classrooms across the country, students might be scolded for using “ain’t” instead of “isn’t.” But a UW-Madison student is working to erase the stigma against Ebonics, also known as African-American Vernacular English. UW-Madison junior Erika Gallagher conducted research about code switching, also known as code meshing, in which people change their regular speech tendencies to fit into the mold of what is commonly accepted as appropriate. Ebonics is a variety of English that is commonly found in the center of large cities that have been historically populated primarily by black people. It is commonly found in slam poetry, as well as hip-hop and rap music.
Gallagher, a Posse scholar, began her research during her time as an undergraduate Writing Fellow this semester. She said she realized, as she sat in her seminar class of predominantly white students, that she wanted to focus on standard written English and how it excludes marginalized groups. “I want to center the voices of the people who need to be centered,” Gallagher said. “As a Writing Fellow, as a white-passing person, I have a lot of power and privilege that should be shared.” Gallagher conducted much of her research through three interviews. She talked to UW-Madison student leaders from marginalized groups and asked how they felt about code switching. She said all three “overwhelmingly” said it felt oppressive—one said “it is the biggest form of cognitive dissonance that exists.”
She presented her research at the Collegiate Conference on Composition and Communication in Portland, Ore., earlier this semester. She was selected as one of roughly two dozen undergraduates from across the U.S. to participate in the conference, which is typically attended by graduate students and professors.
Before going on to the topic of Ebonics, I have to point out that Ms. Erika Gallagher’s research is worthless. She reached her conclusion that expecting “‘marginalized” persons to speak Standard English is oppressive by interviewing just three people. Three individuals from a single university campus is far too small a sample size to make any sort of generalization. But then, Ms. Gallagher seems to have reached her conclusions before doing any research at all. The fact that this nonsense is getting any sort of credit is an indictment of our system of higher education.
Code switching is the term used to refer to the practice of multi-lingual people switching languages during the course of a conversation, often even within a sentence. Code switching can also occur might even be done by a person speaking two varieties or dialects of the same language, such as person who speaks an informal or nonstandard dialect at home and a more formal dialect at work. Paul from Langfocus made a video about code switching, not too long ago.
The controversy about African American Vernacular English centers of whether it should be taught in schools along side of or even instead of Standard English and whether African Americans ought to be encouraged to speak in Standard English. Ms. Gallangher seems to be of the opinion that it should and she hopes her research will encourage the teaching of African American student in their own language.
Gallagher said she hopes to develop her research into a nonprofit organization that “teaches teachers to teach,” with the goal that educators will eventually express disclaimers at the start of each semester that state they will accept any form of English that students are comfortable with.
She also hopes increased acceptance of different rhetoric will encourage the formation of a campus-wide diversity statement.
“Just because you speak a different way doesn’t mean you’re not smart, but there’s a huge stigma around it,” Gallagher said. “I want to teach [educators] a different rhetoric, teach them to be more accepting.”
Now, every language exists in different varieties which may be dialects, accents, and so on. Usually some varieties are considered to be more prestigious or more correct than other varieties and there is often one particular variety that is considered to be standard. In American English, that standard is the vaguely midwestern accent often heard spoken by politicians and television reporters. There is no objective reason to consider some varieties more proper than others and from a scientific, linguistic point of view, you can’t really say that a particular pattern of speech is superior or inferior to another pattern of speech. There is no reason “ain’t” shouldn’t be a proper word or that, “he is going” is better than, “he be goin'”. Since the establishment of a standard language is more due to the chances of history and geography, there is no particular reason speaking in a different way might be stigmatizing.
In the real world, however, people do judge other people by the way they speak, and a person who cannot or will not speak Standard English is going to be regarded as uneducated or stupid. This is not just a racial thing. If you speak in a deep southern accent or a West Virginia hillbilly accent, anyone you are speaking to is going to deduct 20 points from his estimate of your IQ. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD or graduated at the top of your class in medical school, he will still tend to regard your speech as uneducated. Similarly, an African-American who speaks in Ebonics will not be seriously considered for many well-paying jobs. His speech will confirm any prejudices against him.
For this reason, it is not actually helping “marginalized” people if they are not taught to use Standard English, at least in situations where more formal language is expected. Speaking solely in Ebonics will only make an African American more marginalized, since he may be denied opportunities that he might otherwise be able to take advantage of. Ms. Gallagher’s approach will not improve the lives of African-Americans. Her approach is also a little insulting. There seems to be the idea that African-Americans cannot really be expected to speak Standard English. It is just too stressful or triggering for them. Better for the rest of us to make accommodations. Ms. Gallagher demonstrates the soft bigotry of low expectations. Her approach is more about keeping a people in their place than helping to rise. It is about keeping them in their ghetto.
- Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter (pagesofjulia.com)
- The Case Against the Grammar Scolds (theatlantic.com)
- Black Men Speaking Latin (luxlibertas.com) You need to challenge people not coddle them, if you want them to be successful.