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January 17, 1997 - Image 12

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1997-01-17

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12 -- The Michigan Daily - Friday, January 17, 1997






Study skill


slavery setback?
Graphics by Tracey Harrie

Language debate swirls across

country after school board decision

By Stephanie Powe
For some, it's a backward reference to the days of slavery.;
For others, it's a successful way of teaching children how
to speak English.
For now, it s a controversy over "Ebonics," "African
American Vernacular English" or "Vernacular Black English."
A wave of controversy followed the Oakland, Calif.,
school board decision on Dec. 18 to use Ebonics, a dialect
primarily used by African Americans across the country, as
a method of teaching standard English. The debate contin-
ued at the University.;
Ebonics is recognized as a social dialect by the American
Speech, Language and Hearing Association. Its earmarks
include the unconjugated use of verb "to be" - "He be hol-
lering at us"- and dropping consonants at the end of words.
Ebonics is also marked by double negatives, as in, "Didn't
nobody see nothing."
LSA sophomore Angela Moore said she does not want to
diminish the resolution, but said there are better options.
"I believe Ebonics stems from slavery, when my ancestors
secretly learned English because they were not allowed to read
or write. Such oppression impaired them from standard
English," Moore said. "But today, we see the great-great-grand-
children ofthose enslaved, who not only eloquently speak stan-
dard English, but are prominent citizens of our country.
"One such person was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Following a storm of protest and debate, the Oakland
school board passed a series of revisions Wednesday, clari-
fying that students would not be taught in Ebonics and drop-
ping any suggestion that Ebonics may be genetically based.
The dialect had been sharply criticized across the country.
However, the resolution does not back down from the
board's contention that Ebonics is a separate language.
For one University linguistics professor, the issue is noth-
ing new. Since 1987, Prof. Rosina Lippi-Green has been
teaching introductory linguistics courses and a class on lan-
guage and discrimination.
She also has been on panels discussing Ebonics.
"1 think that Dr. Martin Luther King would have informed
himself about the issue and I think that he would have applaud-
ed it," Lippi-Green said.
Moore said she thinks6
King would have support-i
ed the move in an effort to
reach equality.
"When I think of Dr.
King, I envision a man ;.
with not only an open
mind, but an open heart -
one who wanted the best
for the world at whole," - .
she said. "I believe Dr.
King would agree to trying
anything in hopes of reach-
ing equality."
Lippi-Green is writing a *p.
book about language and
discrimination that may
come with it, "English with
an Accent: Language,
Ideology, and Na' f' <f $
Discrimination in the
United States."
The Linguistic Society
of America issued a resolu-
tion Jan. 3, agreeing and d
supporting the school
board's decision.k tg
It does not matter
whether Ebonics is regard-
ed as language or dialect,
but it should be recognized
no matter what it is, the
statement said.
"For those living in the
United States, there are also
benefits in acquiring stan-
dard English and resources
should be made available to

Daily Staff Reporter

all who aspire to mastery of standard English," the statement
said. "The Oakland School Board's commitment to helping
students master standard English is commendable."
Contributing to the debate are a series of misunderstand-
ings, mostly due to incomplete media coverage, Lippi-Green
said. She wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times
criticizing an editorial against the use of Ebonics in schools.
"The body of research on the history of the variety of
American English or African American Vernacular English is
anything but 'dubious,"' she said in the letter. "A more-thor-
ough examination of the topic would have provided you with
input from linguists who could make the facts available to you."
In Oakland, where African American students make up 53
percent of the student body, the Los Angeles Times reported
that only 37 percent of the students in the gifted-and-talented
programs are African American, while 71 percent of the stu-
dents in special education are African American.
The Times reported that the mean GPA of African
Americans in the district was 1.8, while the district average
was 2.4. African Americans make up 64 percent of the stu-
dents who repeat the same grade and 80 percent of students
who are suspended.
The board has denied any intention to seek additional
bilingual-program funding from the program, and Lippi-
Green said the board's intentions were good.
"Oakland formalized a situation that had been around
awhile," Lippi-Green said. "They needed school funds and
this was a viable thing to do."
Ebonics has also created a furor in Ann Arbor. In 1979, a
case was filed in the federal courts against the Ann Arbor
School District. Parents of some African American students
said their children lacked the same educational opportunity
as the rest of the students because the teachers were not sen-
sitive to their dialect.
The court ruled the district should have programs helping
teachers to recognize the dialect and develop methods to
teach students standard English.
LSA sophomore Monica Austin said using Ebonics is detri-
mental to the development of students.
"As an African
American, I am quite
""' g e Z"~disturbed over the
recent Ebonics issue.
I feel that incorporat-
ing Ebonics into the
classroom environ-
ment will further
deteriorate an already
battered English lan-
guage," Austin said.
"More importantly,
using 'Ebonics' in
schools promotes and
perpetuates the
widening gap
between Caucasians,
African Americans
and other minority
b .Austin said she
. , ybelieves that if
Ebonics is used in the
classroom, children
will think the dialect
is passable in spoken
f conversation.
d "I believe that hav-
ing the teachers in
Oakland speaking
Ebonics will give
{ tschool-age children
.i kthe notion that revert-
ing from standard
English is accept-
able," Austin said.
sophomore Sarah
Burnham said the

issue depends on age.
"If the resolution is instituted in
high schools, it might be needed, but
the younger students would think
that this was correct when it is actu-
ally slang," she said.

Nkncen 0% terino.
The phrase "Ebonics" was devel-
oped in 1973 and is known to have
roots in West Africa.
The word is a combination of
"ebony" and "phonics," and refers
to the dialect spoken primarily by
some African Americans.
Lippi-Green said the use of this
term created unforeseen problems
for the board, because people
focused on the term itself instead of
the issue. She said she believes this
is an old term.
Austin also said that at one time
this was the only dialect spoken in
the African American community,
but it is no longer necessary.
"Our slave ancestors had no choice
but to speak a broken, tattered form
of English, as they were not given the
education to speak properly," Austin
said. "If we as a people continue to
speak as if we lack education we are
both disgracing the memory of our
ancestors' struggles to make the
world better for us, and we are dis-
gracing ourselves."
The original language of the
board's resolution said Ebonics was "genetically based,"
angering many across the country and creating more prob-
lems for the board.
"Whereas, these studies have also demonstrated that
African Language systems are genetically based and not a
dialect of English," the resolution read.
"African Language Systems have origins in west (African)
and Niger-Congo languages and are not merely dialects of
English," the revised resolution reads.
Lippi-Green said she strongly disagrees because no sub-
stantial argument supports this contention, and this would
significantly weaken the board's objective.
Lippi-Green said she prefers to call it African American
Vernacular English.
"AAVE is a functioning, productional form of English.
The misfortune is that people refuse to listen," she said.
"People need to be more open-minded."
Reac tion
University NAACP President Loren McGhee said Ebonics
is a step in the wrong direction.
"Insinuating that black students do not
have the intellectual capacity to learn
'Standard English' is not only politically j thn
incorrect, but racist in itself," she said.
McGhee offered her own solution. King Wo
"Perhaps a better solution, and a bet-
ter utilization of public money, to the
problems of inner-city teachers nota
understanding students would be a - R
series of workshops that could incorpo- Ling
rate linguistics as well as a sociopoliti-
cal awareness of black urban youth,"
she said.
Many notable authors, talk-show hosts and public speak-
ers have spoken candidly about their position on the issue.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was one of the first to speak to the
public, criticizing the board's decision. He has since retract-
ed some of his statements.
Lippi-Green said Jackson's comments show he does not
understand the difference between Ebonics speakers and
non-Ebonics speakers. Lippi-Green said Jackson himself
speaks AAVE and should not criticize the dialect.
"There is a large gap between AAVE speakers and non-

AAVE speakers and there is a difference in the way that
blacks and whites define it," she said.
"Jesse Jackson doesn't realize the size of the gap."
Jackson is not the only black person who has voiced his
opinion. Poet Maya Angelou and talk-show host Oprah
Winfrey both disagree with the idea of Ebonics. However, it
does have supporters, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author
and Princeton University Prof. Toni Morrison.
Lippi-Green said the media has focused more on the oppi
sition to the resolution than the supporters of it.
Austin also said blacks have constantly struggled and this
only adds to the problem.
"African Americans as a group have been systematically
excluded in this society for generation. It has been a constant
struggle for all of us to succeed in this country, to improve
our lives in comparison to the lives of our ancestors," Austin
said. "I feel as if promoting Ebonics - a gross and degrad-
ing deviation of standard English - will only push our
progress as a people back a few hundred years."
Lippi-Green said Ebonics causes such a hot debate because
it raises an important question, which needs to be addressed.

ik that Dr.
'uld have
tuded it."
osina Lippi-Green
guistics professor

"Why are people threatened of an
idea that AAVE speakers refuse to
be in the mainstream?" she said.
She said white people know they
are not supposed to discriminate, but
cannot understand why a communi-
ty still wants to remain different.
"Whites are threatened because
they think that they made the doo
opened and it makes them cr
when a community continues to sep-
arate itself," Lippi-Green said.

Moore said she recognizes the the approach her ancestors
-used to learn standard English. Her grandmother, who was
from Trinidad, used standard English in reading and writing
and observed those who spoke standard English.
"I feel this approach is possible if one has pride and love
for this country. Instead of worrying about standard English
at the present moment, our society must reflect on our bless-
ing," Moore said. "For as my grandmother once said,'I
here, this melting pot, the land of opportunity, America t
- Daily wire services contributed to this report.


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