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Hooked on Ebonics: the controversy that swirls around this “language”

I was shocked to recently learn about the Oakland, California school board’s 1996 decision to classify Ebonics as the official language of its African American students. At the mere age of four, I was ignorant to the political and social controversy this decision stirred up nationwide. Now, at 19, I can understand the problematic implications such a decision leads to.

We’ve heard the term Ebonics everywhere in the media, as it was popularized by the mid-90s in this Oakland school board decision. It was used instead of the term Black English and is a combination of the words ebony and phonics. We all know what Ebonics refers to – the black vernacular that many judge as improper or bad English.

One common misconception about the Oakland school board decision is that the intention was not to teach students how to speak in Ebonics, but rather use it as a bridge to understanding Standard English. They found that a major reason for African American student’s poor academic performance was a language interference.

In an essay by Bill Cosby, he satirizes what the world would be like if Ebonics became a standard language. Cosby refers to this version of English as “Igno-Ebonics”. He jokes that if a young black teenager was pulled over by the cops, instead of saying “Why did you stop me, officer?” he would say, “Lemme ax you…” leading the officer to believe he was in danger and being threatened.

While the situations Cosby sets up in his 1997 essay Elements of Igno-Ebonics Style may gain laughs from some audiences, Cosby is actually missing the mark about what the Oakland school board’s intentions were.

The Oakland school board wanted to use contrastive analysis to teach students that what may be okay to say at home and outside of school isn’t proper in written forms. Defenders of contrastive analysis say that students grow confused and frustrated when teachers ridicule them for their language. When the children go home and hear their “form” of English spoken by their parents and friends, they may begin to think all the people around them are speaking incorrectly and in turn will become ashamed of their language.

To some extent, this reasoning provided by contrastive analysis defenders makes sense. If a teacher is ridiculing you for speaking the way you and your family speak to each other, frustration may grow in the student about who is “right”. In some students, this may stir up disdain for teachers and education in general. Other students may become embarrassed or ashamed of their dialect.

In theory, contrastive analysis allows teachers to permit Ebonics in the classroom but emphasizes that the language is not “proper” for written exams, papers, etc. Teachers can use Ebonics as a bridge to help students “translate” the vernacular into Standard English.

In my opinion, the Oakland school board took Ebonics too far by declaring it was a language, not a dialect. In the original resolution, they claimed the language was derived from West African and Congo languages and therefore was genetic in African Americans. Once again, Oakland took this too far. The real intention in declaring Ebonics a language and not a dialect was for economic purposes. If Ebonics was considered a foreign language, it could receive more federal funding.

So while the idea of helping students understand that their language and grammar isn’t wrong seemed decent, economics pushed the envelope too far. Language is not genetic. It is cultural.

This decision was problematic to the extent that students who believed they were always speaking English, yet constantly told it wasn’t “proper” are now being told they aren’t actually speaking English. Following this line of thought, if Ebonics isn’t proper, and it isn’t English, it must be some “lesser” language than English.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of contrastive analysis by showing students how African American Vernacular English is different than Standard English. I think it is beneficial for students to learn the differences rather than be scolded for one and pushed to learn the other without learning exactly what they’re doing “wrong”. However, calling Ebonics a genetic disposition in African Americans can create a feeling of “otherness”. If this is genetic, are African American students who don’t speak in Ebonics not genuinely African American? You can see where this genetic language argument ultimately fails.

It is  important to note that by now, the term Ebonics has garnered negative connotations and isn’t a preferred term. Linguists use the proper term African American Vernacular English.