EBONICS: BLACK ENGLISH OR BAD ENGLISH
By Raymond Govero
American society has made concessions for many groups of people with special interests, such as animal activists, environmental activists and a host of ethnic groups. Tough animal rights laws have been passed to ensure the safety and future of a variety of species ranging from the domestic cat to the bald eagle. The development of Wetlands has been curtailed in an effort to protect our swamps and forests from extinction. Our educational system has implemented a program known as, English As a Second Language, which lends itself to the special needs of immigrants in our school systems. This program offers extra tutoring and extra time on tests for immigrants who primarily speak a language other than English. Dudley Scholarship and Bethel Foundation Scholarship, along with over twelve-hundred others, have been created exclusively for minorities in an effort to encourage furthering their education. A list of these scholarships can be found in Directory of Financial Aids for Minorities, 1993-1995. In an effort to promote equal opportunity in the work place, the United States Government adopted the Affirmative Action program, which forces companies to place a certain number of minorities within their work force. Now, some politicians and educators in this country want to make concessions for those Americans who have grown up learning to speak what some people call street slang, as opposed to speaking standard English, which at last I heard was still America's primary language. According to Caroline Boarder, a political columnist, a program known as Ebonics has been introduced in Oakland, Ca., as a way to bridge the gap between black English or bad English-speaking students and standard English-speaking students in an effort to raise reading and writing test scores of African Americans. She also states that the Oakland school board contends that this bridge is necessary because the speaking of Ebonics is genetically related to African Americans. (Educators Sound Off on Ebonics, Washington Post, Jan 97) This hypothesis suggests that black students are incapable of learning the English language through conventional teaching methods, and we must devise an easier way to teach them. I encourage every tax paying American citizen to take a close look at this program; after all, it is you who will be paying the bill for its implementation. I agree with politicians and educators who have at least acknowledged the fact that our education system needs an effective way to instill proper English in all students across the country regardless of their race, but is Ebonics the answer?
Having grown up in the American school system, both public and private, I was exposed to people from various ethnic groups who had poor reading and writing skills, most of whom were black. The one thing that I remember vividly about these fellow students is that they shared a common speech deficiency including incorrect pronunciation, subject verb agreement and problems with general sentence structure. It was no surprise to me that they could barely read or write; they couldn't or wouldn't even speak in a way which I could understand, and other classmates felt the same way as I did. For example, Floyd Brown was one of these students with whom I had the pleasure of sharing an English class. One day I asked him where he was going after school, and he replied, "Ima fi'n na go to da crib n axe ma fo some bread." After pondering his response, I thought he was going to kill his mother who was in a baby crib (obviously a midget) and take her food. Later I found out he was going home to ask his mother for some money. Throughout my high school years I began to ignore these people who spoke to me using this broken English, just as I had a tendency to ignore people who spoke a foreign language because I could not understand what either of them were saying.
After graduating from high school, I served four years in the United States Coast Guard and a subsequent six years in the civilian work force. As an advertising consultant, I traveled to 22 different states and found that this type of bad English was spoken by many different ethnic groups around the country and was seldom pronounced the same from region to region. However, it still carried the same incorrect speech pattern and consistently broke every spelling and writing rule I knew of when transferred to paper.
It was not until my first quarter of college at Armstrong Atlantic State University that I actually heard that the term Ebonics had been coined for this speech deficiency in 1973. A dissection of the word Ebonics, which you will not find in the dictionary and should not find in any classroom in American school systems, yields a definition based on its two syllables. Ebo means black, and nics, which is taken from phonics, means sounds. This breaking apart of the word Ebonics simply yields its meaning as, black sounds. Suddenly, it began to make sense to me. I had heard this mutilation of the English language proceeding most frequently from the mouth of young black Americans, and I associated it with laziness and lack of education stemming from economic or social depravation, which generally leads to more of the same. Imagine my surprise when I found out it was considered by some Americans to be an actual language. As an American citizen and a parent, this enlightenment concerned me and prompted my investigation of Ebonics.
According to Jane Hill, a political columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Ebonics was first recognized in America in the 1800's when African slaves were first brought to America. These slaves did not speak standard English because they were not taught to do so. They spoke a form of what some people now call Ebonics, because they did not know any better, but African Americans in today's school systems have been taught better and should know better. (Chicago Tribune, Feb. 97) Education is best built upon what we already know, but if what we already know is incorrect English, then we must discard it and learn from correct tutorial tools. This includes practicing reading, writing and speaking with adherence to English grammar rules. Strong reinforcement of standard English through repetitious reading and writing exercises is one solution to the problem of illiteracy in ethnic groups in America. When necessary, another solution may be speech therapy. This is the kind of learning structure we need in the classrooms in our country. We must demand it of our teachers, and they must deliver. We should be culturally sensitive to all ethnic groups in an educational setting, but let's not lose sight of the goal in the process, which is mastery of the English language. Any incorporation of non-standard use of the English language could make it harder for all students to learn standard English. What is worse is that these bad English-speaking students may become complacent with Ebonics and feel that they now have their own identifiable language and not attempt to learn standard English. If students transfer nothing other than proper English to their long-term memory during their education, they will at least have the basis for success in the general population. Good communication skills are a must in almost every occupational field that I can think of.
Who will lose as a result of a mandatory incorporation of Ebonics into our school systems? First, those students in English As a Second Language programs will feel the effects of such a fiasco. Funding for Ebonics will most likely come from this area and as a result, necessary, commendable programs such as this could be short-changed. Secondly, teachers who have spent their careers attempting to condition the tongues of their students to English discipline will have to concede to bad English. Lastly, the students who are placed in these classes will suffer the greatest loss. Ebonics classes will be composed primarily of students who belong to various ethnic groups, which will contribute to segregation and racism, and American history has proven that segregation in any form can only serve to keep minorities down.
While it is true that many of the words we Americans speak today come from African origin, those words are clearly pronounceable and are understood by most Americans. Some of these words are: jubilee, banana, jumbo, gumbo, jazz and banjo. These words are not slang. According to Connie Eble, a member of the linguistic association of Canada and the US, slang can be defined as the dropping of a consonant at the end of a word and attaching it to the next word. (Slang and Sociability, 1996 pg. 1) The following is an example of slang: (working last) translated into slang as (workinlas). This is a common combination that some people believe composes parts of Ebonics. This type of slang has artistically contributed to the film industry with productions such as Roots and Glory, but that only makes it marketable, not correct. In fact, I see it as exploitation of inadequate education of both the characters in the film who speak it, and the viewer who pays to see it.
In Martin Luther's speech, I Have a Dream, and in his writings such as, Letter From Birmingham Jail, I do not find one word of what may be deemed improper English or Ebonics. If Martin Luther King could speak and write this clearly without the aid of Ebonics to bridge the gap, this must surely dispel any theory of the speaking of bad English being genetically connected to African Americans. I believe that if he could hear the arguments supporting Ebonics he would roll over in his grave. I do not think Ebonics was part of his dreams for black Americans; he hoped for educational boundaries to be broken not re-created as Ebonics has the potential of doing
The list of prominent figures in society who oppose Ebonics includes Jessie Jackson who openly speaks on television broadcast shows and in various publications about his contempt for Ebonics. United States Secretary of Education Richard Riley has publicly declared Oakland's program of Ebonics ineligible for federal funding. Bill Cosby calls Ebonics "Igmo-bonics." An urbanized version of the English language which if allowed to evolve will leave only body language as a common standard language to the next generation.(email@example.com, Cosby on Ebonics, Jan 97).
As a society interested in the future of our youth we must realize that there is no substitute for hard work and study in the classroom, and there are no shortcuts to learning the English language. Our educational system must strive to make children mainstream communicators. I know many white, black and students from other ethnic groups, who have trouble with English, but I have not heard them making excuses and looking for shortcuts. They understand that the only way to learn something that is difficult is to work at it much harder than the average student. Ebonics is a misguided, ill represented, detrimental shortcut that will only create confusion and disappointment in the classroom. It is a cancer that must be sent into permanent remission by the clear and coherent voices of Americans.
Selzer, Jack, ed. Conversations: Readings for Writing. 3rd Edition. New York: Allyn & Bacon. 1977.
(Raymond Govera was an English 101 student at Armstrong Atlantic State University when he submitted this essay)
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