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Talking The Talk

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'What's a homie?'' Anthony Jackson asks his 5th grade class at the 99th Street Accelerated School, a complex of beige stucco buildings and cement playgrounds on the outskirts of the Watts section of Los Angeles.

"A friend,'' his students answer in unison.

"What are some situations where you might want to translate into mainstream American English?'' Jackson prompts. Hands fly up in this predominantly African-American and Hispanic classroom.

"At a job interview.''

"In church.''

"When you're trying to rent a house.''

Jackson is taking his students through a skit they wrote, "Homies on the Phone,'' as part of a Los Angeles Unified School District pilot program designed to teach African-American students standard English as a second language. The program is being implemented in 24 elementary schools where African Americans make up at least half of the enrollment.

The skit, as the title suggests, involves friends talking on the telephone.

Gregg: "Me an' Marcus talkin' 'bout goin' to the Raiders game. You down?''

Lamar: "Yeah. When you comin' to get me?''

Gregg: "Well, Marcus gone call TicketMasters and get tickets now, so dey be on will call. Then we be dere in about 40 minutes.''

Marcus calls TicketMaster and says: "Yes, I would like to order three tickets to the Raiders game this afternoon. And I'd like to charge the cost to my American Express card.''

After the students have read their parts, Jackson asks, "Why do we need to speak mainstream American English?''

"You might have a better chance of doing what you do,'' one student says.

"So they can understand you better,'' another answers.

The Los Angeles program is one of only a few nationwide to approach language as a way to boost the academic achievement of black students, particularly those who live in segregated, and often linguistically isolated, neighborhoods. It is an unusual--some say radical--approach to an exquisitely sensitive issue, one that goes beyond grammar and syntax into questions of race, class, cultural identity, and teachers' attitudes and expectations.

District officials created the "Language-Development Program for African-American Students'' a little more than two years ago at the urging of black parents who wanted their children to get a piece of the bilingual education pie. They were also influenced by a 1989 report calling for a language-development initiative for students not covered by the school system's bilingual master plan. The program, which is administered by the district's division of bilingual instruction and language acquisition, has an annual budget of $1.8 million, none of it federal bilingual education money. Although it's too early to know whether the effort is paying off, early anecdotal evidence suggests that it is.

The tenor of the debate over "black English''--now termed "African-American vernacular English,'' "African-American language,'' or "ebonics''--has changed since the 1970s, when some linguists and educators rejected the teaching of standard English as a form of cultural oppression. Today, there is a more general acceptance that standard English is the "cash language''--the one students must acquire to gain access to higher education and the job market. Given that awareness, many educators are concerned that some African-American students are not mastering standard English.

While most teachers and administrators recognize that the current system is not working for these students, there is almost no agreement on what should be done. In the meantime, teachers are left alone in their own classrooms to grapple with how to handle the language that as many as 80 percent of African-American students speak at home.

The Los Angeles program, meanwhile, has sent nearly 1,000 teachers and 600 paraprofessionals--mostly non-African Americans--through various seminars, courses, workshops, and conferences on language and cultural issues. In one way or another, it now touches some 20,000 of the district's 94,000 black students.

Apart from arming teachers with a list of many structural differences between standard English and the vernacular, there is no prepackaged curriculum. Teachers are given strategies for getting students to distinguish between African-American language and mainstream English and suggestions on how to discuss when it's appropriate to use each. The program's stated goal is to ensure that students master standard English so that they can switch between the two languages at will. But it is also to combat the negative association many teachers have with the way their African-American students speak, which can lead to lowered expectations.

The reason many black students are not using standard English, says Noma LeMoine, director of the Los Angeles language program for African-American students, is that "they don't know what to do to change their 'bad' English, and we don't know what to tell them to do. You can sit and tell me all day that it's 'desk' instead of 'des,' but if you don't understand that what I'm saying is a result of a different linguistic rule, how can you ever change it? That's why just correcting a student doesn't work.''

LeMoine, a speech pathologist, makes it clear that there are two things the program is not trying to do: eradicate the home language and teach black English. It does, however, encourage students and parents to use the language at home and teachers to use it as a "bridge'' to teach standard English.

Anthony Jackson, who studied political science at UCLA, grew up six minutes from the school where he teaches today. The streets in this part of the city are lined with scraggly palm trees and small one-story stucco homes with security bars on the windows. Although he recently moved out of the area, he says, "I view this as my community.''

Jackson says his 5th graders are often confused about what exactly African-American language is because in many ways it seems so similar to standard English. In "The Job Interview,'' another student-written skit, a boy named Demetrius says, "I need me an application for salesman, please.'' When Jackson asks what language Demetrius is speaking, a few students think it is standard English. "Why?'' Jackson asks. "Because he said 'please,' '' they reply.

"Demetrius has manners, but he's speaking African-American language,'' Jackson explains. "Just because he says 'please' doesn't mean he's speaking mainstream English. I'm trying to get you guys out of that mind-set.''

LeMoine, along with a number of other linguists, maintains that the language many black students speak is rooted in the African languages of the Niger-Congo region, which share many basic grammatical rules. Since slaves taken from that region were prohibited from using their native tongues, they adopted English vocabulary. But, since they were never taught "proper English,'' they continued to lay those English words on top of African structures. Those patterns have been passed down to today's generation of African Americans, LeMoine says, because children learn their basic language structures unconsciously from birth to age 4. Therefore, these students must be taught the new rule system of standard English the same way speakers of other languages have been.

LeMoine has argued before the U.S. Congress that African-American students who speak this language should be classified as "limited mainstream English proficient'' and be eligible for instruction with federal bilingual education dollars. The U.S. Education Department and the National Association for Bilingual Education disagree with her. "That opens up a whole other set of questions,'' says James Lyons, NABE's executive director. "What about Appalachian white kids who speak a regional dialect?''

Linguists generally agree that if two language systems are "mutually intelligible,'' then they are not separate languages. Thus, since black students can understand standard English (a fact LeMoine does not dispute), the African-American vernacular is not its own language.

The National Alliance of Black School Educators has no official stance on the debate, but its executive director, Santee Ruffin Jr., says black English should be "respected, not romanticized.''

"Many African-American educators feel that perhaps the whole idea of black English has been given more status than it deserves,'' Ruffin explains. He and others fear that legitimizing it as a language can "pressure a student to go further outside of the educational mainstream.''

The principal issue, he and others say, is not whether to correct students who use the vernacular but how and when. "The key is that kids should not lose their dignity in the process,'' Ruffin says.

Johnathan Williams, an African American who teaches 6th grade at the 99th Street Accelerated School, says that before he started the language-development program, he "felt like most middle-class white guys: that the students weren't speaking correctly.'' So, he would tell them, "You don't say it like that.'' Nowadays, Williams says, he asks students to come up with "another way'' of saying it. "In math class,'' he adds, "if they tell me an answer in dialect, but they have the right answer, I accept their response totally.''

That may be OK in math, other educators say, but not when it comes to students' writing. Some situations, they argue, demand standard English. The job-interview skit written by Jackson's students makes this point. A job candidate who speaks in dialect is brushed off, but a second candidate who speaks standard English gets an immediate interview.

Equan Hughey, one of Jackson's 5th graders, would not speak or write standard English in class a year ago because "most people told me it was white-people talk,'' he says. That has changed, thanks to his teachers. "I used to want to just stay in African-American language; I thought I could use it all through my life,'' he explains. "But now I know I can't.''

Equan still speaks mostly in dialect with his friends because, he says, if he spoke standard English with them "they be thinking you like a nerd.'' But he wants to learn standard English so he can "switch up,'' as his dad does. He wants to get a football scholarship, he says, to a college "far away from here.''

There is no research showing conclusively that black youths simply refuse to use standard English, as opposed to not having been taught to speak it properly. But previous research has suggested that many African-American students associate academic success with being white. So, if standard English is associated with academic success, it can be tough to sell its advantages.

But by validating the home language, LeMoine argues, the Los Angeles program is helping defuse the situation that students are rebelling against.

"They're really looking for a sense of self by the 6th grade,'' Williams says. "The attitude in the community is, 'Why does anyone need standard English?' It's my job to show them that it is valuable for life outside the 'hood.' ''

--Lynn Schnaiberg

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