Beyond Ebonics

April 07, 1999 3 min read

While ebonics, or “black English,” is probably the most widely recognizable and most debated dialect in classrooms across the United States, it’s far from the only one. For the past six years, Maria Montaño-Harmon, a professor of secondary education at California State University-Fullerton, has run workshops for teachers in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas on “Chicano English,” a subject of sociolinguistic research since the 1970s. She also conducts a weeklong summer institute each year titled “Developing English for Academic Purposes.”

In part, the dialect is a carryover from Spanish. But it’s not limited to bilingual children who learned English as a second language, Montaño-Harmon says. Dialect forms also surface among U.S.-born Mexican-American children who live in predominantly Mexican-American neighborhoods but may or may not live in predominantly Spanish-speaking homes.

The professor’s work with teachers focuses on encouraging student participation in the classroom, improving English literacy, and understanding language appropriateness. The message: Language is a matter of situation, and children need to know what to use when.

“We add the public--academic or standard-English--voice the kids desperately need to work in school and be successful after school. But we’re not trying to take away what they already have,” says Montaño-Harmon, whose parents immigrated here from Mexico and settled in an Arizona border town.

Teachers in her workshops learn how to correct students “with information instead of judgment,” she says. Too often, she points out, students become defensive or withdrawn when teachers try to correct language usage without being able to explain why they are doing so.

In Louisiana, Cajun English--along with Cajun food and music--is experiencing a revival of sorts among teenagers and young adults, especially young men, says Sylvie Dubois, a sociolinguist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Cajuns are native Louisianans descended from Acadian French immigrants; Cajun English is popular among Cajuns who speak both French and English and those who speak only English, Dubois says. Though Cajun English still carries a stigma in some circles, Dubois says, the strongest dialect debate in Louisiana’s schools has focused on black English, not Cajun.

In Hawaii, a complex swirl of racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups has always made for ripe debate on language. Hawaiian Creole English--more popularly known as pidgin--has its origins in sugar plantations established in Hawaii in the 1800s.

Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Hawaiian laborers created a pidgin--a simplified language system drawing vocabulary from many tongues--to be able to communicate across language lines. Over time, pidgin’s vocabulary and structure borrowed more heavily from English than Hawaiian.

From the 1920s until 1960, Hawaii grouped students in different schools according to their English proficiency under what was called the English Standard system. The result, some historians say, was one school system for whites and another for Hawaiians and immigrants.

Some experts say pidgin has become the first language of a majority of children born and raised in Hawaii, though it has grown increasingly similar to English over time.

But pidgin still engenders debate on the islands, with some residents saying schools should forbid its use, and others saying pidgin should not be regulated. A 1988 state school board policy calling on teachers to model and encourage standard English in the classroom was, in part, an acknowledgment of pidgin’s prevalence. When orientation for new teachers turns to cultural issues, pidgin is part of the discussion, says Danielle Lum, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

“We tell them it’s something to be aware of,” Lum says. “Teachers basically teach kids that there’s a time and a place where you can speak pidgin. But otherwise, you need to use standard English.”

To be sure, some policymakers and educators view dialect-awareness study as multiculturalism run amok. But since the ebonics debate exploded in Oakland, Calif., more than two years ago, the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington has fielded a steady flow of questions from teachers--primarily serving African-American communities--seeking information on standard-English programs.

“Schools generally don’t understand how to approach dialect issues,” says Donna Christian, the president of the center and a co-author of the 1999 book Dialects in Schools and Communities. “But this is not just a fad.”

-- Lynn Schnaiberg

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1999 edition of Education Week as Beyond Ebonics