Md. Standard-English Program for Blacks Stirs Controversy

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A voluntary program in Silver Spring, Md., to help black 5th graders improve their command of standard English has revived debate over the role of black dialect in education.

The after-school course, aimed at enabling children to more readily ''switch codes" between standard English and nonstandard forms of the language common among American blacks, had been provided in other public schools in the Montgomery County system last year. But its extension to Burnt Mills Elementary School last month prompted questions about whether blacks had been singled out as needing help with English and whether schools should condone the use of dialect at all.

When only black youngsters were invited to participate in the class, "people took offense," although there were only one or two real complaints, Brian J. Porter, a district spokesman, said last week.

"The program is well-intentioned," he said. "It's an attempt to discuss a very specific but limited communication problem."

Mr. Porter said the program was proposed by several district speech pathologists, who are black, out of concern about the speaking habits of some black students.

"The program says that there is a time and a place for one speaking manner or another," he said.

The course is called "Facilitating Code-Switching," which a district description defines as "the ability to move from one communication style to another."

A memorandum from the district's division of speech and language programs states that the goal is "to address the perceived need to provide some African-American students with an alternative style of communication, while not denigrating or eradicating the importance of their own speaking style."

"Research in linguistics," it continues, "shows that some students who fail to acquire standard oral English patterns often face diminished educational, career, and social-life options."

The semester-long class, which meets for one hour a week, includes story-telling, art, drama, music, and presentations.

A letter inviting participation went out to parents of the approximately 30 black 5th graders at Burnt Mills. So far, at least half a dozen pupils have signed up, district officials said.

A number of local black leaders said they supported the idea of helping students boost their English skills, but were sharply critical of the elementary school's approach.

"On one hand, I support the idea that we need to address the problem of some minorities not being able to speak standard English," said Isiah Leggett, president of the Montgomery County Council. But focusing solely on black students "was extremely insensitive," he added.

Mr. Leggett also said he was skeptical of the view that black dialect is part of the "rich African-American culture."

He and some other black leaders suggested that when they were young, the black community prized standard-English skills more highly than many blacks do today.

"I don't believe we should encourage people to use the two forms of language on an equal basis," Mr. Leggett said. "Where the dialect should be the exception, it unfortunately is the rule."

Hanley Norment, who heads the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that he "absolutely" favored promoting standard English.

"That's not the same as saying I appreciate the clumsy way the matter was handled at Burnt Mills," he added.

Still, Mr. Norment said, "I don't think it ought to cause any problem" to have a program for only one race.

In any event, he added, "if this emphasis" on standard English "had come earlier in the curriculum, there'd be no need for a special program."

"Many of our kids could use some bolstering in the use of standard English," William J. Saunders, executive director of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, said last week.

"I applaud Montgomery County, as long as they're not just singling out black kids," he added. Language problems are not confined to black students, he said, and "they ought to put [all students] in a classroom" for some extra work in standard English.

Linguists say dialect encompasses pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, accent, and grammar.

The Montgomery County debate "seems like 'deja vu' to me," said Roger W. Shuy, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, recalling similar disputes in the 1960's. Code-switching entails knowing what to say to whom, he said. "That's the essence of good education."

"It's a simple fact of life that we all switch codes all the time," and children must learn that, Mr. Shuy said.

The difference between dialect and standard English, said Walter Wolfram, a linguistics professor at the University of the District of Columbia, "is not a matter of linguistic correctness or incorrectness" but of social propriety.

'I think we should know standard English," Mr. Wolfram said. But educators should also inform students of its "cosmetic role" in society, he added, and explain "that we're not trying to stamp out nonstandard dialects or to promote nonstandard dialects, but to show their functional role."

Vol. 10, Issue 21, Page 5

Published in Print: February 13, 1991, as Md. Standard-English Program for Blacks Stirs Controversy
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