Talking the Talk

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"What's a homie?'' Anthony Jackson asks his 5th-grade class at the 99th Street Accelerated School in Los Angeles, a series of low-rise beige stucco buildings and cement playgrounds enveloped by a tall metal fence, perched on the outskirts of the tough Watts neighborhood.

"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 Hispanic and African-American classroom.

"At a job interview.''

"In a meeting.''

"In church.''

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

Jackson is taking his students through a skit they wrote called "homies on the phone'' as part of a pilot program in the Los Angeles Unified School District 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 school's enrollment.

The skit setting: three boys lounging at home on the phone with each other deciding if they want to go to the Raiders' football game.

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 Ticket Masters and get tickets now, so dey be on will call. Then we be dere in about 40 minutes.''

Marcus then calls Ticket Master 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. ...''

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

"You might have a better chance of doing what you do.''

"So they can understand you better.''

The 'Cash Language'

The nation's second-largest school system, enrolling more than 630,000 students, has tackled the exquisitely sensitive issue of language use in school. The subject goes beyond questions of grammar and syntax into issues of race, class, cultural identity, and teachers' attitudes and expectations.

While the Los Angeles program's tenets may seem radical to some, it is one of few efforts in the country that explicitly confront the issue as a possible means of boosting the academic achievement of black students, particularly those who live in segregated, and often linguistically isolated, neighborhoods.

Spurred by pressure from African-American parents who wanted their children to get a piece of the district's growing bilingual-education pie and by a 1989 report that called for a language-development plan for students not covered by the district's bilingual master plan, the "language-development program for African-American students'' was born in 1990.

It is now in its second year of implementation under the district's division of bilingual instruction and language acquisition and has a $1.8 million annual budget. The program does not receive federal bilingual-education funds.

Although the district has no data on whether the program is helping raise students' grades or reading-test scores, a wealth of anecdotal evidence from teachers and students suggests that the program strategies are making some inroads.

The tenor of the debate over "black English''--now termed "African-American vernacular English,'' "African-American language,'' or "ebonics''--has changed since the 1970's, when some linguists and educators rejected the teaching of standard English as a form of cultural oppression.

Today, there is more general acceptance of standard English as 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, oral or written. One such educator is Willie Hamilton, the principal of Webster Academy, a public elementary school in Oakland, Calif., whose enrollment is 80 percent black.

Hamilton recently gave 62 black students in his school a state-approved language-proficiency test normally used to determine eligibility for bilingual-education or English-as-a-second-language classes. The results: Only four tested as fully English proficient. A total of 26 were deemed non-English-speaking.

And while many teachers and administrators say that the current system--a standard language-arts curriculum--is not working for many of these students, there is almost no agreement on what should take its place or be added to it.

Meanwhile, most 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.

Creating a Bridge

Noma LeMoine, the director of the language-development program for African-American students, moved with her family from Austin, Tex., to Los Angeles when she was entering 7th grade. She had attended largely segregated schools in Texas, where she spoke what she calls African-American language, though she had "some facility'' in standard English.

She showed up at her new school without a transcript because her family's move had been sudden. The counselors at the front desk asked her what courses she had taken in Texas. She started explaining in her "best African-American language'': "Algebra one, Spanish one. ...'' But she never got beyond that. Hearing her pronunciation, the counselor looked at some of the other adults there and signed her up for remedial courses.

In college, her papers came back strewn with red marks because she used the language she grew up speaking. As an adjunct professor, she shuddered when she heard her colleagues speculating about how "those minority kids'' ever got into the university, since they couldn't write.

"The language issue became one of the biggest in my school experience,'' she recalls. "Nobody explained to me why what I was doing was wrong, just that it was wrong. Those experiences left their mark on me.''

The Los Angeles program has sent nearly 1,000 teachers and 600 paraprofessionals--mostly non-African-American--through various seminars, courses, workshops, and conferences on language and cultural issues.

The program touches 20,000 of the district's 94,000 black students, and works with parents to help them become more familiar with standard English.

Apart from arming teachers with a list of 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 American English'' and suggestions on how to discuss when it's appropriate to use each.

The program's stated goal is to insure that students master standard English so that they can switch between the two languages. 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 and send students off to special-education classes, LeMoine says.

The reason many black students are not using standard English 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 it,'' LeMoine says. "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 doing: one, eradicating the home language; two, "teaching'' black English. It does, however, encourage students and parents to use the language at home and encourage teachers to use it as a "bridge'' to teach standard English.

Such a bridge is necessary because, while the differences between the dialect and standard English can be subtle, LeMoine believes that what many students are speaking is a language whose structure is distinct from English--an argument hotly contested by many linguists.

Next year, LeMoine plans to use a language-proficiency test specifically targeted to African-American students, developed over the past three years by the Center for the Study of Evaluation at the University of California at Los Angeles, to gauge how well they speak and write standard English after participating in the program.

Both the state and the Los Angeles district itself have had programs with similar goals in place; the district's dates to 1978. Clearly, educators there think that these strategies hold some promise of moving away from what the district's 1989 report called the "institutionalized racism'' embedded in the cavernous gaps that remain between white and African-American children's success in school.

Apparently, many other districts agree: LeMoine has been asked to speak at countless conferences across the country, and districts such as San Diego and Portland, Ore., have requested her materials and guidance in developing similar programs for their own minority students.

African Roots

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

His grandmother still chastises him for using words like "stuff'' because it's not "proper English.'' He views as partly generational the debate over whether the way many of his African-American students talk is a language distinct from English.

"The old guard may never accept those words on a piece of paper'' because it legitimizes a means of communication that older people view as poor English, he says, pointing to a shelf full of books that include the dialect.

Clearly, his students are confused at times about what exactly African-American language is, because often it is so similar to standard English.

In "the job interview,'' one of the student-written skits, Demetrius says, "I need me an application for salesman, please.'' When Jackson asks what language Demetrius is speaking, a few students answer that it's standard English. Why? Because he said "please,'' so it sounds formal.

"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 mindset.''

Similar questions arise when a sentence has a contraction: Many students automatically think the person is speaking in dialect.

LeMoine, along with some 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 the slave descendants of the region's inhabitants 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 should be eligible for instruction with federal bilingual-education dollars. The U.S. Education Department and the National Association for Bilingual Education have opposed that proposal.

"That opens up a whole other set of questions: What about Appalachian white kids who speak a regional dialect?'' asks James J. Lyons, NABE's executive director.

The debate over whether the African-American vernacular is a separate language or a dialect of English is "wholly unresolved,'' says Geneva Smitherman, a Michigan State University linguist who has written extensively on the subject.

In 1978, in what is considered the landmark "black-English case,'' the parents of 11 African-American students from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Mich., won a lawsuit against the Michigan state board of education. They charged that students were being improperly placed in classes for the learning disabled because of the way they spoke. A federal judge ruled that the board had to develop a plan to teach the students standard English, saying that it had failed to address, in reading classes, the fact that the students spoke "black English.''

The issue, says Molefi Kete Asante, a consultant to numerous school districts and the chairman of the Temple University department of African-American studies, is that "this very powerful, very fluent, very beautiful language has never been adequately recognized.''

Linguists generally say 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.

But according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a research and policy group in Washington, there is no set rule to define a language. Many linguists say that it is, in fact, more difficult to learn a second dialect than a language, because the dialect differences can be so subtle.

The argument for labeling what many African-American students speak as separate language is "a political position,'' says Walt Wolfram, an English professor at North Carolina State University who also has studied African-American dialect. "It emphasizes a unique history and solidarity within a community. It's not justified by any objective linguistic fact,'' Wolfram says, though he admits that defining a language versus a dialect can be "a can of worms.''

Many linguists, including Wolfram, emphasize that many groups other than African-Americans speak nonstandard English dialects and that schools need to do a better job in general about teaching dialect difference and the history behind it so that students learn not to discriminate based on the way someone speaks. In fact, many Hispanic students in the Los Angeles program's schools speak with patterns similar to those of their African-American peers.

Wolfram has developed a dialect-awareness program for North Carolina's smallest school, located on a 15-mile-long island inaccessible except by ferry. Students there speak Ocracoke--a mixture of Appalachian and Elizabethan English, Irish brogue, and other dialects.

Schools also need to convey that, while grammatical norms of English are taught and generally accepted in writing, the idea that there is just one "correct,'' standard spoken English is a fallacy, many linguists say.

The National Alliance of Black School Educators says it 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 adds.

He fears that legitimizing it as a language can "pressure a student to go further outside of the educational mainstream.''

The National Council of Teachers of English declines to take a position, but Miles A. Myers, the executive director, says that, "in general, we've approached this as a dialect question.''

Regardless, many educators say, if a program such as LeMoine's can help insure academic success for more students by validating the language, schools need to sit up and take notice.

When To Correct

A few months ago, one of Jackson's students at the 99th Street Accelerated School was arguing with another boy during an art lesson and blurted out: "I ain't got no glue stick.''

Jackson recalls, "I just couldn't leave it alone, I had to get at it.'' So, he spent 15 minutes explaining that speakers of African-American language often use a form of multiple negation that doesn't surface in standard English, mapping out on the blackboard the different grammatical structures.

But during a recent lesson on adding mixed numbers and improper fractions, students often shouted out answers using nonstandard English: "But how you do dat?'' "Naw, Mr. Jackson, I be trying to tell you how I figurin' it.''

And they did the same in speaking to one another. "Don't dis here look fresh?'' one girl said to another as she made a design with her colored plastic shapes.

Many educators say that the issue is not whether to correct students who use the vernacular, but how and when--and who decides when it is appropriate to use one language over the other.

"None of this is easily reduced to a rule or policy,'' says Myers of the English teachers' council.

"The key is that kids should not lose their dignity in the process,'' adds Ruffin of the black educators' alliance.

Johnathan Williams, an African-American who teaches 6th grade at the 99th Street 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.'' Today, he asks students to come up with "another way'' of saying it.

While some educators argue that standard English is the language of school, period, linguists Wolfram and Carolyn Adger, a sociolinguist in the University of Maryland's college of education, say such an approach flies in the face of reality.

"I don't think schools need to draw the line where kids use standard English and where they use dialect, because kids already know what it is,'' Adger says.

Their work in five predominantly black elementary schools in Baltimore illustrates that most students use standard English in "literacy events,'' such as formal discussions and presentations. That practice is consistent with when most educators say they would correct their students' language use.

"In math class, if they tell me an answer in dialect, but they have the right answer, I accept their response totally,'' Williams says.

But "when kids are taught to write essays, it must be edited for standard English. Period,'' says Deborah M. McGriff, who was the superintendent of the Detroit public schools from 1991 to 1993.

The job-interview skit written by Jackson's students makes a similar point by having the candidate who speaks in dialect brushed aside by a second who speaks standard English--and gets an immediate interview.

"My child needs to know that he won't get a job talking like 'Yo man, whazzup,''' says Walter Waddles, the father of two sons in Los Angeles schools.

But, says Brenda Powell-Bolder, who has four sons in the district, "I have enough faith in our kids to decide what's appropriate, once we arm them with the knowledge.''

A few teachers using the strategies of the language-development program say that their students have become so sensitized to the differences that they have started to correct each other.

But LeMoine points out that many teachers in her program come to her "dismayed'' by the fact that their students still are speaking in dialect on the playground, with their friends, and in class.

"I think the bottom line is that teachers don't want to deal with these sticky problems,'' says Chris Moggia, a 4th-grade teacher at the 99th Street School. "Most probably wish it would just go away.''

'White-People Talk'

Equan Hughey, a 5th grader in Jackson's class, would not speak or write standard English in class one year ago because "most people told me it was white-people talk.''

He adds, "But that's why all the white people got the jobs.''

Moggia, his 4th-grade teacher, explained to him that as a young white man growing up in Santa Barbara, Calif., he used to talk "surfer-dude'' language.

"I never really thought about the differences until I saw Mr. Moggia writing stuff on the board,'' Equan says. "I used to want to just stay in African-American language. I thought I could use it all through my life, but now I know I can't.''

He still speaks mostly in dialect with his friends because he says that if he spoke standard English with them "they be thinking you like a nerd.''

Now, Equan says he wants to learn standard English and be able to "switch up'' to it as his dad does, so he can be sure to get a football scholarship 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. Yet, many observers do see such resistance, and say that it only grows more powerful as students get older.

And, some say, that resistance is a reaction at least in part to the subtle or not-so-subtle messages the education system sends to these students about their own self-worth, which is inextricably linked with the way they express themselves.

"If teachers don't connect to you as a human being, then there are a lot of things students won't do for you,'' McGriff says. "A lot of things surrounding the school environment need to change in order to move this issue'' of teacher attitudes toward the language.

"How can you say he talks wrong when that's the way he's talking with his auntie?'' asks Yolanda Manigault, who has a son and daughter in Los Angeles schools. "What are you saying about my family?''

Adger notes, "The way these kids talk can bring forth such venom from people.''

Or if not venom, then at least a perception of ignorance and ineptitude, says John Baugh, a linguist who has researched issues in black English at Stanford University's school of education.

"Teachers tend to judge as far superior those students of color who orally have mastered the standard English,'' Baugh says. "And when you add race to linguistic stereotypes, the problem gets more complex.''

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 says, her program is helping to defuse the situation that students are rebelling against.

Like Equan, many students in Jackson's class say they don't speak standard English at home or with their friends for fear of being called white, although they know that standard English can be part of their ticket to upward economic mobility.

"They're really looking for a sense of self by the 6th grade; the recoil can definitely be intense,'' 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.'''

Says Kelly Walls, a 4th-grade teacher at Crescent Heights Elementary School: "I don't like to be a dictator. You give them options, give them the choice. Some students are at the point where they say, 'I'll talk any way I want.' I say fine, then explain to them the consequences for not learning how to speak both ways.''

Vol. 13, Issue 36

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