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Junk Science and the "Ebonics" Resolution:

Is academia looking the other way?

To this day, there is much confusion about the intent of the 1996 Oakland School Board Resolution on "ebonics," as it was called in the legislation, known among scholars in the field as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). The mainstream media, with a characteristic lack of understanding of the issue, claimed that standard English instruction was being dispensed with in favor of teaching AAVE. The board itself, and many leftists in academia, insisted that the resolution was completely innocent of such motives, and was calling solely for arming the teachers with a knowledge of AAVE so that they could use that knowledge to more easily adapt the non-standard speech of their pupils to the standard speech they would use in the workplace.

Neither camp had encapsulated the language of the resolution correctly. If conservatives and media critics were too hasty to condemn the pedagogical theory behind the idea and make erroneous assumptions about "inferior" language types, leftist multiculturalists were too hasty in its defense, and conveniently ignored the outrageous and false notions that were contained in the document. The true negligence in critically analyzing the resolution, however, came surprisingly from certain linguistic organizations, who did not correct the many errors that occurred therein, despite the fact that such errors flagrantly undermined the whole body of linguistic scholarship over two centuries.

It is perhaps easiest to dispel the notion that Black English and other dialects are "corruptions" of the standard language. Modern linguistics has repeatedly shown by empirical evidence that all languages and dialects are rule-governed (communication would be impossible if they were not) and that while there are important differences in the structures of languages, none from a purely scientific perspective are considered "inferior" to any other. Dialects such as AAVE are not ungrammatical; they have, rather, a different grammar than the standard variety of English, one that may perhaps not be as socially esteemed, but it is a grammar nonetheless. Therefore, any attempt to discredit the Ebonics resolution on the grounds that it is promoting a "defective" or "imperfect" style of speech is made purely from social convention and not scientific fact.

Unless one was present at the deliberation and drafting of this legislation, one is not going to be able to judge what the intent of the Oakland school board was. It is possible to do the next best thing, however, and scrupulously analyze the product of those deliberations - the resolution itself - in an effort to understand its purpose and the tone in which it was drafted. Before we analyze the statements which led up to the resolves, it is important to show that the legislation as originally drafted was neither as diabolical nor innocent as its detractors and defenders made it out to be:

"BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Superintendent ... shall immediately devise and implement the best possible academic program for imparting instruction to African-American students in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language... and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills..."

There is no indication that standard English will not continue to be taught; in fact, the resolution expressly states that one of the Board's goals is to "facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills", which presumably means Standard English. Yet the first intent mentioned is not to facilitate the students' acquisition of standard English, but to instruct the children "in their primary language" for purpose of "maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language." (emphasis mine) There is more than mere pedagogical theory involved here; the Board is clearly taking an activist stance for the preservation and and promotion of AAVE in the public classroom, by direct instruction in the "primary language." Those who have claimed that the Board intended no such thing did not, it seems, read the text with any critical eye. There might be nothing intrinsically wrong with college or even high-school courses which promote the richness of dialects - witness for instance the number of second-language courses at these levels, intended not only to teach the target language itself, but also to foster interest in the culture(s) where such languages are spoken. It is assumed that by high school and college, most students would already have a good grasp on standard English, and that promotion of AAVE or any other dialect would augment rather than interfere with the use of the standard.

This was not, however, felt to be the case in the earlier grades, and particularly in the public schools. There is a real concern that such activist dialect instruction in the earlier grades, coupled with the presumed use of the dialect in informal situations, would seriously weaken the students' ability to learn the standard. At any rate, in a public school system that pursues a "zero-tolerance" policy of even non-sectarian religious expression for fear of offending non-believers, it is clearly hypocritical to pursue a policy of dialect activism among students who may not even speak such dialects, nor particularly want to. Will the lone Bostonian in the Oakland classroom demand a week of his own, so that he might share the joy of his non-rhotacism and broad a?

If we may take leave of the pedagogical theory behind it for a moment, a great deal can be learned about the architects of the resolution by examining the notions which were put forth and how they were framed. The first thing one notices about the whereas's which lead the document off, is that the language which is being employed is utterly foreign to linguistics. Within the scholarly linguistic community, the coinage "Ebonics" has never been used, and many linguists - including ones that have spent years working on AAVE - have since expressed personal contempt for the term.

Such phrases as "Pan-African Communication Behaviors" and "African Language Systems" are likewise anathema to linguistics. Although it is asserted that "various scholarly approaches" have so designated the speech of African-Americans, none of these phrases are in general or even in occasional currency in the journals in which scholarly studies of this nature would be expected to appear: American Speech, for example. Whatever studies are being cited here, they are clearly outside the mainstream of linguistic discussion, which will become even more evident as we examine the conclusions which these studies are purported to have reached.

Further on we find that "... these studies have also demonstrated that African Language systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English."

Though the phrase "genetically based" was eventually removed by the school board, the response from academia should initially have been one of indignant outrage, especially given the current academic climate which is hysterically opposed to behavioral genetic predisposition of any kind. (witness the exaggerated furor generated over sociobiology when introduced in the 1960's by E.O. Wilson)

As far as linguistics is concerned, it has been proven time and again that there is no genetic predisposition to a particular language, that while there may be an intrinsic ability for language in general in the human genome, there is certainly no specific language encoded therein. If the Oakland school board has data to the contrary, they should be encouraged to prepare it for immediate release, for it will stand the field of linguistics completely on its head.

And though there is debate about where the dividing line between a language and a dialect actually is, AAVE certainly does not fall within the purview of a language under the working definition thereof. It is, first of all, intelligible with other varieties of English, and is spoken by a people, who, though racially distinct from the majority of Americans, share with them a common history and a common basic culture; certainly a closer affiliation than one would find between African-Americans and native Africans.

But let us allow that AAVE is different enough from English to warrant classification as a separate language - a conclusion which I wholly reject, but which for the sake of argument can be used to make another point regarding the linguistic affiliation of that "language".

The Oakland board decision contains the phrase "Pan-African Communication Behavior". The term Pan-African would seem to imply that there are linguistic structures which underlie all language on the continent of Africa, which, evidently were carried over by slaves into the New World. What these structures might be, however, is anybody's guess. Africa itself hosts around 1300 languages, more than any other continent, which are believed to belong to four unrelated families: Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan and Khoisan.

The decision resolves that:

"the Board of Education officially recognizes the existance, and the cultural and historical bases of West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems, and each language as the primary language of African-American students." (emphasis mine).

Whatever the decision regarding Black English's status as dialect or separate from English, the Oakland Board is clearly and resolutely stating that the language of African-American students is an African language. This will be an interesting discovery to comparative linguists.

Even if there are those who do not wish to accept the obvious conclusion that AAVE is an English dialect; there is no justification for calling it an African language. If AAVE is not English, then clearly it is an Indo-European, West Germanic language very closely related thereto. Any African-derived structures that AAVE has - and there is little question of the African influence in the lexicon and perhaps even morphology - do not necessarily imply a genetic relationship, much as English loan-words in Japanese do not mean the two languages are related.

It was the responsibility of the Linguistic Society of America and other similar organizations to set these false assertions right. They largely did not, however; choosing instead to make a statement in support of pedagogical methods that involved knowledge of linguistic variables. They chose to applaud an effort to help, while overlooking the glaring fact that those rushing to the rescue quite plainly were totally ignorant of the most basic elements of linguistics. The School Board resolution should have been looked at with the same critical eye as if a phrenology paper had been somehow submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine; "they only want to help" would not cut it in this instance. Specifically, the LSA ignored the following errors in the resolution, which from the linguists' perspective, are so egregious that a refusal to address them is tantamount to a wholesale rejection of current linguistic theory:

1.) That there is a genetic predisposition in any race toward one language over another.
2). That there are "Pan-African" structures which encompass all the languages and language families of Africans and African-Americans, to the exclusion of other languages. (In the absence of evidence, I do not deny the possible existance of such structures, but in any case none have been found to date.)
3.) The speech of African-Americans is an "African Language System", more closely tied to the languages of that continent than to American English.

All of these statements are demonstrably false. All of them should have been addressed. Instead, the LSA chose to completely ignore such falsehoods that were being promulgated (to the detriment of its own cause, no less!) and issue the following statements in a resolution of its own:

"The Oakland School Board's commitment to helping students master Standard English is commendable."

Although, as we have seen above, that clearly was not the board's only motive here.

"From this perspective, the Oakland School Board's decision to recognize the vernacular of African American students in teaching them Standard English is linguistically and pedagogically sound."

One would do well to note that the statement here addresses the pedagogical idea behind the resolution; which indeed may have linguistic merit. But curiously, no mention is made of the most unsound linguistic theory that the board was using to support their arguments.

While the LSA made valid points dispelling popular misconceptions about dialects being unordered and chaotic, it did itself a great disservice by not taking such a critical tone with the authors of the Oakland resolution. Why, when the ostensible goal of the LSA resolution is to dispel erroneous language notions, would they directly challenge those of the popular culture, and yet allow other equally erroneous notions promulgated by the Oakland school board to go unanswered?

Science demands equal rigor on every issue; it would seem, then, that what motivated the LSA to ignore the erroneous notions in the Oakland document was not science but politics. In an era when theories of racial superiority and invented history are proffered to "raise self-esteem" of minority students, this should hardly come as a surprise. Even vaunted academia, despite their protestations to the contrary, is not immune to its own prejudices. And here, it appears, such prejudices are out in force.

Organizations such as the LSA have done little more than issue tepid statements in support of the theory that dialect-speaking children may have an easier time learning the standard by being taught in their own dialect. This is a debatable proposition, perhaps worth investigating.

But as we have seen from the text of the resolution, there was more involved here than just pedagogy; there seems to have been a conscious decision to promote AAVE use in the public classroom; and it will ultimately be an issue for the voters of that district to decide whether they want their taxpayer-funded schools to engage in such dialect activism.

Laying aside the various problems with the language of the resolution, it is perhaps too early to tell whether the basic idea encapsulated in the decision - to take dialectal variables into account when teaching the standard language - will turn out to be a good one or not. It is possible that it may have limited success, although sociolinguist William Labov has expressed doubt that AAVE is an only or even major factor in impeding black childrens' ability to learn standard English.

The idea of dialect in the classroom needs testing, perhaps in certain restricted locales such as Oakland where all else seems to be failing. Although in the environment of a metropolitan school system, many variables need to be taken into account, and these cannot always be tested and controlled for in determining why students are having a difficult time with a subject such as reading. It is quite probable that other factors, such as a reluctance on the part of administrators to let teachers fail students who do not show adequate improvement, may be more to blame than any dialect conflict.

However, solutions which may involve decreasing the influence of administrators or impelling them to change their current beliefs regarding education will not, understandably, be welcomed by those same administrators when drafting scholastic policy. It is not inconceivable that such things as inadequate funding or dialect differences - both outside influences for which the school administrators cannot be held accountable - are shouldering the blame for what may amount to poor management on a local or national level. Mismanagement may not be the case in all or even most schools, but voters in each district would do well to carefully scrutinize the problems faced and their proposed solution(s) - a democratic process which, regrettably, is getting more difficult with the continued centralization of the public school system.

To sum up the state of the issue, it will be all too easy for school boards, in the face of dire problems, to propose sweeping changes on the order of the Oakland resolution. But if such changes are grounded in social engineering or procurance of funding, and not studied and attacked as scientific problems, such shake-ups in educational theory are predestined to have little impact on students' ability to succeed. Moreover, a continuous cycle of experimentation and failure will certainly lower the popular opinion of the public schools, and correspondingly lead to less and less willingness to subsidize such failure by their taxes.

And certainly, no one is served when proposals like these, which may or may not have scientific merit, are couched in language and founded upon assumptions which are at best unscientific and at worst utterly false. Neither do organizations like the LSA serve the public when they very one-sidedly attack popular misconceptions about language, while wholly ignoring more egregious misconceptions that are being advanced by school administrators. School boards cannot be expected to have full knowledge of linguistics; it falls then, to the linguists to make certain that their field is being accurately represented in the legislation that the school boards draft.

When linguistic organizations fail to call a spade a spade, they not only do serious damage to their credibility, but they are also making an ideological tool out of what should be an objective pursuit of scientific truth. And this, to anyone who is familiar with such abuses of science throughout history, should be a frightening prospect indeed.

Claudio R. Salvucci
June 1997

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