Essay on Ebonics in School Education and Cultural Resistance

Date:  2021-05-27 19:17:13
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Ebonics is an American English dialect that is spoken by a huge segment of African Americans. In recent times, this dialect has raised a lot of controversy in the media and among the general public. While some individuals embrace Ebonics, others are appalled by the mere mention of the term. The reason why this dialect obtained such an infamous reputation was the decision by a school district in California to utilize it as classroom tool. In December 1996, a resolution was passed by the Oakland Unified School District that declared Ebonics the main language for black students in its schools. This decision led to widespread outrage as many people believed Ebonics does not belong to the classroom since it is merely slang as opposed to a language. In this paper, I intend to show that teaching English to African American students as if it is a foreign language is unlikely to make them stop using Ebonics and adopt a more mainstream variety of the language. In addition, I will argue that acquiring standard English is not a guarantee to success in school work or in future employment.

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The resolution by the Oakland Unified School District went further and declared Ebonics to be an independent language rather than an English dialect. After receiving widespread criticism, this seemingly radical and separatist move changed to an assimilationist and conservative one. The school district backed away from its initial declaration of linguistic independence. Instead, they decided to adopt a less controversial policy of educating tutors on their students language as well as teaching students how Ebonics can be translated to standard English. However, this retraction did not make much difference. students in the school district, most of whom are blacks, are not in possession of the kind of powers that makes their speech linguistic prestigious. What the school board did was to change the negative perception of African American language by giving it the term Ebonics, and then requiring their teachers to study their students speech.

The manner in which the American public reacted to the Oakland School Boards decision was like it was an act of secession. A number of African American intellectuals and leaders condemned it. They argued that Ebonics as non-standard, slangy and not worthy to be taught in a classroom. Also, they condemned the separatism that would be triggered by recognition of African American English, terming it as racist. They went ahead and warned that Black English would give students a false sense of pride, while their continued use of this dialect was likely to exclude them from higher education opportunities and the countrys corporate world. The Education Department immediately reiterated the position it had taken during Ronald Reagans presidency. Black English was considered a dialect of the original language as opposed to a distinctive language that can be used in bilingual-education funds. To make matters worse, someone introduced a bill in the Virginia House seeking to prohibit schools in the state from teaching Ebonics.

The Oakland School Board was shocked by the negative reaction; something that made it quickly back away from its initial resolution. It assured the public that its intention was to teach students just standard English, nothing else. However, statements made by Oakland educators and televised video clips of schoolrooms in the district indicated otherwise. It was clear that schools in the district were already adjusting their curriculums in a way that students could translate from Ebonics to normal English. All in all, once the criticism had died down, there were those who sought to look at the bright side of the school boards resolution. Approaching Ebonics as a foreign language probably could have done something to assist black students adopt fluency in standard English given that other methods of doing so did not succeed. Education intellectuals from across the country began recognizing the need to find out more about the language spoken by marginalized students. Even those who had criticized the move began applauding it as soon as they received assurances that schools in Oakland would not strain their students with a second-tier dialect.

The resolution by Oakland School Board can at least be recommended for triggering a public debate on several crucial linguistic issues. A notable issue is whether Ebonics should be considered an English dialect or a language on its own. It would be correct to state that, if two or more individuals can understand each others speeches, then they are speaking the same language-or its dialects. If such people do not understand one another, then they are using different languages. However, there are a number of ways in which linguists define languages. They include culturally, politically and by the extent of comprehension. For instance, people speaking Cantonese and mandarin may not understand each other despite the fact that both are Chinese. However, they have a writing system in common and both satisfy the culture definition of what it takes to be Chinese. A contrasting example is that of Croatian and Serbian, which are mutually intelligible despite the fact that they utilize different alphabets. However, what was initially Serbo-Croatian is today considered to be two different languages by Croats and Serbs.

A majority of linguists are of the opinion that African American Vernacular English (AAVE), often referred to as Black English, as a dialect of the original language. While it may contain certain characteristics gotten from African languages, it can easily be recognized, understood and accepted as English. Some black consciousness activists may see cultural and political advantages of referring to AAVE as Ebonics and acting as if it is an independent language. However, even the Oakland School Board distanced itself from such a separatist notion. All in all, the linguistics differences between black English and standard English in America are more like symptoms of separateness as opposed to being the causes. Distinctions in a language and its dialects are influenced by how its speakers interact. If there is little or no social mobility for these speakers, then there is a higher chance of dialects emerging for the language. If, on the other hand, mobility is high, dialects tend to disappear. Bearing this in mind, it appears as if Oakland School District perceived its African American students as strangers in a foreign land who were supposed to learn English as a second language. It probably feared that the people of America are drifting further apart.

Another question that the Oakland School Board resolution raises is whether Ebonics and other English dialects are merely sloppy and incorrect speech. American schools, especially those located in northern parts of the country, have always treated AAVE as a type of language that requires remediation by special-education tutors or speech pathologists. However, linguists know that such non-standard dialects are legitimate and consistent language dialects. They have rules, exceptions and convections governing them, as is the case with standard English. As much as these dialects are not as prestigious as standard English, they influence the main language in a way that enriches it, keeps it vibrant and makes it evolve at all times. Also, people who speak a certain language can adapt it in a way that it fits with changing social climates. If these speakers are given enough exposure to new situations, they can easily switch between formal and non-formal dialects without having to be taught formally or undergo translation. Irrespective of which dialect a certain group of Americans speak, they will always be exposed to standard English through media such as radio and television. This means that there is no much difference between AAVE and standard English. Hence, it would not be wrong to argue that there is much more to blame for the lack of success in Oakland schools than just dialectical differences.

What the Oakland school district was trying to do also raised the issue of whether foreign-language techniques of teaching are effective when it comes to tutoring standard English to students who speak the language. While some teachers who use translation techniques claim that it helps raise the score of black English speakers in standardized examinations, others point out that these claims are not proven. Whats more, teaching English as a second language would appear misleading and alienating if it is done to students that are already familiar with it, assuming that black English is merely a dialect of the standard language.

In defense to the intense criticism of its resolution, the Oakland school board offered an explanation that it was merely getting its students to convert Ebonics to standard English. This was as opposed to teaching them both black and standard language. The explanation seemed to mollify critics since the strategy suggested looked like something acceptable that they could live with. However, second-language tutors do not depend on translation alone. Rather, they offer students a rich blend of explicit and immersion teaching. In addition to studying grammar and vocabulary, students also role play, engage in conversations, read magazines and newspapers, and watch films and television shows. Most importantly, they interact with fluent English speakers in real communication situations. Also, there is only one way in which students who converse in non-standard varieties of the language can become fluent in its more mainstream forms. This involves first doing away with social barriers and taking part in real, mainstream social contexts as equal partners.

Even when such a wide variety of methods are applied in teaching foreign languages, it does not mean that schools in the United States typically mold fluent speakers. Anyone who has learnt or taught a foreign language within a school setting can attest to the difficulty experienced in getting students to excellently learn a language in a classroom situation. For fluency to be achieved, it is not enough to merely translate from a certain language to another. It would also be a mistake to think the plan that the Oakland school board had for translating Ebonics to standard English could solve the writing and reading issues facing students in its schools.

Perhaps the biggest topic of reflection that resulted from the Oakland school boards resolution is whether Ebonics is something only associated with African Americans. For one, not all blacks speak Ebonics and not all black English speakers are African American. A substantial number of Hispanics, Asian Americans and even whites who interact closely with one another speak in dialects that can be classified as Ebonics. Linguists have carried out studies AAVE and figured out that it is not monolithic. Rather, the dialect comes in varieties and flavors, the same way as standard English. Also, mainstream English has a borrowed a lot from African Americans speech. This means that, in many ways, conceiving of all English dialects as continuous and variable is easier than thinking of them as separate and categorical. Additionally, the problems faced by black English speakers are also experienced by those that speak non-standard dialects too, irrespective of whether they live in rural America, in the suburbs or in the inner city.

The discord over black English is much more complex than the Oakland school boards resolution and initial public reaction indicate. The entire controversy highlights a number of issues concerning the workings of language and peoples attitudes towards how it is used, particularly in academic contexts. Some tutors assume that their students do not actually know anything and that they are actually waiting for teachers to impart th...

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