Chapter 5: African American English and the communities it influences
English 102, October 2019
When meeting someone for the first time, what is one of the first things that someone may notice? Do they notice the clean, crisp press of a V-neck shirt? Do people notice the white, dry, dusty flakes that coat a person’s dark shirt in a thin blanket of white dandruff? Or do they listen with a strained ear to the diction, pronunciation, or grammar of a person’s dialect? Dialect is one of the first things that people notice because it may give someone key insight into things as simple as what a person holds in high regard. Language paves a path of how we as people, perceive others. The way in which someone addresses someone is an insight into that person’s character. And the way that a person talks gives a person a few ideas about what type of environment that person grew up in. It is the initial environment, that paves a path of what James Gee explains as a discourse.
James Gee’s, who is a Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy at Arizona State University, wrote an article entitled “What is Literacy?”; in which he explains what literacy is by employing his knowledge of linguistics. To describe what literacy is, he explains what a discourse is, and what a primary and secondary discourse is. He states that in general, when referring to discourses, he is saying that a discourse is a “socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group” (Gee 51). Discourses aid members in certain groups, in finding others that may be a part of their group simply by the way in which they may speak or act. This would be what Gee calls a Primary discourse, which are mannerisms and speech that originate from the home. It is the things that people learn from observation, from when they were children. Secondary discourses are learned outside of one’s group that may better fit social standards. So, regarding literacy, discourses, especially those found in English such as African American English, can be employed to help people from different social groups understand different forms of dialect, and ultimately, how to establish a universal understanding of the secondary discourse, that is mainly taught in schools, Standard English.
Before understanding how primary and secondary discourses apply to African American English, it is important to understand what African American English is. As described by John Rickford in the article “What is Ebonics (African American English)?”, Ebonics is a blend of phonics that is primarily spoken by African Americans. Its’ origins found primarily from “the nonstandard dialects of English indentured servants and other workers with whom African slaves interacted” (Rickard). With its root embedded deep within a group, it poses the question how educators should, who encounter Ebonics speaking youth, teach a secondary discourse when their primary discourse is heavily embedded within their speech.
The article found in the Journal of Negro Education Vol. 67, no. 1 entitled, “Ebonics and Academic Achievement: The Role of the Counselor”, written by Frederick Harper, et al., addresses different aspects that counselors or educators need to think about when dealing with a student, whose primary discourse, is Ebonics. As well as understanding what educators could do to help Ebonics’ speaking students understand how to take their primary discourse of language, and apply that knowledge towards a standard English, to better grasp the concept. To achieve this task, educators need to be able to grasp a few key, yet basic, concepts of Ebonics in order to effectively teach standard English. These concepts include but are not limited to: rules and idiosyncrasies; facts and misconceptions; and the role of the counselor (Harper et. Al. 26-29). Without having somewhat of a grasp on these concepts, educators and counselors may come off as seeming disinterested or in worse cases, disrespectful.
Regarding rules and idiosyncrasies, Harper et al., starts off by stating that “Ebonics is a dialect or language system with its own distinct rules” (26). Meaning that Ebonics does not follow the laws of grammar and pronunciation that the rules found in standard English established. Ebonics disregards common grammar rules such as tenses and pronouns, and instead, has its own set of rules. These things include dropping final consonant sounds, substituting verbs such as “be” for “is”, or using double negatives (27). So, instead of saying “She doesn’t have any money”, an Ebonics speaker may say “She don’t got no money”, which strongly emphasizes the point that the speaker is trying to make. With the assistance of counselors, educators can take their basic understanding to effectively aid young Ebonics students, in the understanding of standard English.
Counselors play an important role for Ebonics’ students and educators. How do counselors go about doing this? Harper et al states that the goal of the counselor, especially for African American youth, is to act as a consultant with educators to “increase and improve students’ use of Standard English without depreciating their culturally based dialect” as well as “improve the teacher-student relationship in the language learning process” (29). The counselor acts as a bridge for students and educators. Counselors assist each group in figuring out and understanding the needs of each other, so that they may both be able to succeed. Counselors can perform the task by being familiar with standard Ebonics, and different teaching styles that can be implemented by educators to more effectively help the student. Counselors can provide creative tools and exercises that educators can utilize when they are unsure of how to teach standard English in a way that is both educational and exciting. But in order to find creative tools of teaching, counselors and educators must be able to understand how Ebonics’ speaking youth transition between their primary and secondary discourses.
Understanding how standard English and African American English effects students is an important aspect that Brennan highlights from Washington’s observations of what she calls “code-switching”. The “code-switch” that Washington notices is the result of the students switching from their primary discourse to their secondary discourse. This observation assisted Washington in the understanding of how African American youth, who primarily speak in Ebonics, could go about understanding standard English. If all it takes is for them to understand when it is appropriate for which discourse to be prevalent, then these students can have a better grasp on standard English.
The authors’ goal, in each article, is to inform current and future educators of the importance of respecting the language of African American English. That although this English is not the standard English that they have become accustomed to, none-the-less, it is still English. Each author wants educators to keep in mind the history behind Ebonics. Although it is not typically “grammatically correct”, it still has its own set of rules. If schools are going to start implementing a program to help these young people understand standard English, they need to do it with care. The teachings of standard English to these youth should not in any way demean them. Instead it should highlight their differences, while also highlighting the differences founding standard English, in a way that would teach them properly. Ebonics is more than just “improper” speech, it is a way in which a group, in certain communities, communicate with each other.
Ebonics highlights the importance of language. It shows that language is always changing and that it is not the same in every single place. Certain groups from certain communities may have accents. That the difference in dialect does not correlate with how well they can read, write or speak. Ebonics shows that literacy means more than just effectively reading, writing and speaking in a typically proper way. Take the four-year-old little girl that Washington encountered (Brennan). She never had any formal training on the ins and outs of literacy, yet she was able to listen, encode, and recount the story in a way that she understands. At the end of the day, that is all that literacy is. Despite differences in dialect or education, literacy means a few things. In regards towards reading literacy, it means having the ability to extract important information from a reading, and relay it in an effective, and clear manner. For writing literacy, it is the ability to take thoughts and ideals, and convey it in a way that is interesting and thought inducing. Lastly, communication literacy is the ability to have a conversation across groups with little to no, misconceptions. Each author wants their audiences to understand that Ebonics, and any other dialect of English that may arise, is important and great care should be taken if by chance, schools have programs for the teaching of standard English.
So, what is the first thing that a person notices when they encounter someone for the first time? Is the relaxed nature of their posture? The slight raising of their eyebrows when they get sucked into a topic that they are discussing? Or is it the sly way in which they change their dialect, depending on the group of people they are talking too? It may be one of these things, or maybe even all of these things. At the end of the day, communication, whether imploring the use of Ebonics or Standard English, is all the same.
Brennan, William. “Julie Washington’s Quest to Get Schools to Respect African-American English.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 12 Mar. 2018, Bren
Gee, James Paul. “What is literacy.” Negotiating academic literacies: Teaching and learning across languages and cultures (1998): 51-59.
Harper, Frederick D., et al. “Ebonics and Academic Achievement: The Role of the Counselor.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 67, no. 1, 1998, pp. 25–34. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2668237.
Rickford, John R. “What Is Ebonics (African American English)? .” Linguistic Society of America, 2019, https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/what-ebonics-african-american-english.