Amy Alkon’s commentary on Ebonics caught my eye. She responded to an article by Michael Hobbs called “Why America Needs Ebonics Now.” I find discussion on language fascinating–especially since moving to a new country and learning a new language.
Alkon says that teaching Ebonics in schools is “dooming Black children and pretending it’s progress.” Hobbs argues for more teaching in Ebonics. He worries about “the idea that Standard English must be constantly defended against marauders is an example of what linguists call ‘dominant language ideology,’ and even well-intentioned, otherwise open-minded people display it without noticing.” This, is a bad thing, as it makes teachers think children who speak African-American Vernacular English (AAVE or Ebonics) are unintelligent.
I come to this with a different viewpoint, after having lived for many years in a country where the native language and the official language are two different languages. Here are my two points. 1. Standard English must be taught and defended against marauders in the classroom. 2. Speaking AAVE has nothing to do with intelligence or potential. Here’s why.
The native language in the German-speaking part of Switzerland is Swiss German. Except saying that makes it sound like there is one Swiss German language. There is not. Each region has their own dialect, and differing dialects aren’t unique to Switzerland. The Germans and the Austrians have literally hundreds of different dialects. Where I live, the dialect is called Baseldeutsch (in high or standard German) or Baseldytsch (in dialect). Being that we live right on the French border, there are a lot of French influences in this language. When we greet people we don’t know on the street we say “Grüezi.” People we do know we greet with “salli!”
Contrast that to other areas of Switzerland where they may say “Grüess Gott, Grüessech, or Grüezi wohl.” Is one better than the other? Are people from Bern more intelligent than people from Basel? Are people who are raised in rural mountain areas and who have such a distinct dialect that my native Swiss friends can’t even understand them somehow less intelligent than people whose dialect is closer to standard German? It’s a ridiculous question.
But, the Swiss (and the Germans, and the Austrians) all recognized that if they want to be successful outside their villages they needed a common language. So, while very few Swiss speak high German (or standard German, or sometimes referred to as written German), at home, they all learn it at school. Textbooks, newspapers, romance novels, and legal documents are written in high German. This allows the person from the Berner Oberland and the person from Basel to understand what a person from Berlin says. It allows the school system to make one set of textbooks instead of spending millions of dollars to translate textbooks into every dialect. (And, incidentally, Swiss German doesn’t have a standard written form, so that makes it even more difficult.) It allows a family to move from one village to another and still conduct business.
Dialects and Creoles deserve respect. But, standard languages must be taught in schools if we want children to succeed outside their own villages–whether that be a Swiss mountain village, a few blocks of American inner city, or a town in Appalachia. Code-switching between languages (a term I realize is not accurate for every dialect and linguists debate over what is a language and what is not a language, but I’m using it as a catchall for dialects, creoles, and pidgins) is commonplace where I live. Someone will speak to me in Swiss German, I’ll answer back in high German, and they’ll recognize that I’m American and switch to English. (Okay, the Swiss are really, really, really good with language.) Actually, often now they’ll continue on in high German without missing a beat as my high German is acceptable.
So, while I agree with Hobbs that AAVE needs to be respected and especially that educators need to understand that it is a legitimate language, I also agree with Alkon that not requiring all children in the United States to learn standard English is dooming them to an insulated life without the possibility of greater success. The assumption needs to be that all children are capable of learning a standard language and that learning one does not mean anything negative about the language spoken at home.
In that regard, they need to take a page out of the Swiss playbook.