Swiss Saturday: Ebonics and Swiss German

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.

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14 thoughts on “Swiss Saturday: Ebonics and Swiss German

  1. Thanks for the interesting article. I’m actually flying out to Basel tomorrow on a work trip. I work at a local big company with a very tall building, and over the years I’ve been surprised to realize that the “Swiss” I’m working with are actually mostly Germans. The border location of Basel results in such a massive daily international commute from France and Germany. It just fascinates me. I guess this reinforces your point that a standard language is needed. I totally agree. And thankfully, my Swiss, German, and French colleagues speak good English, too.

    1. There’s a museum in France, about 30 minutes from Basel, that shows the border of France, Germany, and Switzerland. For each village along the border there is a button you can push to hear the local dialect. I find it fascinating.

      The borders changed so often that the languages around her really are a mixture of French and German.

      And yes, most people speak English as well. At least a little. And people that work in the very tall and very ugly building all have to speak English.

  2. You make a very valid point concerning standardized English teaching in school. It creates a common ground for communication and doesn’t downgrade local dialects. To the political correct viewpoint, teaching and requiring all to learn standardized English is an affront to their individual liberty. But by this article, you should how it limits growth of knowledge and acceptance.
    No one is asking for differences to disappear but we do need common ground to communicate and learn, hence learning standardized English.

    1. Swiss German is totally accepted. People who speak fluent high German still speak dialect at home. There’s absolutely nothing wrong about a dialect.

      But, you do need a standard language if you want to move down the block or read a book. That’s all there is to it.

      1. That is also a very difficult thing to teach in a such a way that the students aren’t feeling that the English they grew up speaking is inferior. I grew up with (and still speak) a nonstandard form of English. It’s very hard, though, to get the idea though to my students that, while this form of speaking and writing is different and will benefit them as they move forward in their professional careers, the language that they speak is NOT inferior…especially when they have heard stereotypes all their lives about where they grew up and how they speak,

        1. And this is a difficulty with dialects in the US. The culture says they are inferior, where here, the culture says otherwise.

  3. I think one of the main problems is that people kept objecting to courses designed to move children from AAVE at home and school to JUST at home. The idea of that bridge course was to quickly and successfully A: make sure kids are not falling behind on general coursework and B: make sure they come out of the other side of the education pipeline understanding and able to use what is considered standard English. The idea was not to continue to teach in AAVE.

    It’s the same thing done with Spanish speakers of whatever nationality learning in an ESL course. It’s not teaching down, it’s not dumbing down. It’s attempting to A: teach standard English, but at the same time not have the students fall behind on general studies like maths, history and sciences.

    The problem with instantly expecting someone who does not speak standard English to do so, means that you not only put them behind in reading English you also put them behind in every other subject while you teach them English. That’s a deficit most never make up.

    1. I’m not sure that has to be the case. In the Swiss schools, they speak Swiss German in Kindergarten, except for daily story time which is in high German. Starting in first grade, the teachers begin teaching high German and they aren’t supposed to ever speak Swiss German in the classroom.

      Immersion is an extremely effective way to teach a language.

      1. Yes, immersion is extremely effective, but it is also difficult to teach language and content at the same time. It requires a special skill set. NOt impossible, of course, as I’ve done it, but very difficult.

        1. There is also a difference between a 5 year old and a 15 year old. The Swiss do it with every child so obviously it can be done. They start to teach reading at the same time they begin teaching high German.

          And, of course, there are kids like mine who don’t come in speaking any German dialect. They receive extra help, but that help is in German. My son was not even aware that his kindergarten teacher could speak English.

  4. This is an interesting debate when seen through Australian eyes. Over 300 languages are spoken here, with around one-fifth of residents speaking a language other than English at home. Being a multicultural society, Australians schools provide English classes for students with different levels of English. Recent arrivals from a non-English speaking background study English as a Second Language and often attend intensive English Language Centres so they can attain a certain level of English in order to understand Standard English (the “Queen’s” English), the language of instruction. If you want to study maths or history at school or university, you need to be able to speak and write in Standard English. There is no expectation that everyone speaks English at home.

    In the case of young children, early childhood teachers encourage parents to speak their native language at home as this helps children develop their ability to undertake higher-level abstract thinking as concepts can be difficult for parents to communicate in a second language but this type of thinking is essential for children to develop.

    As an Australian English speaker, I am conscious of using Standard English with talking with friends from say China or Italy as they do not know our idioms or slang. I want to communicate with them, not exclude them from the conversation. Standard English is taught not to diminish another language but to ensure that we have a common language in which to understand each other. Being so close to Asia, it is also important to speak Standard English as that is how we communicate when travelling in Asia.

    Many recent immigrants speak their native – non-English – language if they are in groups in public places. I am used to hearing Mandarin, Cantonese and Indian sub-continent languages spoken between friends travelling on the train. However, once they are joined by speakers of other languages – English, Korean, Thai, you name it – they switch to English. So generally speaking – like anywhere, we do have bigots here – we really don’t worry too much about who speaks what where here – as long as we can speak a common language so anyone involved can communicate.

  5. As a Midwestern boy and Air Force brat, I have the ‘Swiss neutrality’ of language, just like “the man on the six o’clock news”. However I love dialects. I remember reading a guidebook to Switzerland which described one thick Germanic Swiss brogue as ‘not so much a dialect as a throat disease’!!

  6. Must be a slow news day. Ebonics, AKA AAVE, is taught almost nowhere in the United States. Where it really needs to be taught is in teachers’ colleges and other training for professional educators. Pretty much everyone — including the vast majority of those who speak AAVE at home — also recognizes that there is such a thing as so-called “proper” English necessary for communicating with those who are not fluent in AAVE, including teachers, prospective employers, etc. Teachers need familiarity with Ebonics so that they can effectively communicate with their students and so that they do not fall into the trap of erroneously — and harmfully — regarding AAVE as somehow inferior or illegitimate. Language is heavily-enmeshed with our individual cultures and senses of self-worth. African-Americans are already burdened with continuing racial discrimination. As a group, they are highly-facile and creative in their use of language. In fact, many terms originating in the African-American community end up culturally-appropriated and migrate to the dominate culture. The last thing African-Americans need is to be further burdened by the prejudice of those who somehow look down on Ebonics.

  7. A serious problem arises when an AAVE speaker attempts to render his or her thoughts into standard English for a resume, a collegiate term paper, a professional work assignment. I’d wager that most attempts would fall short of the requirement.

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