Oakland Ebonics controversy

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On December 18, 1996, the Oakland, California school board passed a controversial resolution recognizing the legitimacy of "Ebonics"—what mainstream linguists more commonly term African-American Vernacular English— (AAVE) as a language. The resolution set off a firestorm of media criticism and ignited a hotly discussed national debate.

For students whose primary dialect was "Ebonics", the Oakland resolution mandated some instruction in that dialect, both for "maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language... and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills." This also included the proposed increase of salaries of those proficient in both "Ebonics" and Standard English to the level of those teaching limited English proficiency (LEP) students and the use of public funding to help teachers learn AAVE themselves.[1]

Popular response[edit]

Some interpretations of the controversial issues in the resolution include the idea that "Ebonics" (African-American Vernacular English) is a separate language; that Ebonics is an African language; that African Americans are biologically predisposed toward a particular language through heredity; that speakers of Ebonics should qualify for federally funded programs traditionally restricted to bilingual populations; and that students would be taught Ebonics.[2] The Rev. Jesse Jackson condemned the resolution, saying "I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender, borderlining on disgrace." His comments were seconded by former Secretary of Education William Bennett, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, and Senator Joe Lieberman.[3] Jackson would later reverse his position, attributing his initial opposition to a misunderstanding of the school district's proposal. He said, "They're not trying to teach Black English as a standard language. They're looking for tools to teach children standard English so they might be competitive."[4]

Amended resolution[edit]

The original resolution caused a great deal of consternation and anger, which fueled the controversy. On January 15 1997, Oakland's school board passed an amended resolution. The original resolution used the phrase "genetically based" which was commonly understood to mean that African Americans have a biological predisposition to a particular language, while the authors of the resolution insisted that it was referring to genetic in the linguistic sense. This phrase was removed in the amended resolution and replaced with the statement that African-American language systems "have origins in West and Niger-Congo languages and are not merely dialects of English."[5]

Linguists' response[edit]

Some linguists and associated organizations issued statements in support of recognizing the legitimacy of African-American Vernacular English as a language system.

The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African-American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as 'slang,' 'mutant,' 'lazy,' 'defective,' 'ungrammatical,' or 'broken English' are incorrect and demeaning…There is evidence from Sweden, the U.S., and other countries that speakers of other varieties can be aided in their learning of the standard variety by pedagogical approaches which recognize the legitimacy of the other varieties of a language. 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."[6]
—the Linguistic Society of America

Research and experience have shown that children learn best if teachers respect the home language and use it as a bridge in teaching the language of the school and wider society.
—from Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)[7]

Walt Wolfram, a linguist at North Carolina State University, wrote that this controversy exposed the intensity of people's beliefs and opinions about language and language diversity, the persistent and widespread level of public misinformation about the issues of language variation and education, and the need for informed knowledge about language diversity and its role in education and in public life.[8]

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