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Language & Culture 1

Julio Jimenez
African American Speakers and Standard English

African American Speakers and Standard English

The moment I arrived to teach in the United States, I found myself in a state of

culture and language shock. I realized that there were some Americans who use

a different form of English than the so-called Standard or mainstream English,

the English I had learned in my college years and the one I expected to use here

in America. According to Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams (2003) certain

population of Americans of African descent speak a dialect called African

American English (AAE) (p. 459). This dialect may serve as a means of ethnic

identification with the members of their own community. However, it is well

known that the language used in academic and many social institutions in the

United States is Standard American English (SAE) as this is “0 [The] dialect of

English that many Americans almost speak” (p. 455). Nevertheless, it seems that

some African American students resist using SAE even in the school

environment, which has led me to pose these questions: Should African

American English (AAE) speakers use Standard American English? Is it

important for them to acquire and use the language of the mainstream? This

paper aims to present some of the reasons AAE speakers do not use Standard

American English, and the reasons they should use it.

First, let’s refer to some reasons African American English speakers do not

use SAE. Some African American speakers who speak Standard English are

characterized as acting white, which could prevent these speakers from using

SAE freely. For this reason African Americans may want to maintain the use of
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Julio Jimenez
African American Speakers and Standard English

their vernacular language, especially among family, friends and closely related

people. Gail Thompson (2004), an African American author, shares the

experiences of her own children who were educated in private white schools.

When they decided to study in public schools, they were accused of acting white

by black children (p. 141). On the other hand, language is part of the identity of a

group of people and plays an important role in a culture. As Thompson (2004)

states, “My new theory is that African Americans refuse to speak Standard

English for self-preservation. It [Ebonics or AAE] ties them [African American

students] to family, community, their peers, and African American history”

(p.142). Nobody would like to be forced to lose his identity and change

characteristics that make part of the unity of a socio-cultural group, so “African

Americans having strong ties to their neighborhoods, and the social networks

there are more likely to use vernacular linguistic variants” (W. Edwards, 1992,

cited in Hecht et al. 1993, p.87).

Of course, the African American population is part of a conglomerate of other

cultures in the United States, and the vehicle of communication among these

cultures is the use of a language spoken by everyone: Standard American

English. Savannah Miller Young (1997) states that

African Americans have been for many years and are still today greatly

segregated in the American culture. Because of isolation, especially in

living patterns and schooling, and lack of cross cultural diversity most

African Americans speak Black English Dialect as their only language (p.

3).
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Julio Jimenez
African American Speakers and Standard English

Then, a way African American speakers can change this stigma of segregation is

to become skilled at the language that the big majority of the people in the United

States speak and to use it when interacting with individuals of the mainstream.

For this to happen, African American speakers and the people that are part of the

mainstream society need to understand and accept that “differences between

standard and nonstandard English are not as sharp as our first impressions

would lead us to think” (Labov, p.318); on the contrary, “0nonstandard English

dialects are not radically different systems from standard English but are instead

closely related to it” (p.320).

Secondly, if African Americans who speak a dialect want to succeed

academically, they need to be aware of the use of Standard English and apply

this knowledge to the educational parameters that schools require such as

writing compositions, making presentations, and so on. According to the

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the reports for 1992,

1994, 2000, and 2001 from the National Center for Education Statistics show that

the reading performance for African American students was, in general, below

the mean compared with the white counterparts; and while there are other factors

that can be considered in the results, “0factors centering around the speech and

language patterns of AAE speakers have been strongly suggested to be related

to their reading performance” (Green, 2002, p. 228). On the other hand, “the

inherent biases of standardized tests and their misuse have contributed to

inequality of educational opportunity, particularly for African American students”

(Gould, 1981, cited in Thompson, p. 14). These studies serve as examples of


Language & Culture 4
Julio Jimenez
African American Speakers and Standard English

how language could be influencing the results in African American students in the

schools, as standardized tests are written in SAE.

However, teachers play an important role in the success of their African

American students and their acquisition of SAE. According to Ladson-Billings

(2001, cited in Thompson), “The clash between school culture and home culture

becomes evident in judgments and labels that teachers place on students with

non-mainstream speech and styles of discourse, and through teachers’ use of

instructional practices and classroom management strategies that are at odds

with community norms” (p. 15). Teachers who have negative beliefs about the

students that do not use SAE would find it difficult to convince their black pupils

to use SAE. Furthermore, teachers could help African American English

students succeed if they have an awareness of the language this group speaks;

as Labov says, “0the vernacular must be understood because ignorance of it

leads to serious conflict between student and teacher” (p. 314). Dillard (1977)

expresses that “Knowledge of the Black English vernacular lexicon will not solve

ghetto educational problems, but those who do not know that lexicon will be

severely handicapped in their attempts to solve the problems” (p. 84).

On the other hand, African American English speakers should use standard

American English at their workplace and in general business. English has been

called “the lingua franca of the whole world” (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, 2003, p.

468); and as a lingua franca and because of the linguistic diversity in the United

States nowadays, African American English speakers need to understand that

Standard American English is the appropriate language to persuade people in


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African American Speakers and Standard English

the workplace and to employ when doing businesses. There could be occasions,

of course, in which African American English speakers deal with people who

share their vernacular, so they could feel free to use this dialect, but in most

circumstances they would have to adapt to the languages spoken by others.

Many famous African Americans speakers like Queen Latifah, Shaquille O’Neal,

Michael Jordan, M. Ali, Ray Charles, Oprah Winfrey have been successful

thanks to their ability to code-switch between the standard language and their

own dialects.

Accordingly, if African American English speakers realize the importance of

commanding standard American English, they will be “0more confident and [will

have] more control of our own lives and destiny0. As the world becomes more

global, more focused, and more competitive; we need more and better tools to

ensure our access in the marketplace” (Young, 1997, p. 89). African American

English speakers with a good command of Standard English will have opened

doors in the mainstream society. As Young (1997) declares, “African Americans

who speak Black English dialect need to speak proficient American English as

well. The language of the mainstream will enable them to meet the challenges in

the American workplace, in colleges and Universities, governmental and

corporate headquarters, and in the court rooms” (p. 17).

Research has established that the most successful Americans, including

African Americans, are those who can adapt and code-switch between their

dialect and the standard American English. In fact, some authors suggest that

African American English speakers who speak both the standard English and
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Julio Jimenez
African American Speakers and Standard English

their dialect are “the prototype for success” (Jenkins, 1982; Seymour & Seymour,

1979, cited in Hecht, Collier, and Ribeau, 1993, p. 67). Others insist that “African

American [English speakers] often feel the need to switch between their own

cultural language code and that of the more dominant European American

society” (p.85), but even though the speakers of this English dialect are aware of

this necessity, some do not feel comfortable when switching between their

vernacular and Standard American English (Marckwardt and Dillard, 1998, p.

290.)

As the different studies previously mentioned reveal, it seems that African

American English speakers who want to succeed in the United States may learn

and use standard American English. It is essential for their professional careers

and social interactions in a multicultural society, like the one the United States of

America deals with, where we find people from all over the world who must adapt

their language to the one shared by the majority that is, Standard American

English. But at the same time, they should preserve the use of their vernacular

language among the members of their communities, as it is part of their

identification and heritage as a big minority in the United States.


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Julio Jimenez
African American Speakers and Standard English

REFERENCES

Dillard, J.L. (1977). Lexicon of Black English. New York: The Seabury Press.

Fromkin. V, R. Rodman, N. Hyams. (2003). An Introduction to Language. Boston,

Massachusetts: Thompson Wadsworth.

Green, L. (2002). African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge,

UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hecht, M., Collier, MJ., Ribeau, S. (1993). African American Communication:

Ethnic Identity and Cultural Interpretation. Sage Publications.

Labov, W. (1998). The Study of Nonstandard English. In V. Clark, P. Eschholz,

A. Rosa (Eds.), Language: Readings in Language and Culture (pp. 313-

320). (6th ed.) Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Marckwardt, A.H. and J.L. Dillard. (1998). Social and Regional Variation. In V.

Clark, P. Eschholz, A. Rosa (Eds.), Language: Readings in Language

and Culture (pp. 277-291). (6th ed.) Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Romaine, S. (1994). Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics.

Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, G.L. (2004). Through Ebony Eyes: What Teachers Need to Know But

Are Afraid To Ask About African American Students. San Francisco:

Jossey - Bass.

Young, Savannah (1997). English: Savannah Miller Young. Miller-Young Co.