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Ebonics Essay, Research Paper


What is Ebonics? Is it a language or not? Should it be used as a tool to teach Ebonic speaking students “standard” English or not? These issues recently came under fire when an Oakland, California school board unanimously voted that Ebonics, which is also referred to as black English, is a language with clearly evident African American roots. They concluded that any student who speaks Ebonics should be given the necessary help to master standard English (Harris 25). This controversy was sparked when the problem of low standard achievement of black youth in schools was being discussed. Because of this problem, the Oakland school board made the incorrect assessment that Ebonics is a language which it is not, while at the same time, trying to reach out to these students they actually hold them back, and they also fail to recognize that the responsibility of answering this problem lies squarely on the educator’s shoulders.

First of all, the problem is basically to improve low achievement levels of African-American students. In Oakland, for instance, 53 percent of the students are black. These students only earned a combined grade point average of 1.8 on a 4.0 scale. While only 37 percent are honors students, and about 71 out of 100 special education students are African-American. Also, 80 percent of the students who are suspended are blacks (Haynes 5).

This problem led the Oakland school board to unanimously vote that Ebonics is a language which it is not, it is a dialect. Random House defines Ebonics as “a variety of a language distinguished from other varieties by features of phonology, grammar and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers set off from others geographically or socially” (Qtd. in Kilpatrick 22). In Random House’s definition, Ebonics is not a separate language, but a slightly different form of another language which is English. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley representing the Clinton Administration said that the administration also agrees that Ebonics is not a separate language, but a nonstandard variety of English (Qtd in Harris 25). Ebonics is vastly different from a real foreign language such as Japanese, Italian, or Russian. Japanese, for example, has a completely different alphabet, sentence structure, words, and sounds than English; while Ebonics basically uses the same alphabet, words and sounds as English. The only difference between Ebonics and English is that some pronunciations of words, spelling, and grammar are slightly different. Ebonics is a dialect. People from all over the United States speak the same language, English, but different dialects, compare the New Yorkan to the Chicagoan, or compare Southerners way of speaking to Bostonians. Ultimately, Ebonics speaking individuals can understand English speaking individuals and vice versa. In the United States, many people of different ethnic groups have a language or dialect spoken at home which was passed down through the generations (Leo 20). Ebonics is one of these dialects. If it were too be taught in the classroom, then the many other dialects have just as much right to be taught too. So just teaching Ebonics would be culturally unfair.

The teaching of Ebonics which was intended to reach out to black students, actually holds black youth back. Jesse Jackson said that institutionalization of Ebonics “is an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace It’s teaching down to our children and it must never happen” (Qtd. in Harris 25). Delaine Eastin, California superintendent of public instruction, supports the latter of Jesse Jackson’s statement by saying that achieving student comfort by teachers making mistakes in grammar is inappropriate (Qtd in Haynes 6). Talking down to the student is disrespectful in a mocking way whether it is unintentional or not. Jesse Jackson also said that others who have perfected standard English will have the competitive edge over Ebonic speaking black students (Qtd in Harris 25). In the real world, companies will preferably hire individuals who have mastered the standard language of society. For example, two applicants are equally qualified for a specific job, but one speaks perfect English, while the other speaks Ebonics or any other form of nonstandard English. Who will get the job? The answer is simple. The applicant who speaks perfect English will be hired because the person’s means of communication is much more valued and effective in American society.

A way to correct this problem is to look towards the educators to treat each and every student as one who has the ability to succeed and to use Ebonics, if needed, just as a teaching tool to help instruct the student in standard English. According to Ellis Cose, author of Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World, “the key to teaching black children is not in convincing them that they speak a foreign language, but that they are capable of mastering any material put in front of them” (Qtd. in Leo 20). First, the teacher must realize that a student’s dialect does not suggest anything profound about his or her intellect, and also given the proper motivation, anyone has the ability to alter or add to a dialect without a considerable amount of effort. Teachers need to provide structured classroom experiences in which standard forms of English can be practiced and learned (Quisenberry 96). If Ebonics can be used effectively in helping a child learn standard English easier and faster then it should be used. But, if Ebonics only hinders the process of learning standard English, then it should be put aside and more effective means should be applied.

The question of what to do with Ebonics will never be completely answered to everyone’s liking. The Oakland, California school board tried to answer it and it failed. The board tried to turn Ebonics, which is a dialect, into a foreign language which it is not. Also, instead of reaching out to the black youth, it held them back. The board failed to recognize that it is the responsibility of the educators to reach out to these children through any means necessary. If it is through Ebonics, then use it as a tool, if it is not, then put it back in the toolbox.

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