n the past decade, a great deal of federally sponsored research has been
devoted to the educational problems of children in ghetto schools. To account
for the poor performance of children in these schools, educational
psychologists have tried to discover what kind of disadvantage or defect the
children are suffering from. The viewpoint which has been widely accepted and
used as the basis for large-scale intervention programs is that the children
show a cultural deficit as a result of an impoverished environment in their
early years. A great deal of attention has been given to language. In this
area, the deficit theory appears as the notion of "verbal deprivation": black
children from the ghetto area are said to receive little verbal stimulation, to
hear very little well-formed language, and as a result are impoverished in
their means of verbal expression. It is said that they cannot speak complete
sentences, do not know the names of common objects, cannot form concepts or
convey logical thoughts.
Unfortunately, these notions are based upon the work of educational
psychologists who know very little about language and even less about black
children. The concept of verbal deprivation has no basis in social reality; in
fact, black children in the urban ghettos receive a great deal of verbal
stimulation, hear more well-formed sentences than middle-class children, and
participate fully in a highly verbal culture; they have the same basic
vocabulary, possess the same capacity for conceptual learning, and use the same
logic as anyone else who learns to speak and understand English. The myth of
verbal deprivation is particularly dangerous because it diverts the attention
from real defects of our educational system to imaginary defects of the child;
and as we shall see, it leads its sponsors inevitably to the hypothesis of the
genetic inferiority of black children, which the verbal-deprivation theory was
designed to avoid.
The deficit theory attempts to account for a number of facts that are known to
all of us: that black children in the central urban ghettos do badly on all
school subjects, including arithmetic and reading. In reading, they average
more than two years behind the national norm. Furthermore, this lag is
cumulative, so that they do worse comparatively in the fifth grade than in the
first grade. The information available suggests that this bad performance is
correlated most closely with socioeconomic status. Segregated ethnic groups,
however, seem to do worse than others: in particular, Indian, Mexican-American,
and black children.
We are obviously dealing with the effects of the caste system of American
society--essentially a "color-marking" system. Everyone recognizes this. The
question is, By what mechanism does the color bar prevent children from
learning to read? One answer is the notion of "cultural deprivation" put
forward by Martin Deutsch and others: the black children are said to lack the
favorable factors in their home environment which enable middle-class children
to do well in school. These factors involve the development, through verbal
interaction with adults, of various cognitive skills, including the ability to
reason abstractly, to speak fluently, and to focus upon long-range goals. In
their publications, the psychologists Deutsch, Irvin Katz, and Arthur Jensen
also recognize broader social factors. However, the deficit theory does not
focus upon the interaction of the black child with white society so much as on
his failure to interact with his mother at home. In the literature we find very
little direct observation of verbal interaction in the black home: most
typically, the investigators ask the child if he has dinner with his parents,
and if he engages in dinner-table conversation with them. He is also asked
whether his family takes him on trips to museums and other cultural activities.
This slender thread of evidence is used to explain and interpret the large body
of tests carried out in the laboratory and in the school.
The most extreme view which proceeds from this orientation--and one that is now
being widely accepted--is that lower-class black children have no language at
all. Some educational psychologists first draw from the writings of the British
social psychologist Basil Bernstein the idea that "much of lower-class language
consists of a kind of incidental 'emotional accompaniment' to action here and
now." Bernstein's views are filtered through a strong bias against all forms of
working-class behavior, so that he sees middle-class language as superior in
every respect--as "more abstract, and necessarily somewhat more flexible,
detailed and subtle." One can proceed through a range of such views until one
comes to the practical program of Carl Bereiter, Siegfried Engelmann, and their
associates. Bereiter's program for an academically oriented preschool is based
upon the premise that black children must have a language which they can learn,
and their empirical findings that these children come to school without such a
language. In his work with four-year-old black children from Urbana, Illinois,
Bereiter reports that their communication was by gestures, "single words," and
"a series of badly connected words or phrases," such as They mine and Me got
juice. He reports that black children could not ask questions, that "without
exaggerating...these four-year-olds could make no statements of any kind."
Furthermore, when these children were asked, "Where is the book?" they did not
know enough to look at the table where the book was lying in order to answer.
Thus Bereiter concludes that the children's speech forms are nothing more than
a series of emotional cries. and he decides to treat them "as if the children
had no language at all." He identifies their speech with his interpretation of
Bernstein's restricted code: "The language of culturally deprived children...is
not merely an underdeveloped version of standard English, but is a basically
non-logical mode of expressive behavior." The basic program of his preschool is
to teach them a new language devised by Engelmann, which consists of a limited
series of questions and answers such as Where is the squirrel? / The squirrel
is in the tree. The children will not be punished if they use their vernacular
speech on the playground, but they will not be allowed to use it in the
schoolroom. If they should answer the question "Where is the squirrel?" with
the illogical vernacular form "In the tree," they will be reprehended by
various means and made to say, "The squirrel is in the tree."
Linguists and psycholinguists who have worked with black children are likely to
dismiss this view of their language as utter nonsense. Yet there is no reason
to reject Bereiter's observations as spurious: they were certainly not made up.
On the contrary they give us a very clear view of the behavior of student and
teacher which can be duplicated in any classroom. Our own research is done
outside the schools, in situations where adults are not the dominant force, but
on many occasions we have been asked to help analyze the results of research
into verbal deprivation in such test situations.
Here, for example. is a complete interview with a black boy, one of hundreds
carried out in a New York City school. The boy enters a room where there is a
large, friendly white interviewer, who puts on the table in front of him a
block or a fire engine, and says, "Tell me everything you can about this!" (The
interviewer's further remarks are in parentheses.)
[12 seconds of silence]
(What would you say it looks like?)
[8 seconds of silence]
[13 seconds of silence]
Like a je-et.
[12 seconds of silence]
Like a plane.
[20 seconds of silence]
(What color is it?)
Orange. [2 seconds} An' whi-ite. [2 seconds]
[6 seconds of silence]
(An' what could you use it for?)
[8 seconds of silence]
[6 seconds of silence]
(If you had two of them, what would you do with them?)
[6 seconds of silence]
Give one to some-body.
(Hmmm. Who do you think would like to have it?)
[10 seconds of silence]
(Mm. Where do you think we could get another one of these?)
At the store.
We have here the same kind of defensive, monosyllabic behavior which is
reported in Bereiter's work. What is the situation that produces it? The child
is in an asymmetrical situation where anything he says can, literally, be held
against him. He has learned a number of devices to avoid saying anything in
this situation, and he works very hard to achieve this end.
If one takes this interview as a measure of the verbal capacity of the child,
it must be as his capacity to defend himself in a hostile and threatening
situation. But unfortunately, thousands of such interviews are used as evidence
of the child's total verbal capacity, or more simply his verbality: it is
argued that this lack of "verbality" explains his poor performance in school.
The verbal behavior which is shown by the child in the test situation quoted
above is not the result of ineptness of the interviewer. It is rather the
result of regular sociolinguistic factors operating upon adult and child in
this asymmetrical situation. In our work in urban ghetto areas, we have often
encountered such behavior. For over a year Clarence Robins had worked with the
Thunderbirds, a group of boys ten to twelve years old who were the dominant
preadolescent group in a low-income project in Harlem. We then decided to
interview a few younger brothers of the Thunderbirds, eight to nine years old.
But our old approach didn't work. Here is an extract from the interview between
Clarence and eight-year-old Leon L.:
CR: What if you saw somebody kickin' somebody else on the ground, or was using
a stick, what would you do if you saw that?
CR: If it was supposed to be a fair fight--
LEON: I don' know.
CR: You don' know? Would you do anything?...huh? I can't hear you.
CR: Did you ever see somebody get beat up real bad?
LEON: ...Nope ???
CR: Well--uh did you ever get into a fight with a guy?
CR: That was bigger than you?
CR: You never been in a fight?
CR: Nobody ever pick on you?
CR: Nobody ever hit you?
CR: How come?
LEON: Ah 'on' know.
CR: Didn't you ever hit somebody?
CR: [incredulous] You never hit nobody?
CR: Aww, ba-a-a-be, you ain't gonna tell me that.
This nonverbal behavior occurs in a relatively favorable context for
adult-child interaction, since the adult is a black man raised in Harlem, who
knows this particular neighborhood and these boys very well. He is a skilled
interviewer who has obtained a very high level of verbal response with
techniques developed for a different age level, and has an extraordinary
advantage over most teachers or experimenters in these respects. But even his
skills and personality are ineffective in breaking down the social constraints
that prevail here.
When we reviewed the record of this interview with Leon. we decided to use it
as a test of our own knowledge of the sociolinguistic factors which control
speech. We made the following changes in the social situation; in the next
interview with Leon, Clarence:
1. Brought along a supply of potato chips, changing the "interview" into
something more in the nature of a party.
2. Brought along Leon's best friend, eight-year-old Gregory.
3. Reduced the height imbalance. When Clarence got down on the floor of
Leon's room, he dropped from 6 feet, 2 inches to 3 feet, 6 inches.
4. Introduced taboo words and taboo topics, and proved to Leon's surprise
that one can say anything into our microphone without any fear of retaliation.
It did not hit or bite back. The result of these changes is a striking
difference in the volume and style of speech.
[The tape is punctuated throughout by the sound
of potato chips. ]
CR: Is there anybody who says. "Your momma drink pee"?
LEON: [rapidly and breathlessly] Yee-ah!
LEON: And your father eat doo-doo for breakfas'!
CR: Ohhh! [laughs]
LEON: And they say your father--your father eat doo-doo for dinner!
GREG: When they sound on me, I say "C.B.M."
CR: What that mean?
LEON: Congo booger-snatch! [laughs]
GREG: Congo booger-snatcher! [laughs]
GREG: And sometimes I'll curse with "B.B."
CR: What that?
GREG: Oh, that's a "M.B.B." Black boy. [Leon crunching on potato chips]
GREG: 'Merican Black Boy.
GREG: Anyway, 'Mericans is same like white people, right?
LEON: And they talk about Allah.
CR: Oh, yeah?
CR: What they say about Allah?
LEON: Allah--Allah is God.
CR: And what else?
LEON: I don' know the res'.
GREG Allah i--Allah is God, Allah is the only God, Allah--
LEON: Allah is the son of God.
GREG But can he make magic?
GREG: I know who can make magic?
CR: Who can?
LEON: The God, the real one.
CR: Who can make magic?
GREG The son of po'--(CR: Hm?) I'm sayin' the po'k chop God! He only a po'k
chop God! [Leon chuckles]
The "nonverbal" Leon is now competing actively for the floor; Gregory and Leon
talk to each other as much as they do to the interviewer. The monosyllabic
speaker who had nothing to say about anything and could not remember what he
did yesterday has disappeared. Instead, we have two boys who have so much to
say that they keep interrupting each other, who seem to have no difficulty in
using the English language to express themselves.
One can now transfer this demonstration of the sociolinguistic control of
speech to other test situations, including IQ and reading tests in school. It
should be immediately apparent that none of the standard tests will come
anywhere near measuring Leon's verbal capacity. On these tests he will show up
as very much the monosyllabic, inept, ignorant, bumbling child of our first
interview. The teacher has far less ability than Clarence Robins to elicit
speech from this child; Clarence knows the community, the things that Leon has
been doing, and the things that Leon would like to talk about. But the power
relationships in a one-to-one confrontation between adult and child are too
asymmetrical. This does not mean that some black children will not talk a great
deal when alone with an adult, or that an adult cannot get close to any child.
It means that the social situation is the most powerful determinant of verbal
behavior and that an adult must enter into the right social relation with a
child if he wants to find out what a child can do. This is just what many
teachers cannot do.
The view of the black speech community which we obtain from our work in the
ghetto areas is precisely the opposite from that reported by Deutsch,
Engelmann. and Bereiter. We see a child bathed in verbal stimulation from
morning to night. We see many speech events which depend upon the competitive
exhibitions of verbal skills: singing, sounding, toasts, rifting, Iouding--a
whole range of activities in which the individual gains status through his use
of language. We see the younger child trying to acquire these skills from older
children--hanging around on the outskirts of the older peer groups, and
imitating this behavior. We see, however, no connection between verbal skill at
the speech events characteristic of the street culture and success in the
schoolroom; which says something about classrooms rather than about a child's
There are undoubtedly many verbal skills which children from ghetto areas must
learn in order to do well in school, and some of these are indeed
characteristic of middle-class verbal behavior. Precision in spelling, practice
in handling abstract symbols, the ability to state explicitly the meaning of
words, and a richer knowledge of the Latinate vocabulary may all be useful
acquisitions. But is it true that all of the middle-class verbal habits are
functional and desirable in school? Before we impose middle-class verbal style
upon children from other cultural groups, we should find out how much of it is
useful for the main work of analyzing and generalizing, and how much is merely
stylistic--or even dysfunctional. In high school and college, middle-class
children spontaneously complicate their syntax to the point that instructors
despair of getting them to make their language simpler and clearer.
Our work in the speech community makes it painfully obvious that in many ways
working-class speakers are more effective narrators, reasoners, and debaters
than many middle-class speakers, who temporize, qualify, and lose their
argument in a mass of irrelevant detail. Many academic writers try to rid
themselves of the part of middle-class style that is empty pretension, and keep
the part necessary for precision. But the average middle-class speaker that we
encounter makes no such effort; he is enmeshed in verbiage, the victim of
sociolinguistic factors beyond his control.
I will not attempt to support this argument here with systematic quantitative
evidence, although it is possible to develop measures which show how far
middle-class speakers can wander from the point. I would like to contrast two
speakers dealing with roughly the same topic: matters of belief. The first is
Larry H., a fifteen-year-old core member of another group, the Jets. Larry is
being interviewed here by John Lewis, our participant-observer among
adolescents in South Central Harlem.
JL: What happens to you after you die? Do you know?
LARRY H: Yeah, I know. (What?) After they put you in the ground, your body
turns into--ah--bones, an' shit.
JL: What happens to your spirit?
LARRY: Your spirit--soon as you die, your spirit leaves you. (And where does
the spirit go?) Well, it all depends. (On what?) You know, like some people say
if you re good an' shit, your spirit goin' t'heaven...'n' if you bad, your
spirit goin' to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin' to hell anyway, good or
LARRY: Why? I'll tell you why. Cause. you see, doesn' nobody really know that
it's a God, y'know. 'cause, I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white
gods, all color gods. and don t nobody know it's really a God. An' when they be
sayin' if you good, you goin' t'heaven, thas bullshit. 'cause you ain't goin'
to no heaven, 'cause it ain't no heaven for you to go to.
Larry is a gifted speaker of the Black English vernacular (BEV) as opposed to
standard English (SE). His grammar shows a high concentration of such
characteristic BEV forms as negative inversion [don't nobody know], negative
concord you ain't goin' to no heaven], invariant be [when they be sayin ],
dummy it for SE there [it ain't no heaven], optional copula deletion [if you're
good...if you bad], and full forms of auxiliaries [I have seen]. The only SE
influence in this passage is the one case of doesn't instead of the invariant
don't of BEV. Larry also provides a paradigmatic example of the rhetorical
style of BEV: he can sum up a complex argument in a few words, and the full
force of his opinions comes through without qualification or reservation. He is
eminently quotable, and his interviews give us a great many concise statements
of the BEV point of view. One can almost say that Larry speaks the BEV
It is the logical form of this passage which is of particular interest here.
Larry presents a complex set of interdependent propositions which can be
explicated by setting out the SE equivalents in linear order. The basic
argument is to deny the twin propositions:
(A) If you are good, (B) then your spirit
will go to heaven.
(not A) If you are bad. (C) then your spirit will go
Larry denies (B), and allows that if (A) or (not A) is true, (C) will follow.
His argument may be outlined:
(1) Everyone has a different idea of what God is like.
(2) Therefore nobody really knows that God exists.
(3) If there is a heaven. it was made by God.
(4) If God doesn't exist, he couldn t have made heaven.
(5) Therefore heaven does not exist.
(6) You can't go somewhere that doesn't exist.
(not B) Therefore you can't go to heaven.
(C) Therefore you are going to hell.
This hypothetical argument is not carried on at a high level of seriousness. It
is a game played with ideas as counters, in which opponents use a wide variety
of verbal devices to win. There is no personal commitment to any of these
propositions, and no reluctance to strengthen one's argument by bending the
rules of logic as in the (2, 4) sequence. But if the opponent invokes the rules
of logic, they hold. In John Lewis' interviews, he often makes this move, and
the force of his argument is always acknowledged and countered within the rules
JL: Well, if there's no heaven, how could there be a hell?
LARRY: I mean--ye-eah. Well, let me tell you, it ain't no hell, 'cause this is
hell right here, y'know! (This is hell?) Yeah, this is hell right here!
Larry's answer is quick, ingenious, and decisive. The application of the
(3-4-5) argument to hell is denied, since hell is here, and therefore
conclusion (not B) stands. These are not ready-made or preconceived opinions,
but new propositions devised to win the logical argument in the game being
played. The reader will note the speed and precision of Larry's mental
operations. He does not wander, or insert meaningless verbiage. It is often
said that the nonstandard vernacular is not suited for. dealing with abstract
or hypothetical questions, but in fact, speakers of the BE vernacular take
great delight in exercising their wit and logic on the most improbable and
problematical matters. Despite the fact that Larry H. does not believe in God,
and has just denied all knowledge of him, John Lewis advances the following
JL: But, just say that there is a God, what color is he? White or black?
LARRY: Well, if it is a God...I wouldn' know what color, I couldn' say--couldn'
nobody say what--
JL: But now, jus' suppose there was a God--
LARRY: Unless'n they say...
JL: No, I was jus' sayin' jus' suppose there is a God, would he be white or
LARRY: He'd be white, man.
LARRY: Why? I'll tell you why. 'Cause the average whitey out here got
everything, you dig? And the nigger ain't got shit, y'know? Y'unnerstan'?
So--um--for--in order for that to happen, you know it ain't no black God that's
doin' that bullshit.
No one can hear Larry's answer to this question without being convinced of
being in the presence of a skilled speaker with great "verbal presence of
mind," who can use the English language expertly for many purposes.
Let us now turn to the second speaker, an upper middle-class, college-educated
black man being interviewed by Clarence Robins in our survey of adults in South
CR: Do you know of anything that someone can do, to have someone who has passed
on visit him in a dream?
CHAS M.: Well, I even heard my parents say that there is such a thing as
something in dreams, some things like that, and sometimes dreams do come true.
I have personally never had a dream come true. I've never dreamt that somebody
was dying and they actually died (Mhm), or that I was going to have ten dollars
the next day and somehow I got ten dollars in my pocket. (Mhm.) I don't
particularly believe in that, I don't think it's true. I do feel, though, that
there is such a thing as--ah--witchcraft. I do feel that in certain cultures
there is such a thing as witchcraft, or some sort of science of witchcraft; I
don't think that it's just a matter of believing hard enough that there is such
a thing as witchcraft. I do believe that there is such a thing that a person
can put himself in a state of mind (Mhm), or that--er--something could be given
them to intoxicate them in a certain--to a certain frame of mind--that--that
could actually be considered witchcraft.
Charles M. is obviously a "good speaker" who strikes the listener as
well-educated, intelligent and sincere. He is a likable and attractive
person--the kind of person that middle-class listeners rate very high on a
scale of "job suitability" and equally high as a potential friend. His language
is more moderate and tempered than Larry's: he makes every effort to qualm his
opinions, and seems anxious to avoid any misstatements or overstatements. From
these qualities emerges the primary characteristic of this passage--its
verbosity. Words multiply, some modifying and qualifying, others repeating or
padding the main argument. The first half of this extract is a response to the
initial question on dreams, basically:
(1) Some people say that dreams sometimes come true.
(2) I have never had a dream come true.
(3) Therefore I don't believe (1).
This much of Charles M.'s response is well directed to the point of the
question. He then volunteers a statement of his beliefs about witchcraft which
shows the difficulty of middle-class speakers who (a) want to express a belief
in something but (b) want to show themselves as judicious, rational, and free
from superstitions. The basic proposition can be stated simply in five words:
But I believe in witchcraft.
However, the idea is enlarged to exactly one hundred words, and it is difficult
to see what else is being said. The vacuity of this passage becomes more
evident if we remove repetitions, fashionable words, and stylistic
But I believe in witchcraft.
I don't think witchcraft is just a belief.
A person can put himself or be put in a state of mind that is witchcraft.
Without the extra verbiage and the OK words like science, culture and
intoxicate, Charles M. appears as something less than a first-rate thinker. The
initial impression of him as a good speaker is simply our long-conditioned
reaction to middle-class verbosity: we know that people who use these stylistic
devices are educated people, and we are inclined to credit them with saying
Let us now examine Bereiter's own data on the verbal behavior of the black
children he dealt with. The expressions They mine and Me got juice are cited as
examples of a language which lacks the means for expressing logical
relations--in this case characterized as "a series of badly connected words."
In the case of They mine, it is apparent that Bereiter confuses the notions of
logic and explicitness. We know that there are many languages of the world
which do not have a present copula, and which conjoin subject and predicate
complement without a verb. Russian, Hungarian, and Arabic may be foreign, but
they are not by the same token illogical. In the case of black English we are
not dealing with even this superficial grammatical difference, but rather with
a low-level rule which carries contraction one step further to delete single
consonants representing the verbs is, have, or will. We have yet to find any
children who do not sometimes use the full forms of is or will, even though
they may frequently delete it.
The deletion of the is or are in black English is not the result of erratic or
illogical behavior: it follows the same regular rules as standard English
contraction. Wherever standard English can contract, black children use either
the contracted form or (more commonly) the deleted zero form. Thus They mine
corresponds to standard English They're mine, not to the full form They are
mine. On the other hand, no such deletion is possible in positions where
standard English cannot contract: just as one cannot say That's what they're in
standard English, That's what they is equally impossible in the vernacular we
are considering. The appropriate use of the deletion rule, like the contraction
rule, requires a deep and intimate knowledge of English grammar and phonology.
Such knowledge is not available for conscious inspection by native speakers:
the rules we have worked out for standard contraction have never appeared in
any grammar, and are certainly not a part of the conscious knowledge of any
standard English speakers. Nevertheless, the adult or child who uses these
rules must have formed at some level of psychological organization clear
concepts of "tense marker," "verb phrase," "rule ordering," "sentence
embedding," "pronoun," and many other grammatical categories which are
essential parts of any logical system.
Bereiter's reaction to the sentence Me got juice is even more puzzling. If
Bereiter believes that Me got juice is not a logical expression, it can only be
that he interprets the use of the objective pronoun me as representing a
difference in logical relationship to the verb; that the child is in fact
saying that "the juice got him" rather than "he got the juice"! If on the other
hand the child means "I got juice," then this sentence form shows only that he
has not learned the formal rules for the use of the subjective form I and
oblique form me.
Bereiter shows even more profound ignorance of the rules of discourse and of
syntax when he rejects "In the tree" as an illogical or badly formed answer to
"Where is the squirrel?" Such elliptical answers are of course used by
everyone, and they show the appropriate deletion of subject and main verb,
leaving the locative which is questioned by wh + there. The reply In the tree
demonstrates that the listener has been attentive to and apprehended the syntax
of the speaker. Whatever formal structure we wish to write for expressions such
as Yes or Home or In the tree, it is obvious that they cannot be interpreted
without knowing the structure of the question which preceded them, and that
they presuppose an understanding of the syntax of the question. Thus if you ask
me, "Where is the squirrel?" it is necessary for me to understand the sentence
from an underlying form which would otherwise have produced The squirrel is
there. If the child had answered The tree, or Squirrel the tree, or The in
tree, we would then assume that he did not understand the syntax of the full
form, The squirrel is in the tree. Given the data that Bereiter presents, we
cannot conclude that the child has no grammar, but only that the investigator
does not understand the rules of grammar. It does not necessarily do any harm
to use the full form The squirrel is in the tree, if one wants to make fully
explicit the rules of grammar which the child has internalized. Much of logical
analysis consists of making explicit just that kind of internalized rule. But
it is hard to believe that any good can come from a program which begins with
so many misconceptions about the input data. Bereiter and Engelmann believe
that in teaching the child to say The squirrel is in the tree or This is a box
and This is not a box, they are teaching him an entirely new language, whereas
in fact they are only teaching him to produce slightly different forms of the
language he already has.
If there is a failure of logic involved here, it is surely in the approach of
the verbal-deprivation theorists, rather than in the mental abilities of the
children concerned. We can isolate six distinct steps in the reasoning which
has led to programs such as those of Deutsch, Bereiter, and Engelmann:
1. The lower-class child's verbal response to a formal and threatening
situation is used to demonstrate his lack of verbal capacity, or verbal
2. This verbal deficit is declared to be a major cause of the lower-class
child's poor performance in school.
3. Since middle-class children do better in school, middle-class speech
habits are said to be necessary for learning.
4. Class and ethnic differences in grammatical form are equated with
differences in the capacity for logical analysis.
5. Teaching the child to mimic certain formal speech patterns used by
middle-class teachers is seen as teaching him to think logically.
6. Children who learn these formal speech patterns are then said to be
thinking logically, and it is predicated that they will do much better in
reading and arithmetic in the years to follow.
This article has proved that numbers 1. and 2. at least are wrong. However, it
is not too naive to ask, What is wrong with being wrong? We have already
conceded that black children need help in analyzing language into its surface
components, and in being more explicit. But there are, in fact, serious and
damaging consequences of the verbal-deprivation theory. These may be considered
under two headings: (a) the theoretical bias and (b) the consequences of
It is widely recognized that the teacher's attitude toward the child is an
important factor in the latter's success or failure. The work of Robert
Rosenthal on "self-fulfilling prophecies" shows that the progress of children
in the early grades can be dramatically affected by a single random labeling of
certain children as "intellectual bloomers." When the everyday language of
black children is stigmatized as "not a language at all" and "not possessing
the means for logical thought," the effect of such a labeling is repeated many
times during each day of the school year. Every time that a child uses a form
of BEV without the copula or with negative concord, he will be labeling himself
for the teacher's benefit as "illogical," as a "nonconceptual thinker." This
notion gives teachers a ready-made, theoretical basis for the prejudice they
may already feel against the lower-class black child and his language. When
they hear him say I don't want none or They mine, they will be hearing, through
the bias provided by the verbal-deprivation theory, not an English dialect
different from theirs, but the primitive mentality of the savage mind.
But what if the teacher succeeds in training the child to use the new language
consistently? The verbal deprivation theory holds that this will lead to a
whole chain of successes in school, and that the child will be drawn away from
the vernacular culture into the middle-class world. Undoubtedly this will
happen with a few isolated individuals, just as it happens in every school
system today for a few children. But we are concerned not with the few but the
many, and for the majority of black children the distance between them and the
school is bound to widen under this approach.
The essential fallacy of the verbal-deprivation theory lies in tracing the
educational failure of the child to his personal deficiencies. At present,
these deficiencies are said to be caused by his home environment. It is
traditional to explain a child's failure in school by his inadequacy; but when
failure reaches such massive proportions, it seems necessary to look at the
social and cultural obstacles to learning and the inability of the school to
adjust to the social situation.
The second area in which the verbal-deprivation theory is doing serious harm to
our educational system is in the consequences of this failure and the reaction
to it. As Operation Head Start fails, the interpretations which we receive will
be from the same educational psychologists who designed this program. The fault
will be found, not in the data, the theory. or the methods used, but rather in
the children who have failed to respond to the opportunities offered them. When
black children fail to show the significant advance which the deprivation
theory predicts, it will be further proof of the profound gulf which separates
their mental processes from those of civilized, middle-class mankind.
A sense of the failure of Operation Head Start is already commonplace. Some
prominent figures In the program have reacted to this situation by saying that
intervention did not take place early enough. Bettye M. Caldwell notes that
"the research literature of the last decade dealing with social-class
differences has made abundantly clear that all parents are not qualified to
provide even the basic essentials of physical and psychological care to their
The deficit theory now begins to focus on the "longstanding patterns of
parental deficit" which fill the literature. "There is, perhaps unfortunately,"
writes Caldwell, "no literacy test for motherhood." Failing such eugenic
measures, she has proposed "educationally oriented day care for culturally
deprived children between six months and three years of age." The children are
returned home each evening to "maintain primary emotional relationships with
their own families," but during the day they are removed "hopefully to prevent
the deceleration in rate of development which seems to occur in many deprived
children around the age of two to three years."
There are others who feel that even the best of the intervention programs, such
as those of Bereiter and Engelmann, will not help the black child no matter
when they are applied--that we are faced once again with the "inevitable
hypothesis" of the genetic inferiority of the black people. Arthur Jensen, for
example, in his Harvard Educational Review paper (1969), argues that the
verbal-deprivation theorists with whom he has been associated--Deutsch,
Whiteman, Katz, Bereiter--have been given every opportunity to prove their case
and have failed. This opinion forms part of the argument leading to his overall
conclusion that the "preponderance of the evidence is...less consistent with a
strictly environmental hypothesis than with the genetic hypothesis."
Jensen argues that the middle-class white population is differentiated from the
working-class white and black population in the ability for "cognitive or
conceptual learning," which Jensen calls Level II intelligence as against mere
"associative learning," or Level I intelligence.
Thus Jensen found that one group of middle-class children were helped by their
concept-forming ability to recall twenty familiar objects that could be
classified into four categories: animals, furniture, clothing, or foods.
Lower-class black children did just as well as middle-class children with a
miscellaneous set, but showed no improvement with objects that could be so
In the earliest stages of language learning, children acquire "selectional
restrictions" in their use of words. For example, they learn that some verbs
take ANIMATE subjects, but others only INANIMATE ones: thus we say The machine
breaks but not John breaks; The paper tears but not George tears. A speaker of
English must master such subtle categories as the things which break, like
boards, glasses, and ropes; things which tear, like shirts, paper, and skin;
things which snap, like buttons, potato chips, and plastic, and other
categories which smash, crumple, or go bust.
In studies of Samoan children, Keith Kernan has shown that similar rules are
learned reliably long before the grammatical particles that mark tense, number,
and so on. The experimentation on free recall that Jensen reports ignores such
abilities, and defines intelligence as a particular way of answering a
particular kind of question within a narrow cultural framework. Recent work of
anthropologists in other cultures is beginning to make some headway in
discovering how our tests bias the results so as to make normally intelligent
people look stupid. Michael Cole and his associates gave the same kind of free
recall tests to Kpelle speakers in Liberia. Those who had not been to
school--children or adults--could only remember eight or ten out of the twenty
and showed no "clustering" according to categories, no matter how long the
trials went on. Yet one simple change in the test method produced a surprising
change. The interviewer took each of the objects to be remembered and held it
over a chair: one chair for each category, or just one chair for all
categories. Suddenly the Kpelle subjects showed a dramatic improvement,
remembered seventeen to eighteen objects, and matched American subjects in both
recall and the amount of clustering by categories. We do not understand this
effect, for we are only beginning to discover the subtle biases built in our
test methods which prevent people from using the abilities that they display in
their language and in everyday life.
Linguists are in an excellent position to demonstrate the fallacies of the
verbal-deprivation theory. All linguists agree that nonstandard dialects are
highly structured systems; they do not see these dialects as accumulations of
errors caused by the failure of their speakers to master standard English. When
linguists hear black children saying He crazy or Her my friend they do not hear
a "primitive language." Nor do they believe that the speech of working-class
people is merely a form of emotional expression, incapable of relating logical
thought. Linguists therefore condemn with a single voice Bereiter's view that
the vernacular can be disregarded.
There is no reason to believe that any nonstandard vernacular is in itself an
obstacle to learning. The chief problem is ignorance of language on the part of
all concerned. Our job as linguists is to remedy this ignorance: Bereiter and
Engelmann want to reinforce it and justify it. Teachers are now being told to
ignore the language of black children as unworthy of attention and useless for
learning. They are being taught to hear every natural utterance of the child as
evidence of his mental inferiority. As linguists we are unanimous in condemning
this view as bad observation, bad theory, and bad practice.
That educational psychology should be strongly influenced by a theory so false
to the facts of language is unfortunate; but that children should be the
victims of this ignorance is intolerable. If linguists can contribute some of
their valuable knowledge and energy toward exposing the fallacies of the
verbal-deprivation theory, we will have done a great deal to justify the
support that society has given to basic research in our field.
Copyright © 1972 by William Labov. All rights reserved.