Updated on April 30, 2018
In The Atlantic’s April issue, William Brennan wrote about Julie Washington, a speech pathologist who believes that helping kids switch seamlessly between dialects is a key to their success.
I read “The Code-Switcher” in the April issue of The Atlantic with horror. What was described as African-American English was in fact poor grammar. As an African American with undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and Literature, I desperately want African American children to learn standard American English and proper grammar and syntax. These are essential tools for success in the workplace and required for professional and personal mobility. Having our teachers encourage children to speak with poor grammar relegates them to the permanent underclass, which is not where I would like to see future generations of African Americans. While I respect the professor who extols the virtues of respecting the language of another culture, the African-American English described in the article is not a language.
San Diego, Calif.
As welcome as any positive article on the education of African American children is, William Brennan’s falls short. The issue of how to teach language arts to African American children deserves far deeper treatment, for, despite decades during which linguists have been pointing to the problem, we are still throwing thousands of black children in the trash because of the benighted notion of “bad English.”
Brennan gives insufficient credit for curricular approaches like ToggleTalk. Decades-old seminal work by others, e.g., Rebecca Wheeler, Rachel Swords, H. Fogel, and L. C. Ehri, deserves mention. Their research, published considerably earlier than last June, has also shown dramatic improvements in standard English skills and closure of achievement gaps.
The “reigning theory” of why speaking AAE “stymies kids” goes far beyond the pronunciation of words or the “cognitive load” of handling two dialects in school. For one thing, AAE grammar and conversational styles also differ from those of standard English in important ways. But the fundamental factor is racial prejudice. Deep-seated prejudice against AAE produces the silencing effect Ann McCormick Piestrup described in 1973. Now, it is common in socioeconomically-stratified societies for dialects that vary from the dialect of power to be disparaged. But racial prejudice runs so deep in America that condemnation of AAE is nearly universal and very powerful, a fact undergirded by the rejection of the dialect by educated African Americans themselves, and by the flaming controversy over the Oakland teachers’ 1996 proposal.
Nearly 50 years ago, James Sledd exposed this prejudice in his no-holds-barred condemnation of the very notion of bidialectalism, “Bidialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy.” “Instruction in the mother tongue includes formal initiation into the linguistic prejudices of the middle class,” he writes;
The basic assumption of bidialectalism is that the prejudices of middle-class whites cannot be changed but must be accepted and indeed forced on lesser breeds. Upward mobility, it is assumed, is the end [goal] of education, but white power will deny upward mobility to speakers of black English, who must therefore be made to talk white English in their contacts with the white world.
In other words, prejudice against the language African Americans speak is a major part of the systemic and institutional racism that so many deny today—one of the factors that dooms African Americans from their earliest years in school.
AAE was created by slaves who had been intentionally deprived of their origin languages. It is a testament to their endurance and to the human need for community, as language binds a community together. It is high time it was accorded the respect it deserves. Code-switching curricula, while practical, need to be situated in the social context of dialect inequality in the face of prejudice. Children need honest instruction, not only in standard English, but in the reasons behind their need to learn it.
Johanna Rubba, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita, Linguistics
Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo
Grover Beach, Calif.