TOPICS > Politics

The Ebonics Debate Moves to the Senate

January 23, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter said he held today’s hearing to help clear up the nationwide controversy over using so-called “Ebonics” to help teach African-American students. The controversy arose last month after schools in Oakland, California, began instructing teachers to recognize black language patterns, called Ebonics by some, as a way of teaching standard English more effectively.

TEACHER: (teaching class) Ebonics is very simply African language systems on top of English lexicons.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Ebonics controversy born in Oakland was evident from the opening of today’s hearing. Sen. Lauch Faircloth is a Republican from North Carolina.

SEN. LAUCH FAIRCLOTH, (R) North Carolina: But I think Ebonics is absurd. This is a political correctness that simply has gone out of control. As Rev. Jesse Jackson said, it was teaching down to people. And that’s the last thing we need to be doing. Now I’m very much aware that teaching children in schools in the inner cities and in poor neighborhoods all over the country, rural or inner city, has never been easy, and it never will be. But rather than trying to lower the academic standards, we should try some of the old-fashioned remedies that I think would still work. Nobody should be passed from grade to grade unless they can master the basic three R’s of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who represents a district in Los Angeles, disagrees. She supports programs designed to help teachers understand the language patterns used by some black children and says they’re already working in her city and others.

REP. MAXINE WATERS, (D) California: The fact of the matter is, Mr. Chairman and members, African–too many African-American children have been entering school year in and year out speaking different language patterns, something other than standard English. They really can’t learn the sciences and math and other subjects that are being taught because they are not proficient in the English language. Nobody is saying we want to change English, we want to teach black English. Nobody is saying that. What we’re saying is and what they said is we want to recognize that it is a fact of life. What can we do about it? How can we help students learn standard English? That’s the goal. And so let’s not talk about Ebonics being absurd or ridiculous. The fact of the matter is I think we all want the same thing.

KWAME HOLMAN: Robert Williams, professor emeritus at St. Louis’s Washington University, coined the word “Ebonics,” combining “ebony” and “phonics,” in the 1970’s.

ROBERT WILLIAMS, Washington University: Now we certainly all agree that standard English is the lingua funka or the common language spoken by the people of the United States of American. It is certainly the language of the business, commerce, and industrial world. Our goal is to develop methods that will enable African-American children to master standard English. I think the basic question that concerns us is: What are the best methods for achieving this goal?

KWAME HOLMAN: Williams said a 1972 test of 900 black kindergarten and first graders showed the effectiveness of using familiar language patterns to evaluate and teach some black children.

ROBERT WILLIAMS: The results were striking. The children scored significantly higher on the Ebonics version than on the standard English versions. The following two examples are given here to show the method of code switching or translations. Standard English: Mark the toy that is behind the sofa. Ebonics version: Mark the toy that is in back of the couch. Two: Standard English version: Point to the squirrel that is beginning to climb the tree. The Ebonics version: Point to the squirrel that is fixing to climb the tree. What I discovered in the first example, the word “beginnings” and “sofa” were blocking agents. I translated both worst to “in back of” and “couch.” In the second example I translated the word “beginning” to “fixing to.” These changes produced dramatic changes in the children’s test scores.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, Chairman, Appropriations Subcommittee: Do you end up in the same place? That is, if you have the bridge language and you use the Ebonics, at the end of the course, do the students communicate in standard English?

ROBERT WILLIAMS: Yes. They know that there’s home talk and there’s school talk. And they learn standard English. I still speak Ebonics. Every day I play golf. We get down.

KWAME HOLMAN: Superintendent Carolyn Getridge says the Oakland schools use Ebonics because the 50 percent of students who are black have an average grade of D+, far below the grades of white and Asian students.

CAROLYN GETRIDGE, Oakland California Schools Superintendent: When students have an opportunity to engage in learning and they are consistently told that what they say or how they express themselves is wrong, with no explanation of the reason that it is not acceptable or standard English, then students begin to shut down and will at some point, either intellectually or physically, drop out of the process. We want to change that reality for many of the students in Oakland by giving teachers the ability to address these issues in a more consistent, thoughtful, and respectful way.

KWAME HOLMAN: But there were critics as well. Conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams said teaching teachers to understand African-American idioms is the wrong approach.

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, Radio Talk Show Host: Proponents of Ebonics feel that teachers should be able to relate to the students by showing that they too are able to speak the structured, cultural student idioms. But I do not agree with this approach, and I’ll tell you why. A teacher would not teach mathematics by trying to show that he or she could make mistakes in addition or subtraction. Must one’s senators have to smoke marijuana to be able to relate to teen-age drug addiction? Should they smoke marijuana in order to teach them a better way? Definitely not. And the same is true with language.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the end, Chairman Specter concluded the Ebonics issue is complicated and said he’s not yet sure of the proper role federal education funding should play in such programs.