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'Black English' proposal draws fire

Symbolic move in Oakland touches a nerve

December 22, 1996
Web posted at: 7:50 p.m. EST

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(CNN) -- So far it's little more than a vague idea, but a proposal by a California school board last week to recognize Black English as a second language has already sparked a firestorm of debate.

"I am incensed," said poet Maya Angelou, who recited one of her poems at President Clinton's inauguration. "The very idea that African-American language is a language separate and apart can be very threatening, because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard English." icon (403K/36 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The Rev. Jesse Jackson also blasted the proposal, which was announced Wednesday by the California School Board to officially recognize Black English, also know as Ebonics, a term combining "ebony" and "phonics."

"While we are fighting in California trying to extend affirmative action and fighting to teach our children so they become more qualified for jobs, in Oakland some madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language," Jackson said in a statement.

"You don't have to go to school to learn to talk garbage," he said.

School board members said the idea behind the proposal is to improve performance of black students, who make up 53 percent of the district and 71 percent of those enrolled in special-education courses.

"What we are doing in Oakland is providing our teachers and parents with the tools to address the diverse languages our children bring into the classroom," said a school board statement.

"We have to acknowledge that all of our students do not come to us speaking standard English," added Lucella Harrison, president of the Oakland School Board.

How the new policy will be implemented isn't yet clear, but Oakland school officials have said they may ask for federal money to help African-American students who primarily speak Ebonics.

Black English speaking students may be placed in classes that will help them to learn standard English, and teachers may be trained to understand Black English.



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"You don't have to go to school to learn to talk garbage."

-- The Rev. Jesse Jackson



Oakland's decision directly affects only the 52,000 students in the district. But the idea that Black English is a "genetically-based" language with roots in Western Africa -- and not just slang -- is highly symbolic of the nation's larger racial divide.

Many believe Oakland's move has widespread implications on race, language and society. "This hurts the kids, that's the real tragedy of it," said John Fonte, a visiting scholar in education at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "The way to learn English is to study English."

Black English has already been taught in a number of schools such as Ann Arbor, Michigan. But Oakland appears to be the first district to make a system-wide change.

The American Speech, Language and Hearing Association has classified Black English as a social dialect.

English words in Black English tend to lose a "d" following a vowel, so "good" becomes "goo," and the final "th" is sometime is replaced with "f," so "with" becomes "wif."

Critics say encouraging this non-standard English could give students the idea that Ebonics is a viable language in the workplace, a mistake that could hinder their job searches and careers.

Said Ryan Cameron, a rap radio disc jockey: "It's something that people use among their friends, but it's not something that they have to do to get ahead or have to do to get a job."

 
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