As a black child raised on Chicago’s West Side by an extended family with Southern influences, I learned to speak Ebonics?”or what some might call “Black English.” At home, I’ll tell my grandmother, in a minute, to pile her famous baked macaroni on my plate until “I don’t want no more.” And if she asks me why I’m not eating her cheesy recipe, I simply state, “Cuz I ain’t hungry.” Therefore, it wasn’t surprising when my third-graders at a school in the same community where I was raised responded to my question, “Why are you raising your hand?” with, “Cuz I ain’t got no pencil.”
All colloquialisms aside, there are situations where, strictly speaking, Ebonics can affect a person’s educational success?”for the worse.
When students begin to write, they naturally write the way they speak, and if a student uses “cuz” and not “because” or “finna” instead of “about to” they will be steps behind those students who already have a firm grasp on speaking Standard English. During a job interview, employers are looking for soft skills (positive attitude, communication skills, etc.), and when one of those skills is faulty, candidates are less likely to get the job.
Knowing this, how do we encourage our kids to speak the mainstream language without belittling the dialect that is also spoken by our grandparents, parents, even us?
As a language arts teacher?”someone responsible for ensuring that students write and speak in ways suitable for academia?”I have mastered the art of “codeswitching.” To codeswitch is to select and speak the language (either Ebonics or Standard English) that best fits a given situation. For example, when sitting around the dinner table with family, I allow myself the privilege to exploit double negatives (can’t no) and inappropriate possessive use (the child father). However, when addressing my students and supervisors, I make sure my “can’t no” is replaced by “can not” and “the child father” is substituted by “the child’s father.”
Being able to understand when and where to use Ebonics, and how to use Standard English was something I learned not only from school, but also from home.
We?”both educators and parents?”must commit ourselves to making sure our children are not academically shortchanged just because they feel comfortable speaking a certain way. The way to better their future opportunities is by talking to them about when and where to use Ebonics, and using both Standard English and Ebonics around our kids.
Have conversations that determine when it is appropriate to use Ebonics and when it is not. Compare and contrast the interviews held on 106th and Park with Lil’ Jon to the ones on Meet the Press with Condoleezza Rice. Discuss how you talk to your supervisor at work versus how you talk to your sister on the phone. Then make a table of two columns, listing the situations where it is fitting to use Standard English and where it is fitting to speak Ebonics, and hang it in your home.
Please don’t think constant correction is the best method to enable students to speak Standard English. According to a study reported by Language Arts in July 2004, when Rachel Swords, an elementary school teacher, constantly corrected her students each time they asked her a question using Ebonics, she soon realized that her students stopped asking as many questions: “Rather than risk the embarrassment of being corrected in front of the class, students became silent.”
It is not our intention to silence our children, but rather give them the tools they need to speak not only to their friend down the street, but the CEO of a major corporation.
In the comfort of our own homes, we sometimes get lax with our speech, hardly ever speaking to our kids in Standard English. But we should. When our kids notice that we codeswitch, they will come to understand its importance as well. Allow your child to listen to you while you discuss renovation plans with a contractor, or have them listen while you conduct financial business with a banker. Have fun with it, too. Designate one area of your home to be a room where you can only speak Standard English. Make sure that you and your kids commit yourselves to speaking Standard English in that room, at least.
My strong opinion about knowing when and where to use Ebonics and Standard English does not mean I prefer one to the other. It does mean, however, that if a student is already using Ebonics, they should be taught to appreciate the language created by their ancestors, as well as be able to fluently speak the language that will allow them to adapt and/or react to mainstream society?”Standard English.
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