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Patt Morrison asks: Stanford linguistics professor John Rickford on the legacy of Ebonics

As students settle in for the new school year, perhaps changing to different schools in this era of charters and magnets, a Stanford University linguistics professor has found that for some African American kids, a new ZIP Code may also change the way they speak. Using data from a long-range federal program in five cities, including Los Angeles, John Rickford saw that black children whose families moved from poorer neighborhoods to more prosperous ones tended to dial back on speaking AAVE – African American vernacular English. Rickford is expert in vernacular language, including Caribbean Creole dialects. He’s studied the controversial AAVE testimony of Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel and explains how kids who move may pick up mainstream speech that can help them navigate the larger society without leaving their homegrown speaking patterns behind.

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The school year is just beginning here in Los Angeles. Parents have been shopping around for schools and school districts to give their children an advantage. In your research, you found that for African American children, this could mean something very specific, right down to the way they speak.

The work we did was part of a larger study called Moving to Opportunity, in which families in five cities – Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and New York – who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods were divided into groups, and some were given an opportunity to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods.

And what we found, in short, was that particularly for youth, African American youth, who are more liable to change over time than adults, that there was a reduction in the extent to which they used African American vernacular English in their interactions with these interviewers.

It doesn’t mean that they dropped their African American English necessarily in their everyday use.  But in situations where they were required to be a little more formal, they were able to kind of switch more to standard English.

Each one of us has a variety of different ways in which we speak – everybody, everybody. The way we speak when we’re delivering a formal address is not the same way we speak when we’re going home and we’re watching a football game or Olympic sessions.

What is African American vernacular English? Can you give some examples?

We looked at 10 different features, a number of grammatical features -- for instance, multiple negation, something like saying, “She didn’t do anything” versus “She didn’t do nothing.” Or, “He ain’t going nowhere.” In standard English, in what you might call school English, you say “She isn’t going anywhere” or “She’s going nowhere.”

But in African American English, as in a number of other dialects, you can change both, so “She ain’t going nowhere.”

Then you have the absence of the copula. The copula is the kind of verb that joins other things. “She is tall” -- then you would say, “She tall.” Or instead of saying “He is going,” you say ‘”He going.”

What are the implications of this for young black people ? Does it mean they’re essentially bilingual?

A lot of African American kids are what we could call bi-dialectal, so they have more than one dialect. No one is ever completely limited to that, but if you don’t have much interaction with people outside of your community, then you get strongly reinforced in that one variety.

And the beauty of this study, where you’re actually able to give people an opportunity to move to another neighborhood, is that you can kind of see the effects of that move. It did change -- at least in terms of people having the ability to shift to a more standard variety when they were kind of required to do so.

Los Angeles is interesting in a lot of ways. Noma Lemoine and her colleagues have for years been doing a study of what they call the academic English mastery program. They made it much more general; they looked also at Latino students and students of Hawaiian background.

What’s really interesting about the L.A. case is it’s been going longer and actually enrolling more kids than Oakland ever did, but Oakland had this huge Ebonics controversy that attracted a lot of attention, and what was happening in Los Angeles was kind of totally ignored by the media.

Now in fact the aim was also to have students improve their English language mastery, but everybody focused on the Ebonics part of it rather than the English mastery.

It was very controversial about 20 years ago, and I think part of the resistance may have come from the sense that Ebonics was being treated as a language that deserved to be taught with its own grammar, its own vocabulary, et cetera.

Actually there’s no doubt about it, that Ebonics, like the Creole English of Jamaica or the Creole English of Hawaii, is a very systemic language variety. That’s probably the biggest mistake that people make. They think that because the variety is not the same as standard English that it doesn’t have rules, but it absolutely does.

So the idea was that you would in fact build on the regularity of those rules to help people systematically, more systematically, master what they needed to do to use more standard English in writing or speaking when required.

Was there any finding that indicated whether some of these African American kids who moved into more prosperous neighborhoods also themselves became more prosperous -- that they had better outcomes in education, in career, in work, because they were able to expand their vocabularies, their modes of speaking?

There’s some more recent work that some of the actual economic consequences are stronger than people at first thought. What we have in our study is some projections of ways in which this could actually improve the economic situation of some of the kids.

I think at the time we worked it out that – not a huge difference, but possibly making as much of a difference in earnings as about $700 per year, which would work out over a lifetime to a much larger sum.

But there are a number of things. One of the things we found was that the kids were exposed to more highly educated adults in the new neighborhoods than in the old neighborhoods.  

Secondly that there was less segregation, they had fewer black and minority classmates.  And one of the factors that sometimes affects these things is peer group pressure to speak the vernacular. People who shift to the standard more often than not tend to be sometimes ridiculed, because the vernacular comes to be the marker of identity and of expressiveness.

So if you are accused of acting  –

Acting white. That’s something that linguists and anthropologists have been talking about since the 1960s and ‘70s. There was a famous study in DC of how kids were mocked for talking white if you were black in the black community.

One pop culture example that came to mind is the Will Smith television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” where you have an upper-class black family welcoming into the fold a street kid, a relative.

That’s right. Environment is everything. And probably one thing I should keep emphasizing -- they don’t necessarily lose entirely their vernacular ways of speaking, but they become more adept at shifting between them in various situations, which is what you essentially want people to be able to do.

You don’t necessarily want to strip them of their original variety. So but it’s that ability to negotiate when you’re looking for a job, or when you’re trying to get a house, a rental in a particular neighborhood, to be able to negotiate back and forth. 

When we talk about linguistic differences, it’s not just an academic issue – it’s related to economics, it’s related to criminal justice, it’s related to being able to get housing.

I’m also thinking of another pop culture moment: Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop” is making fun of the other police who are speaking with very upright, strict standard English.

You know, kids who do that with other aspects of behavior might be described as Oreos -- you know, like the cookie, black on the outside but white on the inside. So language is a very, very important aspect of people’s social identity and people’s personality. 

One of the things that we‘ve found over the years that it’s the way teachers react to these differences, the attitude and the way they approach them makes a difference in how kids succeed. Attitudes that just set out to put down tend to have much more negative effects on kids’ school performance.

So once you recognize that what kids are doing is systematic, you can show them, you can go very quickly to the 10 or 20 or 30 features that differentiate African American English and standard English, and you can show them how to move between those two types of speech much more effectively than if you just say in general, “Speak good English!” or, “The way you’re speaking is bad!”

The popularity of hip-hop, where now you see middle-class kids, white kids, embracing hip-hop and rap language – how has that changed the status of AAVE?

Well it’s not clear. The hip-hop thing, some people have begun to look at it a little more closely, because in those cases, what you have is people of course memorize the words and they repeat them. Sometimes white kids who use some of the vernacular features are kind of mocked for trying to talk black. A lot of kids on football teams often end up using the vernacular -- you know, white kids hanging out with black kids, a lot of kids in the Army – I think a lot of situations have people together in close contact and they come to depend on each other.

The protests over police shootings, the movement Black Lives Matter – has anything changed in the vocabulary, the language, mainstream or African American vernacular English, because of this?

That’s hard to say. There’s certainly a strong sense of identity and solidarity in African American communities. You can see in the young African American community and on college campuses, even at Stanford, we find rising numbers of enrollment in African American studies, a lot of it around an increased sense of solidarity and identity and outrage and anger around the shootings of black kids.

There are some kinds of vernacular expressions among people who are involved in this, Stay woke, w-o-k-e, in other words, be alert, keep your ears and your antenna up. Don’t be lulled into complacency.

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