Ebonics vs. English: 'Nobody Goes to a Wedding Dressed in Sweats'

African American high school students from the Los Angeles area, asked about the declaration by the Oakland school board that black English, also known as "Ebonics," is a separate and distinct language, said they understood the impulse behind the decision but were skeptical that it would help the learning process. In conversations with MARY REESE BOYKIN, most of the students said that they already gauge how they speak by whom they're speaking with, and some felt that using Ebonics as a language of instruction might harm students' efforts to deal with the larger world in standard English.


18, senior, University High School, Los Angeles

My language differs with the people I talk to. It's just like dress. Nobody goes to a wedding dressed in sweats. We wear suits and ties. There is a place for everything. Many of us African Americans use Ebonics basically around family and friends. Outside that circle, we upgrade our language to standard English.

Across the United States, students have used Ebonics but have no problems adjusting to standard English. I don't see why students in Oakland have to be treated differently.

Until I was 14, my parents corrected my grammatical errors. I flip back and forth, depending on whom I am talking to. They realize that I know the difference, so they don't correct me now.

I do find that among some of us African Americans, there is a greater rejection of those who have no traces of the dialect. You can put a group of us together who have never met before, and just by the way an African American teen from the Valley or another place says hello, someone will say, "He talks white." That person is not accepted well and has to work his way to fit in.

But I think the ultimate goal is to be able to communicate both with and without the dialect.


13, eighth grade, Webster Middle School

When I am around friends, I speak in the dialect, but when I am in the classroom, I speak plain king's English because I am in a different mindset. In the classroom, I pay attention and learn. But when I am around my friends, I am relaxed and loose.

I think that teaching Ebonics is a bad thing because if students already know something, why go over what they know well? Ebonics can be an option, like an elective.

Using Ebonics is one way of expressing yourself. But when it comes to earning money, if the employer wants you to speak Ebonics, you speak in the dialect. If he wants you to speak Spanish, you speak Spanish. If speaking standard English is what the employer expects, then you speak standard English. More than likely, the expectation will be standard English.


17, senior, Crenshaw High School

I was listening to talk radio and a caller said, "What they want us to speak is white English." But I don't think color has anything to do with it. English is English. I think Ebonics is just another way to label us African American students.

I speak standard English during job interviews and other formal situations. I speak in the dialect when I am with my friends or in an argument or upset. I have a friend who talks basically in the dialect. She really has a problem with double negatives. I correct her because I am not going to see myself succeed and see her not. But I don't correct her constantly because she will feel that I am better than she, so I balance it out.

I listen to [author and radio and television commentator] Tavis Smiley because he talks correctly. I am inspired by the fact that he too is from the inner city. Every time I listen to him, I learn something. Sometimes I'll say, "What's that word?" I look it up and try to make it part of my vocabulary. I model my language after him.


19, freshman, Santa Monica College

In my opinion, Ebonics is similar to "Spanglish," which takes the English language and puts the Mexican American culture into it. When I can't think of a word in English, I complete my idea by using a Spanish word. But really, it is just laziness.

I learned Spanish and English at the same time. My parents speak Spanish. My mom, who understands English but has difficulty speaking it, speaks to me in Spanish and I answer her in English.

One of my two brothers and my two sisters are six to eight years older than I am. They were in ESL classes. They would play school with me and teach me English. My sister told me, "I wanted you to learn English because I didn't want you to go through the embarrassment that I did." When she was in school, ESL was considered dummy classes. By the time I entered school, I spoke English.

But if teaching Ebonics is to be modeled after ESL, the Oakland school board needs to consider that ESL has its problems. Especially in elementary school, teachers are like, "Oh, your parents speak Spanish? You're ESL." I think this placement is sometimes done without testing the students.


14, ninth grade, Manual Arts High School

In my home, the use of standard English has always been stressed. I attended a magnet elementary school, and the teachers insisted on standard English. At Manual, I am in the USC/Pre-College Enrichment Academy. We are required to speak standard English in the classroom.

I have been in this program since seventh grade. The goal of USC is to get students used to the college campus and college life because the university wants kids from the neighborhood to be able to go to college. We have two morning courses, math and English, taught by Foshay and Manual teachers on the USC campus. Then we return to our regular campus. We are expected to make As and Bs. Language is an important part of this program, and it has been reinforced to the point that speaking correctly comes naturally.

I want to speak correctly. I don't want to be perceived as foolish by the way I talk. Like Malcolm X, who was an effective international communicator, I want to develop a broad vocabulary and be able to speak to people at their level, regardless of how high that level may be.

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