OAKLAND, CALIF. — It has been the language of playgrounds, neighborhoods, and churches since African slaves were brought to this country hundreds of years ago.
Now the Oakland school district is officially recognizing "black English" as a separate language, touching off the biggest debate in American education since the return of phonics.
To critics, the move represents political correctness run amok: It elevates slang to a legitimate language - and threatens to undermine the teaching of standard English to a generation of inner-city youths. But proponents say recognizing black English will only help African-American kids learn linguistic skills - including standard English - better.
The result is a controversy that now transcends the city of Oakland to encompass sensitive issues of race and education reform across the country.
"I think it's tragic," says Ward Connerly, an African-American businessman and University of California regent who led the successful ballot initiative last month to end state affirmative action programs. "These are kids [who] have gotten themselves into this trap of speaking this language - this slang, really - that people can't understand. Now we're going to legitimize it."
Behind all the furor is a long history of serious research by linguists and educators on the existence of black English, or ebonics as it's called, and its impact on learning problems.
Oakland school officials, caught off guard by the uproar, have tried to explain that their goal is to improve English skills. There are no plans to teach classes in ebonics or to substitute it for standard English, they say.
Underlying their decision is a belief, based on many studies, that black English is a distinct dialect, if not a language, that has systematic differences in grammar and syntax from standard English. The term "ebonics" - combining "ebony" and "phonics" - was coined in the 1970s at a time of extensive research into the structure of black English, including its grammatical roots in West African languages.
LINGUISTS are split over whether to call black English a dialect or a language. Stanford linguistics professor John Rickford, who teaches a course on "African American Vernacular English" and co-authored a forthcoming book on the subject, considers it a "creole," such as the combination of French and English spoken in Louisiana.
In any case, he says, "I agree with the premise that African-American kids are coming to school with a [linguistic] system that is regular and in many ways quite different from standard English, and it poses problems." By recognizing this reality, and employing techniques that borrow from bilingual education, teachers can improve English skills more effectively, many experts say.
"The first step is to recognize it is a language - or something other than [standard] English - but the next step is to teach only standard English reading and writing," says Mary Hoover, a Howard University education professor and an adviser to the Oakland schools.
Although the Oakland declaration that ebonics is a separate language marks a first for any school district, it is by no means the first acknowledgment of ebonics. In 1979, a group of students in Ann Arbor, Mich., sued the school district, saying they were placed in special-education classes for speaking nonstandard English. The federal court ruled in their favor, ordering the district to train teachers to recognize black English and learn new methods to teach them standard reading and writing.
Oakland's pilot Standard English Program now covers 26 schools ranging from kindergarten to middle school, with 126 teachers participating on a voluntary basis. The program is mainly aimed at teaching how to speak standard English. It uses techniques such as having children practice translating their speech into standard English.
Educators point to studies that show such programs, also under way in Los Angeles and San Francisco, have helped in raising skill levels. Others question such conclusions.
"We are not aware of any research which indicates that this kind of program will help address the language and achievement problems of African-American students," says California Superintendent of Schools Delaine Eastin. "If it does not - or worse, if it becomes a way of lowering standards for those students - then it is a bad idea."
But some experts point to evidence showing that the longer black inner-city kids stay in school, the more they fall behind whites and others. In Oakland, blacks make up a little more than half of the 52,000 student enrollment - the rest are mostly Hispanics and Asians - but their grade point averages are by far the lowest. Black students make up 71 percent of the special-education classes.
"Whatever people may think of Oakland's decision, it is clear that existing, traditional methods are not working, that kids are doing progressively worse on the curriculum-central areas of language arts," says Professor Rickford.
In part, the Oakland School Board decision clearly was symbolic. But officials are also seeking federal bilingual funds, possibly to finance an expansion of the pilot program to the entire district. To some extent, the move is fueled by tensions between blacks and Hispanics and Asians, who are eligible for bilingual funding under the federal Department of Education's Title VII program. Those feelings have been aggravated by the practice of putting black children in Oakland into bilingual classes, in Spanish or Chinese, to fill enrollment targets.
At the least, many educators believe the attention to the underlying problem of education in the inner city is a plus. "If it shakes things up," says Rickford, "then it will be worth it."
African-American Vernacular English In Sample Translations
1. "She bin had dat han'-made dress."
2. "Befo' you know it, he be done aced de tesses."
3. "Ah 'on know what homey be doin'."
4. "Can't nobody tink de way he do."
5. "I ast Ruf could she bring it ovah to Tom crib."
1. She's had that hand-made dress for a long time, and still does.
2. Before you know it, he will have already aced the tests.
3. I don't know what my friend is usually doing.
4. Nobody can think the way he does.
5. I asked Ruth if/whether she could bring it over to Tom's place.