Black English Ebonics African American Language – Lost in Translation

Black English, Ebonics, African American Language – Lost in Translation

Posted on Posted in Blog, Parenting's Not Easy, Raising Children of Color, School Me on Research

Black English, Ebonics, African American Language – Lost in Translation

“To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to ‘put your business on the street’: You have confessed your parentage, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.” – James Baldwin
I try to remain mindful that I am being watched when I am in the car riding with the kids. Most of the times it is the four of us, off to wherever:  school, camp or granny’s house boxed into two rows, each the size of a bath tub (or so it seems). In these close quarters I am quickly reminded that I am the fish in the bowl constantly being observed by three sets of eyes: two behind me and one to my right.
One day riding in the car I ended a conversation with one of my students and retuned my cell phone in the nearby cup holder.  Upon trying to increase the radio volume my youngest inquired:
“Mama, why did you sound like that?”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Mama had to use her work voice Juicy!” My six year old answered his little sister, calling out her nickname in exasperation.
Juicy shrugged her shoulders.
The oldest then decided she could better articulate the answer on a four year old level.
“Work voice just means you can’t say ‘ain’t’, or something like ‘he be’ in class or at a job Juicy. That’s why mama sounded like that. Right?”
I looked to my right and in my rearview mirror. Three sets of eyes all looked at me.
“Something like that.” I responded.
At home, the school bus stop, church, the beauty shop and most definitely when I played kickball, Mother May I or Hide and Seek with the kids in my neighborhood we all spoke in Ebonics or African American Vernacular English (AAVE).   We used the aspectual/ habitual be and double negations and never had a problem understanding one another. Our three children are also masters at AAVE.   Linguists agree that AAVE is:
is a systematic language variety, with patterns of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and usage that extend far beyond slang. Because it has a set of rules that is distinct from those of Standard American English, characterizations of the variety as bad English are incorrect;”
Despite AAVE being classified as a valid language, we have had to teach our oldest that there is a time and place to use it.  We have:
  • had discussions with our oldest about the preferred use of Mainstream/Standard English (M/SE) over AAVE in school.
  • had to tell her that given the fact that 84% of teachers are White, many are not familiar with how to translate AAVE to M/SE.  Thus our oldest is becoming more familiar with learning how to code-switch.
A few years ago I learned that teaching our oldest how to utilize S/ME in the classroom went way beyond speaking.  In helping her study for the sixth grade language arts portion of the standardized test her school administers in the spring she was stumped by a question that went something like this:
The dance teacher was indignant. What could this mere child know about performing solos in front of hundreds of people or choreographing for Broadway? How dare this little girl challenge her to a dance contest!
What does the word indignant mean?
  1. Frightened
  2. Saddened
  3. Joyous
  4. Insulted
The answer is D, but she chose A.  Her explanation was that she interpreted dare as the ‘clue’ to tell her what indignant meant. In this context she interpreted dare in the sentence to mean an actual challenge to someone.  I explained to her in S/ME dare in this context refers to an insult.
The crinkle in her forehead and her eyes searching the ceiling for understanding let me know she didn’t quite get the connection. I then changed the sentence to AAVE format:
The dance teacher was indignant. What could this child know ‘bout dancing in front of thousands of people and choreographing for the BET Awards? No, this child did not just come up in her dance studio and challenge her to a contest!
This time she recognized two patterns of AAVE in the sentence.  The word come was a clue for her. My oldest understood that in AAVE come does not necessarily mean motion, but in this context indignation, as in ‘she had the audacity’.  The use of the words no and did not also represent multiple negation, further stressing the disdain felt by the dance teacher.  Unfortunately, standardized tests are not written in AAVE.  As a result clues or hints often given in test questions are missed by children who are more adept with their home language as opposed to S/ME.
Mastering the ability to speak M/S English is not all that it will take to ensure success in school or in work. But it is a key component.  I suppose we could require our children speak S/ME all the time.  But I believe we would be remiss in doing so.
I do not want any of our children to miss out on conversations that mirror a simultaneous trio of improvisational interplay, a Broadway theatrical production and Morse code.   More importantly, the community that is fluent in AAVE is not only made of a language.  Behind the language there is also support, encouragement and acceptance when one needs to seek retreat from schools, jobs and other places which do not receive speakers of AAVE with open arms.
I figure after all, ain’t nothing wrong with something like that.


Do you teach your children to speak Ebonics or to only use Standard English all the time?

4 thoughts on “Black English, Ebonics, African American Language – Lost in Translation

  1. You’ve raised a timely question, Sharla. As a white editor, one who often edits books written by black authors who place black characters in their plots, I do not change Ebonics or African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to standard written English when the words are spoken by the characters. However, if the narrator slips from standard written English to Ebonics or vice versa, I question the client as to which dialect he/she prefers so that we can maintain consistent narration throughout the manuscript.

    Your question has piqued my curiosity, so I will ask it of my African American clients, at least the ones with whom I have a long-standing relationship.

  2. What is Black English?? English is English and should not, in my opinion, be interpreted any other way. Why not just use plain English and teach ALL children to use proper English – Grammar whether writing, or speaking.

    I denounce Ebonics. As far as I am concerned it is a made-up name to described ignorant language, and poor grammar. It isn’t cute and will eventually catch up with you when trying to improve and grow, especially during an important interview.

    I know about “code switching.” I think most people are relaxed at times, but practice makes perfect, so if we ALL use proper English there would be no need for our children to hear us speaking in two, three different ways. If and when you know better – do better!

    Cherrye S. Vasquez, Ph.D.

  3. Wicked good article! 🙂
    Teaching our children to be assertive, accepting, and active global citizens requires a certain ability to communicate with many cultures. There is always a time and a place for using (and celebrating!) our own culture’s dialects and slang. However encouraging and modeling language useful in the business world is imperative.
    Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *