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.