Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Communication Outside of the Standard

Popular culture has defined the way we conceptualize the language standards of distinct societal groups. Hispanics speak Spanglish, African Americans speak Ebonics, whites speak “proper” English, and other groups of people speak specific variations of Standard English. Each linguistic variation has its own implications, some of which benefit the speaker, and others which put the speaker at a disadvantage. The two readings for this week focused on the linguistic practices of blacks and nerds.

As William Labov explains in his article “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence,” there are three primary determinants of intelligence for school-age children: heredity, environment, and the relationship between children and classroom culture. The opinions of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and educators differ regarding how much each factor affects a child, but it is clear that the low educational achievement demonstrated by children in inner-city schools is a pervasive problem that won’t disappear on its own.

A common misconception among educators is that of “verbal deprivation.” Educational psychologists who conducted research in inner-city schools found that black children suffered from a “cultural deficit” arising from “verbal deprivation” (64). Researchers believed that verbal deprivation was caused by black children receiving little verbal stimulation and hearing little well-formed language in their early years. As a result, black children were “impoverished in their means of verbal expression” (64). Thus, it comes as no surprise that some educators have preconceived notions about their students due to their race and/or appearance.

Labov describes the concept of verbal deprivation as having “no basis in social reality; in fact, black children receive a great deal of verbal stimulation, hear more well-formed sentences that middle-class children, and participate fully in a highly verbal culture” (64). He attributes their low performance on researchers’ tests and simple, monosyllabic responses in interviews to the social situations in which they are conducted, explaining “that the social situation is the most powerful determinant of verbal behavior and that an adult must enter into the right social relation with a child if he wants to find out what the child can do. This is just what many teachers cannot do” (70).

Linguists (and some anthropologists) agree that the problem lies not with the children; rather, it lies with their relationship with the school system (63). For linguists, the solution of low educational achievement in inner-city school systems is as obvious as adapting the language and learning styles used in the classroom to suit the needs of the majority of the students (63). Although learning Standard English is the ultimate goal of the educational process, students should be taught in the language and style that will best help them to understand.

To illustrate the different perceptions surrounding Black English Vernacular, I have included a video clip from the movie Airplane. Although the actors are technically speaking Jive, the important thing to notice is that there is a correct (or commonly accepted) way to speak this variation of Standard English. As Labov mentions, Black English Vernacular has characteristic linguistic forms including negative inversion, negative concord, optional copula deletion, and full forms of auxiliaries (72). The form of communication used by the Airplane characters is slightly exaggerated (notice the subtitles when they begin to speak). The comedy of this particular video clip arises from the female speaker of Jive—Barbara Billingsley. Billingsley played the role of June Cleaver on the TV series Leave It to Beaver in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. For this reason, viewers found her performance of such a racialized role in Airplane quite hilarious.

On the other end of the linguistic spectrum, Mary Bucholtz describes the “nerds” of society in “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness.” Nerds are stereotypically white males; however, Bucholtz interviews both males and females when evaluating the nerds of Bay City High School in San Francisco, California. She identifies the nerds as European Americans who have distinct linguistic practices that distinguish them from African Americans and other European Americans who have adopted the black standards of “coolness.” According to Bucholtz, the hyperstandard language of nerds is characterized by “lexical formality, carefully articulated phonological forms, and prescriptively standard grammar” (88). Another marked characteristic of “nerdy” linguistic practices is the general avoidance of slang terminology, as demonstrated in the interviews conducted by Bucholtz.

Both the nonstandard Black English Vernacular and the superstandard English of nerds are linguistically marked. As Bucholtz explains, “the notion of a linguistic “standard,” which in the U.S. context is closely bound up with whiteness, implies both unmarkedness (standard as ordinary) and power (standard as regulative)” (87). Thus, both groups of speakers, nonstandard and hyperstandard, are distinctly marked, even though one group is stereotypically (and realistically) African American while the other is stereotypically white.

Although the term “nerd” can, in theory, refer to both a white individual and a black individual, Bucholtz examines the idea that “engaging in nerdy practices may itself be a form of white privilege, since these practices were not as readily available to teenagers of color and the consequences of their use more severe” (96). She discusses the use of the term “brainiac” as a racialized term for “nerd,” used by African Americans to call out intelligent blacks. In the Fordham study cited in her writing, black students “often hid or downplayed their academic accomplishments” to avoid being labeled a brainiac (95). Of course, when we hear the term “black nerd,” the first image that comes to mind is that of Steve Urkel, which only goes to show the role that the media plays in producing and contributing to stereotypes.

The common theme of William Labov’s “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” and Mary Bucholtz’s “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” is the markedness of the linguistic practices of distinct societal groups. In educational settings, the language of black students marks them as culturally and verbally inferior to their Standard English-speaking counterparts while the language of white nerds marks them as incompatible with the practices of blacks and “trendy” whites. What society can learn from these examples is the ability of these groups to communicate efficiently and effectively—outside of the standard.

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