Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ebonics in English Education

Elizabeth Baik

UrbanDictionary is a website through which the Internet population constructs and define colloquial words and phrases, including, but not limited to slangs, internet language, and acronyms. It is where people search the 'new cool word' that they hear from their peers but not sure what it means or how to correctly use it. To a certain extent it has an influence on how meanings and, as a result, notions and viewpoints are constructed, perpetuated, and transformed. This continuous renewal of definitions are made possible by constant contributions of different individuals, in addition to others being able to rate the validity of the given definition by choosing 'up' or 'down' to indicate how much they agree with the definition. The post with the most amount of 'up's get bumped up to the top of the definition list to be the first one to appear when a word is searched, but of course the searcher has access to other definitions. With such credentials, or lack thereof depending on how you see it and what you're focusing on, of UrbanDictionary in mind, exploring the definition of the word 'Ebonics' on this website provides insight into how the society at large, particularly those who are perhaps not in the academia, but definitely deeply rooted in popular culture, perceive Ebonics linguistically.

The no.1 definition with 6415 people confirming and 2307 people rejecting is as follows:
"A poor excuse for a failure to grasp the basics of english. When in doubt, throw an "izzle" sound in the middle of any word of just string random thoughts together and insinuate that they actually mean something. When backed into a corner, you can always claim that it has something to do with a sort of symbolism or is a defining trait that makes your race great, versus own up to the fact that it is essentially laziness at it's finest." submitted by BlingBlangWBF on August 6, 2003.
Granted the general agreement that UrbanDictionary is a place where different individuals come together to tease and insult others in good humor, most definitions were, as above, inflammatory and condescending towards Ebonics as a linguistic entity. Stripping the above definition of the abrasiveness found on Internet, what is left to reflect seriously is the notion that Ebonics is a lesser version of Standard English, lacks substantive meaning, and disadvantageous towards the construction of the respective race.

Among the list of similar definitions, there was one noteworthy post that attempted to highlight the positive essence of Ebonics:
"Ebonics is the language of African-American Ancestry, struggle, pain, intelligence, love, mercy, understanding, survival, resistance, and enjoyment. Ebonics, represents that warm place in the hearts of many of us African-Americans, when we think about our Ancestors, who could not speak nor understand English, but struggled to speak a language they were not taught formally for hundreds of years. Ebonics allows us to connect with our Ancestors through language. Ebonics is a language that is celebrated, enjoyed, and spoken intentionally [...] I 'respect' Standard English, but I 'LOVE' Ebonics and Slang, because they are a part of me - a decent and meaningful part of MY history, My culture, and MY family. My Ancestors spoke Ebonics while they cried in pain, but now, I can speak Ebonics while I smile with joy." submitted by Saboorah on June 27, 2009.
This post is a very personal account, hence difficult to gauge how applicable it is to others and how true it is in a general sense. Considering it was sixth on the list with 738 people agreeing with the definition, either its legitimacy or earnestness definitely resonated within others. The definition confirms Ebonics as a language. Whether the term, language, was used loosely or to indicate that Ebonics is not a dialect is unclear. However, it is safe to assume that Saboorah sees Ebonics as the language of African Americans.

The 13th definition on UrbanDictionary is submitted by somebody who seems to have more linguistic awareness:
"African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also called African American English, Black English, Black Vernacular, or Black English Vernacular (BEV), is a type variety (dialect, ethnolect and sociolect) of the American English language. It is known colloquially as Ebonics (a portmanteau of "ebony" and "phonics"). With pronunciation that in some respects is common to Southern American English, the variety is spoken by many blacks in the United States. [...] AAVE also has pronunciation, grammatical structures, and vocabulary in common with various West African languages. Ebonics is not merely just the use of urban or "slang" words, but rather it is the manipulation and transformation of the English language."
This post, along with other posts that mentions the educational facets of Ebonics, point toward the Oakland controversy. Ebonics, whether it is considered a separate language, a variation or dialect, or merely a set of slangs, is definitely used by a large population, and has been recognized for its necessity in education. A language teacher being able to understand and utilize a student's native tongue is essential in properly and efficiently assisting students' understanding of the new language.

It seems painfully obvious that the focus should be less on labeling whether Ebonics is a language or a dialect. The focus should rather be on the fact that the use of Ebonics in English teaching, similar to the use of first language in second language courses or in bilingual education, is necessary. There is controversy over the fact that the resolution seems to endorse the use of slangs. Anti-resolution African Americans are agonized by this because language will become an obstruction to their future generations. However, as the amended resolution clearly states in clause 8, the purpose of the integration of Ebonics in English education is "to move students from the language patterns they bring to school to English proficiency." As Saboorah states in her post on UrbanDictionary, many African Americans hold Ebonics close to their heart, treat it as a core part of their culture, and speak it with pride. This is similar to the Hawaiian teenagers who were passionate about retaining their language, hence culture, and in extension identity. As long as students are encouraged and strives to be fluent in both Ebonics and Standard English, anti-Ebonics African Americans and pro-Standard English White Americans should find their peace.

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