Monday, May 2, 2011

Hooked on Ebonics

by Emily Hacala

In 1996, the Oakland School Board in California passed a resolution that recognized "Ebonics," or African American Vernacular English, as a legitimate language deserving of some instruction in school. The resolution stated that, "African language systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English..." and therefore it must be acknowledged that "the English language acquisition and improvement skills of African-American students are as fundamental as is application of bilingual education principles for others whose primary languages are other than English" (Resolution p. 1). In this way, the Oakland "Ebonics" Resolution was framed as a means of providing an educational tool to bridge the gap between AAVE and Standard English. In order for this to be effective, however, AAVE had to be accepted as a legitimate language (like those that would qualify for English as a Second Language education) and not as a bastardized or slang form of English as it is often portrayed in the media.

The Oakland Resolution emerged as a response to shockingly low grade averages and attendance/graduation records amongst African-American students in the school district. The school board's reasoning was that the language of these students "should not be stigmatized, and that this language should be affirmed, maintained, and used to help African-American children acquire fluency in the standard code" (Perry p. 1). By doing this, the use of "Ebonics" as a tool for school instruction was portrayed as similar to the ESL and bilingual education programs, in which non-native speakers of English are instructed in a combination of their primary languages and English, in hopes of eventually shifting to solely Standard English. Unfortunately, however, many people interpreted this to mean that teachers would be instructing their students only in AAVE, thereby abandoning the use of Standard English in classrooms (even though this was most certainly not the intent of the resolution).

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for the Oakland "Ebonics" resolution was that it required people to view African American Vernacular English as a legitimate language and not simply a slang dialect of Standard "white" English. The difference between a dialect and a language is primarily an issue of
legitimacy; linguists often (somewhat jokingly) describe the difference by saying that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy," because it has the power to establish itself politically, socially, and
culturally as legitimate. Elaine Richardson, in her article "The Anti-Ebonics Movement," argues that this
movement also deals with the legitimacy of the African-American person. She states that, "an overview of anti-Ebonics policies and legislation reveals more about America's problems with inherent racism and social control than our efforts to enhance the language and literacy education of African American students" (Richardson p. 167). Essentially, African American Vernacular English cannot be considered legitimate because "African Americans are not fully legitimate," (Richardson p. 158) and therefore lack the power fully establish their language as both distinct and valid.

The following video, Hooked on Ebonics, presents a mockery of "Hooked on Phonics," a program often used to teach young children legitimate English by using a variety of mediums to teach phonics, or letter-sound correlations. Hooked on Phonics will ideally teach children to speak Standard English, which they can then use to achieve success in school and eventually the workplace. Essentially, "students should work hard on acquiring the standard variety of English, and they will experience the benefits of democracy" (Richardson p. 160). In the Hooked on Ebonics video, the instructor, a white man who transforms into G. Dogg $$$ when he changes his speech from "white" English to "Ebonics," is teaching his students Ebonics because previously they didn't "get no respect" and he wants to help them "get some understanding." G. Dogg $$$ goes on to say that he wants his "youngstas to succeed in a white man's world," and that by ordering his Hooked on Ebonics program they will receive tapes and flashcards to teach them the language, as well as a pair of handcuffs and some "newfound self-respect." It is important to note that there is not a single native speaker of AAVE represented in this video (or, in fact, a single African-American person), which only serves to further perpetuate common misconceptions about the illegitimacy of AAVE as more of a slang or bastardized dialect of "white" English than a legitimate, distinct language.

The Oakland Ebonics Resolution was often very misrepresented in the media, as can be seen in the Hooked on Ebonics video. Theresa Perry's article, "I'on Know why They be Trippin," points out that "with few exceptions, mainstream media presented the Oakland resolution as a decision by the school board to abandon the teaching of Standard English and in its stead to teach Black Language/Ebonics," (Perry p. 2) despite the fact that this was very much not the intention of the resolution. However, this misunderstanding caused great controversy because AAVE was seen as a type of slang, not appropriate for school context. Even though linguists have argued that AAVE is actually a very much rule-defined language (ie. copula deletion, habitual "be"), it was still equated with an informal type of slang, which therefore rendered it illegitimate.

Only a month after the Oakland resolution was published, an amended resolution was released in response to the controversy that emerged from the misunderstanding that Standard English would be abandoned in favor of "Ebonics" for students in the Oakland school district. The amended resolution retracted the statements implying that African-Americans have a biological predisposition towards speaking "Ebonics" (even though technically the resolution was referring to linguistic, rather than biological, genetics), and replaced this with statements that established "Ebonics" as having historical African roots and not simply as a dialect of Standard English. However, the legitimacy of "Ebonics" remains a highly controversial and debated issue to this day. Richardson concludes that in the United States, "the general tendency is toward monolingual and anti-multicultural language and literacy education. This position implies that Black people have no linguistic culture worth incorporating into the classroom" (Richardson p. 167).


  1. Of course this has to continue to be talked about, now that the furor has died down. I'm endeavoring to do that in my blog. Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Lisa Price?
    African American Vernacular English

    Anna Renee

  2. This stuff touches the funny nerve in a special way. Hooked on Ebonics and Ebonics jokes are one of a kind. The enunciation, lack of basic grammar and improvisation are somewhat uncanny. They're hilarious.
    You notice how some people actually spell and pronounce the word ASK. Without wavering they do not hesitate to pronounce it AXE or AX. Something more basic I can't imagine. Vocabulary, meaning and context to build a sentence is non existent much less how one word can mean something totally unrelated and different when used in different sentences. Makes me laugh harder than I want to when I come to realize how they actually think they are correct and have a command of the language. What language would that be? Not English even remotely. Bordering on ingenious!

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