For the past couple days the internet has been all keyed up over the DEA’s search for translators to help them decode the intricate and complex language of the drug game. In short, the DEA is looking for, as they call it, Ebonics experts. Wait what? Are we acknowledging the fact that Ebonics is a separate language? Or is this just another cultural disconnect between Black America and America?
When speakers of one dialect can no longer understand the speakers of another dialect, these dialects have effectively become different languages. And since dialects are born through social and or geographical isolation is the DEA saying that Black America has been disconnected from mainstream America for so long that we are speaking a different language and mostly unintelligible language now?
This isn’t the first time that this search for a middle ground between African American Vernacular English and Standard English came about. In 1996 the Oakland School Board came under fire for a resolution that stated that Ebonics speakers would participate in a sort of modified English as a second language curriculum. Teachers who were proficient in both Ebonics and Standard English would receive increased salaries.
This resolution was met with a ton of backlash. The Oakland School Board resolution identified Ebonics as an English dialect with West African influence. In fact, that is how Ebonics was originally defined and what makes it different from Southern American dialects. Structurally, it is West African in origin but the vocabulary is English based. Is there anything wrong with this?
No. Other immigrant groups retain aspects of their native languages. Why should Black Americans be any different? And the children of these immigrant groups receive specialized education that teaches them Standard English in relation to their native language. Why shouldn’t Black kids? If we truly believe that standardized tests are culturally biased then we should try to level that playing field as much as possible. Imagine growing up in a household where your parents spoke Spanish exclusively and then being thrust into a classroom where you were expected to use a different language with little to no instruction. While not as extreme, this is what some students face every day. Their teachers use English in a way that they may not be familiar with the language.
The first step is to recognize that African American Vernacular English is not indicative of laziness or ignorance. Hello. For a long time we were segregated from American society through slavery and segregation. It stands to reason that we would develop a unique way of communicating amongst ourselves. Just as any isolated population would.
There are those that would argue that use of Ebonics decreases as socioeconomic status increases. Perhaps. But that still doesn’t mean that use of Ebonics is a mark of ignorance or laziness. Pockets of poor people develop and yes, Ebonics may be more prevalent in those places but that’s just because those populations are still somewhat isolated from American society. Just because we find ourselves clumsily integrated into American society now doesn’t mean that our unique speech is wrong. Maybe we should accept it and say yes, maybe our children need lessons in code-switching. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.