Black English Sho Nuf No Jive, Says a Linguist, but the Key to Helping Kids Learn to Read

Doin the English class, don’t nobody never help me. The teacher, she be done flunk me fo’ I know it.

During English class, no one ever helps me. The teacher is going to flunk me before I know it.

The question three black mothers in Ann Arbor, Mich. were asking themselves was a common one: Why can’t our children learn to read? The Martin Luther King Jr. grade school had labeled their 11 youngsters “learning-disabled, ” but the explanation was not adequate. The mothers sued the school district and last summer won a far-reaching decision from Federal District Court Judge Charles W. Joiner. He held that the school had failed to overcome “a barrier to learning” that prevented the children from mastering standard English. The barrier? The negative attitude of teachers in the school toward the children’s use of “Black English,” which Joiner (who is white) recognized as a legitimate ethnic dialect. The key witness in the case was linguist Geneva Smitherman, a 39-year-old professor of speech communication at Wayne State University. The author of Talkin and Testifyin, a pioneering 1977 study of black language in America, Smitherman satisfied the court that the children were not deficient and that Black English was not illiterate speech but a rich and codified form of communication. The oldest of seven children of a minister and a nurse, Smitherman grew up in Detroit and had a college degree and a baby son by the time she was 19. Now divorced, she lives in Detroit with that son, Tony, 21. Smitherman spoke to Linda Witt of PEOPLE about the Ann Arbor case.

Does the court order mean that children will have to be taught Black English?

Absolutely not. The judge ordered that the teachers be taught. He said, in effect, that if you don’t recognize what they are saying you’ll keep mislabeling them and turning them off. As Vernon Jordan, the director of the Urban League, commented, “Black parents have made it abundantly clear that they insist the children be taught—and be proficient in—standard English. Without those skills black children face limited futures.”

Isn’t the court order a call for resegregation—for treating black students differently from whites?

Not at all. A teacher just has to know where a student is coming from; teachers have always had to deal with diversity. The judge asked a similar question: Did poor blacks do better under segregation? Well, there’s some evidence they had a better self-concept. They weren’t so alienated.

How were the Ann Arbor children discriminated against?

Their teachers felt the kids were inferior because of the way they talked. For instance, a child might be reading aloud and pronounce the word “more” as “moe.” The teacher corrects him, but in the kid’s mind he got it right—that’s the way it’s pronounced in Black English. He may mimic the teacher and say “more,” but then he’s confused and afraid he didn’t recognize the word.

Shouldn’t that student learn the correct pronunciation?

Yes, but it’s a drastic mistake to start it when the child is just trying to master the fundamentals of reading and writing. The ability to “code-switch,” or change speech patterns in response to social context, is very sophisticated. In language development, a child doesn’t become aware of social context until about age 12 or 13. I’ve known white chemical engineering students who’ve had a similar problem. They speak a highly technical jargon, but to adapt to jobs in sales or business they have to code-switch to conversational English so people can understand them, and it isn’t easy.

In the case of the black children, were teachers to blame?

To a degree. I’m sympathetic with them because they don’t get the proper support from policymakers. Nonetheless, I’ve seen teachers correct kids over and over, getting angrier all the time—”What do you mean, ‘My mother do’? It’s ‘My mother does’!” After a while the child turns off, becomes nonverbal, listless. A bright, creative kid can become a behavior problem and build up a psychological resistance to teachers as he gets older.

Why did the children test as mentally slow?

Because the tests are culturally biased toward standard English. For instance, one test shows pictures of deer running singly and in pairs. The child is asked to point to the pictures that illustrate “The deer is running” and “The deer are running”—to see if he can distinguish between singular and plural. But in Black English the difference is not evident in the verb but in the noun. The child would say, “The deer running” or “The deers running”—no verb at all. The test falsely indicates a deficiency.

What solutions do you propose?

There are many methods. Peer tutoring is one—where a child who has one skill helps a child who is weak. Also group work, and individual instruction. And there is a good reading program called the “Bridge” system. It begins with stories from the black oral tradition which are written in the black vernacular and moves into standard English. It works. Some of the kids went up more than two years in reading level during the one semester the system was tried in Chicago.

What happened after that semester?

The system was thrown out because it sounded to critics as if the schools were teaching Black English. Actually, they were teaching kids to read so they could switch into standard English. For instance, it contained legends like “Shine and the Sinking of the Titanic,” in which a black boiler room fireman named Shine is the only survivor. At the end the lesson says, “The Titanic was a ‘super bad’ ship,” and asks, “What are synonyms for ‘super bad’?” The answer: powerful, omnipotent.

Do middle-class black children have the same difficulty with code-switching as poor black children?

No. The case points up the intersection between race and class. Thirteen percent of the Ann Arbor school was black and most of them were middle-class. They heard their parents, mostly black professionals, speak standard English and then switch to Black English in social situations. These kids learned the two languages simultaneously. But if you’re black and poor you don’t have that advantage.

Why don’t children of white foreign-born parents encounter the same language barrier?

The white child from a foreign background does not have his parents’ language reinforced to the extent Black English gets reinforced. People also wonder why kids who hear standard English on TV don’t pick it up. TV is a one-way thing. Kids don’t talk back to it.

How pervasive is Black English?

The judge asked me the same thing—he knows black judges don’t speak it to him. Well, we have a mayor in Detroit who, when he is talking to black audiences, says “PO-lice.” He may speak to white audiences totally differently. Black English is a social language even among a lot of professionals. About 80 to 90 percent of blacks use it at least some of the time. Obviously, during slavery, it was important for blacks to have a way to communicate with each other in front of their white masters.

Are there African roots to Black English?

The slaves adapted their own languages to fit English. They took their native West African sound and syntax and hung new words on it. In African languages and in Black English, for example, possession isn’t shown by adding an “s” but by juxtaposing the noun and the possessive, as in “This my father house.” And there are no hard final consonants in most West African languages; “going” becomes “goin.” There’s no “th” sound, so “Ruth” becomes “Roof” and “then” becomes “den.” On articulation tests, many kids fail for these reasons.

What is the most distinctive difference between Black and standard English?

It’s probably in the use of the verb “to be.” If you say, “The coffee bees cold,” that means that every day the coffee’s cold. But if you say, “The coffee cold”—omitting the verb—that limits the time frame, and means that today the coffee’s cold. So if you’re working as a cook and “the coffee cold,” it’s no big thing. But if the coffee bees cold, pretty soon you ain’t gon have no job.

Have you ever felt discriminated against because you spoke Black English?

I was once forced to take a remedial speech class to qualify for my Michigan state teacher’s certificate—despite the fact that I had nearly straight A’s in my undergraduate work. Until then, I had no awareness that the way I spoke was different, and this despite a background in classical languages. I even taught Latin! I didn’t write Black English, but I spoke it.

That being so, why didn’t you have a harder time in school?

I think my father had a lot to do with it. He really pushed us and worked on our self-concept. “You jus’ as good as anybody,” he’d say. “You jus’ study hard and work hard and you make it.” We spoke Black English at home, but my father would try to correct us when he caught us “breaking verbs,” like “she done did the work.”

Don’t the parents in the Ann Arbor case have a similar responsibility?

The parents’ primary responsibility is to see that the child gets to school. Sure, the parents should reinforce what goes on in school—to the degree a parent has skills to do so. The Ann Arbor mothers gave love, moral support, spiritual guidance and taught their children values. They aren’t equipped to teach code-switching skills. Those three mothers are poor and not well-educated, but they are good mothers. That’s why they sued.

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