Teacher U, a collaboration of teaching organizations—including Teach for America—made a frail attempt to exhume the 1990’s Ebonics debacle by acknowledging African American English in their training curriculum. After having their teachers-in-training read the article, Phonological Features of Chile African American English, which appeared in a June 2003 use of American Speech-Language Hearing Association, they were assigned to “translate” the following sentences into their “African American English form:”
- My aunt used to live in Baltimore with my three cousins but last year she moved to New York.
- John doesn’t mind being late for school because he doesn’t like to go to Ms. Johnson’s music class.
- Deborah liked to play with the girl that sat next to her at school.
And so on. (Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the teacher’s guide so your translation guesses are as good as mine.)
Giving Teacher U the benefit of the doubt, they may have had good intentions. They may have been trying to make their next generation of teachers aware of inner-city culture. Sometimes, you have to know where someone is coming from before you can help them. For instance, years ago, I worked with an attorney from upper-middle San Francisco who had difficulty communicating with our African-American clients because she didn’t understand that “having sugar” meant having diabetes.
However, what is African American English? With the mainstream using terms such as “kickin’ it old school” and “holla,” African Americans lost any market share they had on urban slang a long time ago.
Recognition of misspoken English will do nothing to help these children or Black people in general. The children cited in the study were just 4-6 years old. These children are at a crucial age where they are developing their vocabularies and rapidly gaining a better understanding of the English language. Like all children, the children in the article probably used a wrong verb tense or two. African-American children are not alone in mispronouncing words and having an occasional verb-noun disagreement. As any English as a second language learner will tell you, the English language is probably the most difficult.
Although Teacher U teachers may be patient and willing to translate incorrect English, Corporate America is not. I cannot tell you how many discrimination cases I’ve come across where someone was fired for pronouncing “asked” as “axed.” Sorry Teacher U, but this assignment gets an F.