Ebonics Issues Revisited


“My kids all speak bad English. I correct them all the time, but they just don’t get it.” — Comment from a dedicated teacher of African American students.

“My Bad!” — Comment from this same teacher when discussing her embarrassment after perusing some of the hundreds of on-line texts and videos on the subject of African American language.

In our blog posts, as we introduce and report on exemplary educational models, we will regularly explore the intersection of language and culture in African American life. The issues related to the language of African Americans will have a prominent place in these discussions.

As many of you know, individual researchers and linguists usually have their preferred terms for the variety of English that is spoken by a great number of African Americans. Noting the sometimes controversial disagreement on the use of these various terms, in our blogs three terms will be used interchangeably: African American Language,African American English, and Ebonics. You will also see the acknowledgment and discussion of other related terms such as Mainstream American English, Standard English, etc.


Let us begin by revisiting the “Ebonics” debate of the late 1990’s, a debate that culminated in the 1997 resolution of the Linguistic Society of America, a resolution that was unanimously adopted at its annual meeting that year:

Whereas there has been a great deal of discussion in the media and among the American public about the 18 December 1996 decision of the Oakland School Board to recognize the language variety spoken by many African American students and to take it into account in teaching Standard English, the Linguistic Society of America, as a society of scholars engaged in the scientific study of language, hereby resolves to make it known that:

The variety known as “Ebonics”, “African American Vernacular Black English”, and by other names is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties…The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as “slang”, “mutant”, “lazy”, “defective”, “ungrammatical”, or “broken English” are incorrect and demeaning.

— Annual Meeting Chicago, Illinois, January 3, 1997


It had been noted that even though no topic in sociolinguistics has been studied more than the history and the structure of African American English/African American Language most teachers and the public in general continues to lack information about the features that characterize this language as well as its origins.

We believe that the main objective of language curricula is the preparation of every student to speak and write using the highest forms of Mainstream American English. Accompanying this belief is the need to assure that students have respect for their original language as they deepen their knowledge and understanding of its roots and features.

We will invite lively discussions of questions such as:

  • What are the beliefs, pedagogy, and resources of successful teachers of underperforming African American and other students related to academic language development?
  • What are the results of some exemplary models of implementation around the country?

Keep a look-out for the next in this series.