Whether it is referred to as Ebonics, Black English, or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the dialect used by many African Americans is often full of controversy and misunderstood by those who do not use it. Out of ignorance, many educators fail to acknowledge the importance of AAVE and fail to recognize it as an important contextual factor of the students within their classrooms. Uninformed opponents of the dialect often refer to it merely as “broken” or bad Standard English. Although Standard English is an important formal skill to teach, African American Vernacular English should have a place in the classroom for linguistically diverse students.
“Black English exhibits its own regular system of rules for sound, vocabulary, word structure, and ordering of words into phrases and clauses” (Wheeler 60). Essentially, “all linguists agree that Black English is a dialect of English” (Wheeler 60). As a dialect of English with its own systematic rules and patterns, the classification of AAVE as “broken,” “slang,” or “defective” is incorrect and demeaning. Standard English is essentially taught as the status dialect as it is the form of the language presented in usage textbooks and spoken by people on the news and radio. As a result of the power of its speakers, it seems to be held as the superior dialect. One of the biggest obstacles that linguistically diverse students face is ignorance. “Our ignorance of specific cultures and languages can, unfortunately, be passed on to students who interpret it as a judgment that one language is better than another” (Whitney 65). The elitist thinking that one way of speaking is superior to another is inappropriate but not uncommon throughout the United States.
According to research by linguist John Rickford, “when teachers work with students to contrast the differences between non-Standard English such as AAVE and Standard English, students are less likely to use features of AAVE in their writing” (Whitney 67). Rickford’s research shows that when the teacher helped the students contrast the structure of AAVE and Standard English, their success in writing Standard English improved by 59% (Rickford). This idea is known as “code-switching” or “the ability to choose the language variety appropriate to the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose” (Whitney 67). Learning to switch from “home speech” to “school speech” at appropriate times is a program that has been designated a “Center of Excellence” by the National Council of Teachers of English (Wheeler 64). Code-switching shows students the value in both AAVE as well as Standard English without making one superior than the other. Creating students who are literate in multiple dialects with the ability to code-switch is an important aspect of today’s classroom.
Despite all of the research on African American Vernacular English as a dialect of English and its success in code-switching in the classroom, AAVE is still seen as an inferior way of speaking to many critics. The majority of people who hold negative opinions of the dialect are uninformed and ignorant of the complexity of AAVE. Until people become educated on this hot topic, there will be conflict with the issue of AAVE inside and outside of the classroom.
Statement of Hypothesis
Based on what I know about the conservative nature and lack of diversity in Southeast Missouri, I hypothesize that the general attitude in regard to African American Vernacular English among college students at Southeast Missouri State University will be negative and uninformed.
Explanation of Research Method
To begin my research to find out the attitudes of students at Southeast Missouri State University about African American Vernacular English, I first developed a survey with six statements that test takers must answer “Strongly Agree” (1), “Agree” (2), “Neutral” (3), “Disagree” (4), and “Strongly Disagree” (5). Having participants rank their opinions made it easy to convert into numbered data for calculation. The statements focus on attitude toward AAVE, attitude toward Standard English as “superior” English, and the use of AAVE in the classroom. I also ask participants to note their gender, age, region they hail from, and race. This survey is included in the Appendix I.
I selected my subject group as undergraduate students at Southeast Missouri State University. I asked my friends, the students in my classes, and even boys in my boyfriend’s fraternity to be participants in my survey until I had thirty participants take surveys. For each participant, I asked, “Would you help me with a research project for one of my classes?” After handing the survey to him or her, I explained that the survey will be anonymous and that the information they give will be private and for research purposes only. I then asked “Would you mind taking this survey with your opinions?” It was important to conduct all surveys in the same manner so that I did not influence the results by swaying a participant’s responses. After the participant completed the demographic items and the Likert scale survey items, I thanked them for their time and gave them candy as compensation.
Presentation of the Findings
After collecting thirty surveys, I calculated the data. The average response to Statement 1 (“African American Vernacular English is a dialect of the English language.”) was a 2.5 which falls between the answers Agree and Neutral. The average response to Statement 2 (“African American Vernacular English is broken English or slang.”) was a 2.6 which also falls between the answers Agree and Neutral. For Statement 3 (“I am a regular speaker of African American Vernacular English.”), the average response was a 4.4 which corresponds to Disagree and Strongly Disagree. Statement 4 (“People who use African American Vernacular English are less educated than people who use Standard English.”) yielded an average result of 2.9 which is slightly less than Neutral. The average response to Statement 5 (“African American Vernacular English is okay to use in the classroom by students.”) was a 3.3 which ranges between Neutral and Disagree. Statement 6 (“African American Vernacular English is okay to use in the classroom by teachers who are using it to facilitate the teaching of Standard English to their students.”) had an average response of 4.0 which corresponds with the answer Disagree. These results are tabulated in the chart in Appendix II.
I decided to compare the responses of students who are from Southeast Missouri with those from the St. Louis area. In order to make sure that region is what I was comparing, I decided to compare only the white responses from Southeast Missouri with the white responses from the St. Louis area. Removing race ensures that I am comparing area as opposed to ethnicity. Overall, the results of the participants from Southeast Missouri were much less accepting of African American Vernacular English than the results of the participants from the St. Louis area. For example, Statement 1 (“African American Vernacular English is a dialect of the English language.”) yielded an average response of 3.6 (Neutral-Disagree) from Southeast Missouri while the responses from the St. Louis area averaged 2.4 (Agree-Disagree). Neither area, however, disagreed with Statement 4 (“People who use African American Vernacular English are less educated than people who use Standard English.”). Southeast Missouri participants rated that at a 2 meaning Agree, while participants from St. Louis averaged a 2.8 which falls between Agree and Neutral. These results are tabulated in Appendix III and shown in graph form in Appendix IV.
Analysis of the Findings
This experiment illustrated what I had hypothesized about attitudes about African American Vernacular English. I predicted that the general attitude in regard to African American Vernacular English among college students at Southeast Missouri State University would be negative and uninformed, and based upon these survey results, I can say that I now have a small section of evidence to back up my claim. However, this study is an amateur, non-scientific experiment of a very small subject sample. My results and conclusions cannot be used as conclusive evidence of the general population.
After concluding this experiment, I can safely say that too many people are ignorant and uninformed on the topic of African American Vernacular English. Even with young college students at Southeast Missouri State University, there is an elitist attitude when it comes to Standard English. Many people still see AAVE as “broken English” and perceive its speakers as less educated. Although there was a slight difference in attitudes between the regions of Southeast Missouri and the St. Louis area, there is still a significant problem with the negative attitudes toward AAVE in both regions. This prejudice against a dialect other than what they are comfortable with may be part of human nature, but it is unacceptable. As a future teacher, I plan to address AAVE in my classroom if necessary, and I will never allow anyone to feel inferior because of the way he or she speaks. Language is a tool meant to empower its user, and it is important that I teach my students how to empower themselves with the language they use to overcome the prejudice of those who speak differently than they do.
Rickford, John R. Using the Vernacular to Teach the Standard. 25 Mar. 1998. Stanford University Department of Linguistics. 25 Sept. 2011. Web.
Wheeler, Rebecca S. “Home Speech as Springboard to School Speech: Oakland’s Commendable Work on Ebonics.” The Workings of Language: From Prescriptions to Perspectives. Ed. Rebecca S. Wheeler. Westport: Praeger, 1999. 59-66.
Whitney, Jessica. “Five Easy Pieces: Steps toward Integrating AAVE into the Classroom.” English Journal 94.5 (2005): 64-69.
I am conducting a survey to simply get SEMO students’ reactions and attitudes towards the concept of African American Vernacular English (also known as "Black English" or "Ebonics”) and its usage for my UI500 sociolinguistic experiment paper.
SEX: Male ___ Female: ___
FROM: Southeast Missouri____ St. Louis area ____ Other (List) ________________
ETHNIC BACKGROUND: AGE:
Black___ under 18___
Hispanic___ over 25____
Rate the following statements from 1 to 5 (1 meaning strongly agree and 5 meaning strongly disagree).
African American Vernacular English is a dialect of the English language.