Monday, February 09, 2004

On Language (part 2 of 3)

(See below for part one)

In the previous section I discussed the differences (or more accurately the lack of differences) between a language and a dialect. However, this discussion is predicated on the idea that we can know the difference between one dialect and the next. This is not always as easy as you may think, as people seem to have a natural bias against differentiating languages.

A while back Oakland got into trouble for trying to implement bilingual education. At the time, other Californian school districts employed similar bilingual systems and Oakland hoped that the switch would help their children learn English. This would seem to be an internal matter which should hardly invoke discussion beyond Oakland’s borders. The only problem was that Oakland was implementing bilingual education for children who spoke Ebonics. The outrage this invoked (in areas outside of Oakland) was palpable: It was silly. A joke. Another liberal foolishness. “Clearly,” these non-Oaklanders though, “These poor black people aren’t speaking a different language. They’re trying to speak English but doing it wrong!”

Interestingly, the real issue received scant attention: is it a different language? Yes, Ebonics is very similar to English. Though Ebonics speakers probably speak English (as best they can) around English speakers, they could probably be understood anyway. On the other hand, Ebonics is very different. Ebonics has five tenses. It differentiates between “he been working” (he has been working on and off) and “he BEEN working” (he has been working but is no longer doing so). The word “to be” is conjugated differently, not to mention pronunciation and vowels. It would seem the question of whether Ebonics should be considered a dialect or a language was at the very least contestable.

Clearly, Oakland thought that operatively, Ebonics should be treated like another language. In the editorial pages of our press however, the question wasn’t even asked. This upset me because at least here the difference between a dialect and a language; and a slang and a dialect had at least one possible scientific definition: If Ebonics was too different from English, bilingual education would help the children; if it wasn’t, the children would do worse or no different.

We’ll never know the answer. To my understanding, the Oakland school board shelved the idea, and a year or two later California changed their bilingual education to a more immersion based system which ended up working a lot better than the old bilingual system ever had. The incident did illuminate some issues though: it showed how people categorize languages and how the burden of proof is leveled against dialects. In the case of Sicilian, history gives it a certain legitimacy that Ebonics lacks. The stigmas attached to speaking those languages in public however, are the same; as are the doubts about their legitimacy.

Tune in for the exciting conclusion to: Basic linguistics I picked up from my girlfriend who holds a degree in that subject.


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