Feature Stories

Language & Community

The study of African American English combines research with community outreach
  • Students in Lisa Green's Summer Dialect Research Project on stairs

One common misconception Green regularly confronts is that AAE is just “slang”, when in actuality, AAE observes systematic rules and structure that differ from general American English in subtle ways.

UMass Amherst's Linguistics Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of African American Language, Lisa Green, strives to break down misconceptions about AAE (African American English), and to diminish concerns that it may serve as a barrier to student learning and academic success with the Center's unique summer programs.

African American English (AAE) is spoken across the United States, a distinctive dialect intertwined with African American history from slavery to the present day. From analysis of the narratives of ex-slaves to current research on how children acquire the unique speaking patterns of AAE, study of the linguistic system has real-world benefits for millions of Americans.

Lisa Green, Linguistics, directs the UMass Amherst Center for the Study of African American Language (CSAAL), where research is conducted on AAE and language in African American communities. The center also provides resources to students and educators who address language- and dialect-related issues.

One common misconception Green regularly confronts is that AAE is just “slang.” But in fact, research that began in the 1960s reveals that AAE observes systematic rules and structure and that it differs from general American English in subtle ways. Green’s passion is to break down those misconceptions through research, and to make that research available and useful to the community. To that end, the Center hosts two unique research and training programs, the Summer Dialect Teacher Project (SDTP) and the Summer Dialect Research Project (SDRP) for undergraduates. 

The SDTP is intended for educators or people who train educators. Many educators teach students who speak AAE, yet they might not have information about the linguistic features of the dialect, which can be useful in developing classroom instruction. Such information is beneficial in instances in which there are concerns that AAE may be a barrier to student learning and academic success.

SDTP projects are collaborative and interdisciplinary, drawing on faculty from departments such as Linguistics, English, and Education at UMass. For example, Green has worked with Anne Herrington, English, director of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, to offer AAE seminars for teachers that address issues related to language diversity, language use in the classroom, and ways of describing properties of language.

Undergraduates interested in research have a unique opportunity to participate in the Summer Dialect Research Project, a two-week program that focuses on analyzing data and developing and presenting mini research projects. Student projects are on topics such as language use by children who grow up in AAE-speaking communities and implications for the linguistic study of AAE for education.

Students connect with faculty members from UMass and other universities during daily seminars and work closely with those whose areas of research coincide with their projects. “Invariably, even students whose school does not offer linguistics or AAE study are interested in AAE,” says Green, and for that reason one of the Center’s main goals is to train undergraduates and increase the number of students, particularly those from underrepresented minority groups, who conduct graduate research in those areas.

What’s next for the Center? Green intends for the Center to be a primary resource for people who have questions about AAE. She aims to expand the undergraduate research program and encourage students who attend the summer program to consider attending graduate school—possibly UMass—where they can conduct research on language- and dialect-related topics. She believes that as more students come to the Center from around the country and take new knowledge back with them, they can generate a lot of interest in AAE among a wider population.

African American English is full of fascinating phenomena for linguistic study, but it also touches the lives, the history and future of AAE speakers. The Center recognizes the dual concerns of academic research and community outreach, and continues to make practical connections with students and educators in the school systems.

Amanda Rizun '13