Two UMass scholars focus on the ways in which children learn and use language.

f you say "to-MAY-to" and I say "to-MAH-to," or if I say "EE- ther"and you say "EYE-ther," we can share a laugh and harmonize in a light-hearted ditty about our linguistic differences. But if you say "He plays basketball" and I say "He be playin' basketball," suddenly it's a whole different story.

Of all today's language-related controversies, from hate speech codes to "English only" laws, none sparks more impassioned debate than the issue of Black English. Also known as African-American English or Ebonics, the English spoken in millions of black homes from coast to coast is more than just another dialect of the world's most widely spoken tongue, more than another variation on the language of Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Crocodile Dundee. African-American English is a political punching bag, the butt of a thousand racist jokes, and the focus of fiery public policy disagreements that often generate more rhetorical heat than educational light. Fortunately, this variety of American English has also become the subject of scholarly research that promises to pay dividends in two important areas ? addressing the day-to-day learning needs of black children in our nation's classrooms, and furthering our theoretical understanding of the remarkable human ability to use any language at all.

In February, the National Institutes of Health announced a $2.7 million grant to support the next phase of an ongoing Black English research project headed by two UMass scholars, communication disorders professor Harry N. Seymour and linguistics professor Thomas Roeper. The Seymour-Roeper research team, which includes numerous faculty members and graduate students from both of their departments as well as Smith College psychology professor Jill deVilliers, is focusing on the subject to which both men have devoted their careers ? the ways in which children learn and use language.

Although the research agendas of the two team leaders dovetail neatly in this project, they come to the work with different scholarly concerns and different styles of thinking about language. For one, the issues involved are theoretical; for the other, intensely practical. One is concerned with teaching people to speak correctly; the other concentrates on describing how people's language works without reference to how it ought to work. Together they hope they can help do away with some of the stubbornly pervasive language attitudes that have distorted public discourse about African-American English and limited the educational opportunities available to many black children.