UMASS NIH AAE Working Group Position Statement on Ebonics (also known as African American English). 1/99 Amherst, MA


The Working Group on AAE at the University of Massachusetts is not political in our goals or operation, but as professionals and individuals concerned about language and the impact of ideas about language on children, we offer the following Position Statement. We feel that the many negative statements about Ebonics in the press are based on a lack of knowledge about language and dialects. Therefore, we want to clarify what dialects are and to speak out in favor of judicious and pedagogically sound uses of Ebonics.

(This text was compiled from passages written by various members of the AAE Working Groups and the Linguistic Society of America by Barbara Pearson, Project Manager. Please direct comments and suggestions to her. )


The AAE Working Group is committed to the objective study of African American English (AAE) as a legitimate dialect of English. We are establishing guidelines to distinguish language differences and similarities between AAE and Standard American English (SAE) so that language professionals can diagnose language problems more accurately for AAE speakers.

The educational implications of the two dialects are different from the diagnostic problem language clinicians face. The clinician must distinguish the good language learner from the deficient one, regardless of the language variety being learned. The goal of the clinician is to help the child become a more effective language learner in order to participate fully in his or her language community. Questions of whether the varieties (or dialects) used by some speech communities are more useful than others are beyond the scope of our grant. However, we hope our work will help clarify the relationship between AAE and SAE from a technical point of view, so that the social and educational issues can be addressed from a larger knowledge base--more logically and with less prejudice and emotion.


People without linguistic training are seldom aware that they have language prejudices. They commonly make assumptions about the inferiority of some dialects, like AAE, and the superiority of others, like British English. They may also draw unfounded connections between "correctness" of standard grammar and logic of thought. When they do this, they ignore decades of linguistic research which show us that "standard" English became the standard for historical and political reasons, not because it was better at communicating. That is, the group who speak a particular dialect have achieved power over groups who speak other dialects. It is the speakers who have power; the status of the dialect merely reflects the social and economic status of the group using it. People trained in linguistics, unlike lay people, generally consider that all dialects and modes of speech are equal. They are all adequate to communicate any message, at least among people who share the dialect. Even linguists, who are usually non-judgmental though, recognize that some contexts favor the use of a particular variety over another.

African-American children learn to speak as well as any children, but from a model that differs from SAE in systematic ways. In order to become competent speakers of AAE, they must internalize very subtle aspects of the language system, with complicated rules governing whether sentences are grammatical or not. The dialect that they are learning serves the same purposes of normal communication, as well as solidarity and in-group communication as other major varieties, like Scottish English or the dialect of southern white speakers. Just as Scottish is most useful within Scotland, AAE is less useful outside the AAE community.


Few people would deny that in 20th century America Standard English is the most useful dialect in the widest number of contexts. It is the language of literacy and power and economic opportunity. Like most African American spokespeople and parents, we feel children should be encouraged to learn SAE, but we favor having children ADD SAE to their repertoire of language competence, not subtract AAE. Like most people who learn a second language or dialect after a "critical age" (generally 5-8 years), AAE speakers of SAE will rarely eliminate all traces of their native dialect while speaking SAE. Therefore, at the same time as we encourage as much bi-dialectalism as possible, we recognize that language prejudice is not diminishing, so every child should also learn to be aware of and minimize his or her own negative judgments of other people based on dialect.

We agree with the educators and language teachers who say that instilling shame about the native dialect is a poor way to teach SAE. After all, no one is asked to disparage English in order to learn French. Likewise, there should be no need to eradicate the child's native dialect in order to add a new dialect. The true debate in Ebonics is, or should be, how best to achieve bi-dialectalism among African American children, in the inspiring tradition of the many African-Americans who have achieved success in America through that path. In John Rickford, a scholar at Stanford's, words, "The student who is led to greater competence in English by systematic contrast with Ebonics can switch between the vernacular and the standard as the situation merits, and as Maya Angelou (see her poem, "The Thirteens") and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X undoubtedly did too, drawing on the power of each in its relevant domain."

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