African American Language (AAL) has been central to American culture and art throughout the history of the United States. At the same time, AAL has also been at the center of numerous controversies relating to the treatment of AAL-speaking students in the classroom, as well as AAL-speaking Americans in housing, judicial and the medical fields.
Addressing the needs of AAL speakers in the classroom has been and continues to be a controversial subject. Because most curricula are designed with Mainstream American English (MAE) speakers in mind, AAL speakers can be marginalized, as teachers who are not familiar with AAL may underserve their AAL speaking students. This neglect can stem from a predisposed view that AAL is an inferior form of English and/or from a lack of formal training on how to accommodate for AAL speakers. This tension has led to poor standardized test scores as well as disproportionate rates of AAL speakers placed in special education and speech-language pathology programs.
This disparity is known as the Black-White Achievement Gap. The Black-White Achievement Gap is a term used to capture the differences in standardized testing scores between African American students and European American students. Historically, African American students score lower than their European American counterparts. Though there are many factors that contribute to this disparity, one factor is dialect difference. Because most standardized tests are designed for White, middle-class, MAE speakers, students who speak a different variety of English, such as AAL, are at a disadvantage. The test questions are often ambiguous or confusing when interpreted in a different dialect. Even lower scores by African Americans in math sections of the test can be attributed to dialect misunderstandings because much of the math section is comprised of word problems or reliant on how the student interprets the written instructions. For more information, check out the Black-White Achievement Gap section.
There have been many attempts to close the Black-White Achievement Gap. The first legal action that took place in the name of dialect diversity was court case now know as the Ann Arbor Decision. In 1979, three mothers in Ann Arbor, Michigan spoke out against the way their children were being treated at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. The school was comprised largely of students of European American descent, and the teachers were unfamiliar with AAL as a result. The AAL-speaking students were ignored in the classroom because teachers were unaware of how to communicate effectively and accommodate for dialect difference. Following a highly publicized legal battle, the judge ruled that the school was in violation of a statute that proclaims equality in education with respect to race, gender, national origin and language variation. The judge considered AAL to be the students’ “home language” (dialect) and instructed that teachers must teach AAL-speakers how to read and write in MAE. For more information, see the Ann Arbor Decision section.
Another controversy related to the Black-White Achievement Gap was the Oakland Ebonics Resolution. In the 1990s, African Americans comprised half of the student population in Oakland schools but were grossly overrepresented in special education programs. Additionally, African American students had lower Grade Point Averages (GPA) and higher rates of suspension. In 1996, the Oakland School Board proposed the idea to treat AAL as a separate language from English to gain funding for bridge programs. The bridge programs would enable teachers to use AAL to teach AAL speakers how to use MAE. While this was a well-intentioned idea, it was met with a great deal of consternation from all sides. Considering AAL to be a non-English language inspired many public debates about the origins of AAL and what it means to be an English speaker. Some critics found that considering AAL a non-English language was marginalizing AAL speakers; some thought that AAL should not be used as a teaching tool. In the end, the resolution was reworded to consider AAL a dialect of English, and the bridge programs were installed. For more information, see the Oakland Ebonics Resolution section.
In the video below, from the 2017 documentary Talking Black in America, scholars discuss the role that societal orientations play in the education system for speakers of AAL:
What is it?
American students are administered standardized tests in both Reading and Mathematics as a means to compare scores across demographics or regions. The Black-White Achievement Gap is a term used to capture the persistent differences in standardized testing scores between African American students and European American students. Historically, African American students score lower than their European American counterparts. This pattern is well-documented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP is conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and seeks to inform the public of education levels in various subjects.
How big is the gap?
A 2015 NAEP study found that on average, African American students score lower than European American students. For example, in 2011, 8th grade Black students scored an average of 31 points lower than their White counterparts in Mathematics. The difference between a Basic achievement level and a Proficient achievement level is 37 points. This study also found that schools with more dense African American student populations had lower achievement scores, but the Black-White Achievement Gap was not significantly different across the high and low density African American schools.
This article by the Washington Post synthesizes some of NAEP studies. According to the article, 41% of Black students are in high-poverty schools. Additionally, Washington, D.C. has the largest Black-White Achievement Gap.
An article by Mai Miksic from the Institute for Education Policy at CUNY addresses the Black-White Achievement Gap with statistics and possible causes of the gap. CUNY finds that “Black students on average score below White students by one standard deviation, which amounts to the difference between the performance of a 4th grader and an 8th grader.”
The U.S. Department of Education provides information from the National Center for Education Statistics. The Achievement Gap was documented in 2009 as White students having higher scores on average on all assessments than Black students. They also find that, “while the nationwide gaps in 2007 were narrower than in previous assessments at both grades 4 and 8 in mathematics and at grade 4 in reading, White students had average scores at least 26 points higher than Black students in each subject, on a 0-500 scale.”
The Stanford Center Education Policy provides statistics and infographics to help contextualize the Black-White Achievement Gap. They find that though Black-White Achievement Gaps have narrowed since the 1970s and early 1980s, the trend was not continued into the late 1980s and the 1990s. However, as of 2012, achievement gaps were 30 – 40% smaller than they were in the 1970s. Still, the gap is large, ranging from 0.5 to 0.9 standard deviations.
Scholars have attempted and continue to attempt to bridge this gap. For instance, Dr. J. Michael Terry, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, and Dr. Masako Hirotani, an associate professor of linguistics at Carleton University, are working to quantify the way that dialect diversity is impacting learning in early education. They seek to use their research to provide teachers with information on how to better educate their students with respect to dialect differences.
The Black-White Achievement Gap is a complex issue with multiple intersecting causes. One major contributing factor to the Black-White Achievement Gap is dialect difference. Most standardized tests are designed for White, middle-class, MAE speakers. Students who speak a different variety of English, such as AAL, are at a disadvantage because the test questions are often ambiguous or confusing when interpreted in a different dialect. Further, it is often the case that many of these standardized tests assess how familiar speakers of AAL (and other non-standard varieties) are with Mainstream American English, not necessarily scholastic achievement. Even lower scores by African Americans in Math sections of tests, as opposed to Language Arts, can be attributed to dialect misunderstandings because much of these math sections are comprised of word problems. The Black-White Achievement Gap is an indicator of the tension regarding complex issues tied up in the education system, dialect diversity, and socioeconomic factors.
Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children et al. vs. Ann Arbor School District
Judge Charles W. Joiner ruled on July 12th, 1979 in Ann Arbor, Michigan that the Ann Arbor School District was in violation of the federal statutory law as it failed to account for differences between students’ “home languages” (in this case, dialect) in providing education. United States Code 20, section 1703 states that, “No state shall deny equal educational opportunity to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, by … the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its institutional programs.” Judge Joiner ordered that the school district utilize AAL knowledge to teach speakers how to read and write in Mainstream American English (MAE).
This case arose from concerns of three mothers of African American students at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. The concerned mothers found that the instructors at the school, which was predominantly comprised of affluent White students, were not addressing the needs of their children. Some of the African American students tested into the Special Education program at the school, and the parents of these students inferred that there might be a deeper problem of socioeconomic injustice underlying the linguistic discrimination. As such, the parents of these students brought a lawsuit to the school district to redress these issues, arguing that these students were not being given equal protection under the law and that the school district was not considering the home language of these students in the classroom, which the court agreed. A major outcome of this case was that it was the responsibility of the school and school district to accommodate the children’s language use, not the children’s language to the school, highlighting the fact that it was the school who was failing these students by not taking their language use into account in teaching these children to read.
This video from the PBS documentary series Do You Speak American? provides insight from the students whose mothers filed a law suit against the school and the subsequent actions that took place:
What is Ebonics?
Ebonics is a term formed from the combination of "ebony" (black) and "phonics" (sound). The term was popularized by the Oakland Controversy to describe AAL, but it has largely fallen out of academic vocabulary in favor of more inclusive and less politically loaded terms. For a thorough breakdown of Ebonics’ history and features, see the Linguistic Society of America’s Ebonics page written by linguist John Rickford.
What happened in Oakland?
There have been a number of attempts to resolve the tension between dialect diversity and the Black-White Achievement Gap. In the 1990s in Oakland, California, African American students comprised half of the student body in schools but were overrepresented in special education programs. The New York Times reported that African American students comprised 71% of special education programs in Oakland, and on average, African American students had a 1.8 GPA on the 4.0 scale. They also reported that African American students made up 64% of all students held back each year, as well as 80% of all suspended students. In 1996, the Oakland School District attempted to address these problems by issuing the Ebonics Resolution, which recognized AAL as its own language system. The resolution considered AAL a language distinct from English, acknowledging that its origins are complex and derived from African languages. The resolution advocated for the installation of bridge programs in Oakland as a tool to teach AAL speakers MAE. Bridge programs are a well-known and effective means of teaching students because they enable teachers to use the home-language of the students to teach a new language. The resolution would enable Oakland teachers to use AAL to instruct students on how to code-switch to MAE when in classroom and professional settings. This decision was not well-received by the public due to misunderstandings about language and the intent of the resolution. After many people spoke out against the decision, the Oakland School District amended the resolution to concede that AAL is a dialect of English, and the bridge programs were installed. (The origins of AAL are incredibly complex both in terms of linguistic and socio-historical factors and are still debated by scholars. See the AAL Development section for an overview of the main hypotheses for how AAL developed.)
The video clip from Do You Speak American? below demonstrates strategies and commentary on AAL in the classroom and how those strategies are implemented:
There were many misunderstandings surrounding this controversy. The Ebonics Resolution arose from a desire to close the growing Black-White Achievement Gap in Oakland schools and was widely supported by sociolinguists. Considering AAL as a non-English language was a decision designed to help gain funding for bridge programs to teach AAL-speakers to speak MAE in classrooms, in the same way that English is taught as a second language to non-native speakers. Though bridge programs are an effective teaching method, the resolution was not received well by the public because of the way it “othered” AAL speakers, creating divides between people based on race and language. To consider AAL a non-English language was offensive to some AAL speakers because it implies vast differences between African Americans and European Americans in a society where African Americans struggle to be seen as equals.
Attitudes Towards African American Language in the Classroom
A large amount of research on African American Language (AAL) has focused on the language behavior of adolescent and adult AAL speakers. Gupta (2010) investigated elementary teachers’ beliefs regarding AAL, and their professional preparedness to address linguistic needs of AAL speaking students in the classroom. The results of this study revealed teachers had a limited understanding of the linguistic features of AAL, limited pedagogical skills to address these issues and ultimately teacher education programs at the pre-service level were inadequate in preparing educators to teach AAL speaking students in the classroom. The most alarming results from this survey were teachers’ pedagogical beliefs. While only 15% of teachers in this survey said AAL is an adequate language system, 80% said they could identify AAL features in a writing sample. These data demonstrate the biases of teachers and their preconceived notions of AAL and its relationship to Mainstream American English (MAE).
Teachers’ Attitudes Toward African American Language
Gupta’s (2010) study implies that in-service teacher training is lacking culturally-responsive education programs to better prepare teachers to instruct AAL speaking students. Additionally, teacher preparation programs need to reassess their curricula to include dialect diversity training. Educating students about language variation is important in shaping the way that future generations think about diversity, so they won't grow up with these biases that a majority of the teachers from this study already have about language. In their 2012 book Articulate While Black, Dr. H. Samy Alim and Dr. Geneva Smitherman examined the different linguistic stereotypes associated with African Americans and asked teachers questions about dialect differences in the classroom and their perceptions of AAL. The linguistic complexity of AAL is often over-looked by many, educators and lay people alike, in the United States. Alim interviewed one high school teacher from California who said the most difficult thing she faced as a teacher, with regard to linguistic differences was, “spend[ing] a lot of time trying to teach them [students] what's an acceptable [way to speak]... There's a lot of… they was, and ain't not.” (Alim and Smitherman 2012: 172). These two grammatical features (leveling and multiple negation) are grammatical features of AAL. See the AAL Facts page for information about the linguistic structure of AAL. Although there is variation within AAL and within individual speakers, AAL is not “Bad English”, “Lazy English” or something to be eradicated. When students asked questions about why they “must” speak this way in order to be successful in school, the teacher responded, “I don’t know! That’s just the way it is. You have to learn how to play the game guys!” (p. 174).
Adolescent Attitudes Towards African American Language
Moving away from teachers’ perceptions of AAL in the classroom, Dr. Tamika Lewis's (2015) dissertation research measured perceptions of Mainstream American English (MAE) and AAL by elementary and middle school youth. The sample for this research included African American and Latinx children who were speakers of MAE and/or AAL. The students were accustomed to hearing adults in the school speak MAE and AAL. The results from this study demonstrated a shift occurring in students’ perceptions of MAE and AAL the longer the youth were in school. In elementary school, youth associated speaking MAE with being friendlier, nicer and kinder; while in middle school, students associated MAE speakers as being more intelligent and more likely to be leaders. The students’ changing perceptions are a reflection of their environments and the perceptions of their parents and teachers. This study further emphasizes that dialect diversity trainings are needed to mitigate judgements about language variation and promote acceptance of style-shifting.
The Impact on Adolescent Speakers of African American Language
Studies, like those discussed above by Gupta (2010), Alim and Smitherman (2012), and Lewis (2015), have consistently demonstrated similar misconceptions that people have about AAL as well as stereotypes associated with this linguistic variability in the classroom over the last decade. This leads to the greater question of how to eliminate the idea that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to speak English. These attitudes of teachers and peers can have a compounding effect on students being constantly told that the way they speak is “wrong”. The effect this type of prejudice has on children in the classroom is extreme in that the end result is that teachers gravitate to more MAE speaking students, as they are perceived as being smarter and easier to teach. These preconceived ideas about language from well-meaning teachers highlight the importance of pre-service level education about dialect differences and English language variation in the classroom. Many still struggle with an answer to the question why do I have to speak this way to be successful? Alim & Smitherman (2012: 185) suggest “[...] a critical approach should begin with teaching about the diverse range of language varieties spoken in the United States as to combat linguistic prejudices as well as internalized feelings of linguistic shame.” Addressing these difficult topics will help create a more open linguistic dialog in the classroom.
Largely as a result of the Oakland Ebonics Controversy, the field of Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) is aware of the complexity of dialect diversity. ASHA (the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association) is a governing body of SLPs and Audiologists that serves as an organization to set standards and promote best-practice policies for professionals in the field. Every SLP in the United States must become certified through ASHA to become a practicing clinician.
ASHA admits that dialect diversity is an intricate issue, and their online literature is transparent in the way they approach dialect differences. From ASHA’s Committee on the Status of Racial Minorities, a social dialect position statement reads in part, “It is the position of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) that no dialect variety of English is a disorder or a pathological form of speech or language. Each social dialect is adequate as a functional and effective variety of English.” The position statement puts forth the message that dialect diversity is an asset to speech communities and that each dialect is a reflection of a rich cultural, social, and historical background. The statement asserts that dialect diversity serves both communicative functions as well as solidarity functions. (For the complete statement, visit http://www.asha.org/policy/PS1983-00115.htm)
Though ASHA’s social dialect position statement is inclusive and aligns with sociolinguistic philosophy, it is unclear how this position statement is realized in the education system. A Question and Answer section on the ASHA website calls attention to a potential disconnect between their position statement and the implementation of those ideas. One SLP asks how she can incorporate dialect diversity into her practice, as it was not a part of her training. ASHA responds, “You are not alone…There are no specific course requirements established by ASHA for service to social dialect or minority language populations.” The response continues on to recommend that SLPs seek training in their local area. (For more information and context, see the Question and Answer section of ASHA’s website at http://www.asha.org/policy/PS1983-00115.htm)
ASHA also suggests alternatives to standardized testing to assess dialect diversity. Some of their recommendations include the development of tests based on local dialect norms, testing features common to both MAE and the vernacular dialect, using alternative scoring methods for vernacular dialect speakers, and/or relying on informal communication behaviors of the speaker. These are optimistic options, but they still rely on individual SLP initiation, as dialect diversity instruction and alternative methods for assessment are not a part of most curricula in the field.
So, ASHA supports dialect diversity but offers no specific courses for SLPs-in-training to educate them on the issue. ASHA also relies on individual SLPs to educate themselves on alternative ways to assess the speech of students to avoid the usage of standardized tests. This is a problematic discord that requires critical analysis and action. In response, there have been many pilot programs implemented by various researchers and organizations to avoid misdiagnosing dialects as pathologies. A group of researchers developed the Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation-Screening Test (DELV), which accounts for the developmental stages of nonstandard English varieties (Seymour, Roeper, and de Villiers, 2003). It uses representative speech samples from African American communities in various regions of the United States to account for linguistic variation to aid SLPs in diagnosis. (For more information on DELV and other tests/programs for assessment, see the “Assessment and Application” chapter of Understanding English Variation in U.S. Schools by Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson.)
Issues of dialect diversity are complex. At a fundamental level, both sociolinguists and ASHA are in alignment that AAL is a complete language system, but that in order to be successful in the current education model, knowledge of MAE is critical. While ASHA is standing up for linguistic diversity, there is an incongruity between its philosophy and implementation. We must continue to develop alternate methods of assessment (like DELV) as well as develop greater understanding between linguists, educators, and SLPs. We must find a way to hybridize sociolinguistic research with the practical aspects of education to address the fundamental issue of racial inequality in our schools.
AAL has been the subject of profiling and discrimination in many different aspects of American society. In additional to in educational contexts, African Americans have also faced ongoing, and documented, discrimination in areas such as housing and the judicial system, with their language use often being used as a proxy for racist and discriminatory practices. In the two sections below, we discuss discrimination based on language in these areas, with experts weighing in on these issues.
In terms of housing, studies have shown that African Americans have been systematically discriminated against based on the sound of their voices. Linguist John Baugh has spent much of his career fighting the discrimination African Americans face in these venues based on language use, highlighting both the systematic nature of AAL as well as the way in which percepts of AAL have contributed to the treatment of African Americans. Though it has been illegal for quite some time to deny housing based on one’s ethnicity, it is harder to prove discrimination when an interaction is over the telephone. A 1999 study by Thomas Purnell, William Idsardi, and John Baugh showed that American English speakers are quite accurate at identifying speakers’ ethnicities based on voice alone, and in as little as two syllables (e.g. the word, “Hello”). This raises challenging issues, though the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) is committed to ensuring fair housing practices, this issue represents a challenge that as of yet, has not be resolved (Baugh 2003, 2015). Dr. Baugh discusses below the findings related to AAL and housing discrimination in the following clip from Do You Speak American?:
AAL speakers also have been discriminated against in the judicial system. A prime example of this is the Trayvon Martin case and Racheal Jeantel (Rickford and King 2016). Ms. Jeantal was a close friend of Trayvon Martin and the last person to speak with him before his death. As such she was called to testify in the trail of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Travyon Martin, and almost immediately her language use became the subject of media and public scrutiny. The defense lawyer for Mr. Zimmerman seized on her language use and questioned her not only about her recollection of the events, but also about the way she used language to describe those events as a way to discredit her as a witness, as well as reinforce racial stereotypes of AAL speakers.
Rickford and King (2016) discuss the fact that these issues related to the injustices experienced by Ms. Jeantel are not new. In fact, linguists have long known "that vernacular speakers are often misunderstood or unfairly assailed and misjudged in court." (Rickford and King 2016: 952). The authors also note that even though linguists have studied AAL for over fifty years, and know a great deal about its structures and rule-governed nature, there are almost no systematic studies of the interactions that AAL speakers have with the U.S. legal system (see Eades 2010). Ms. Jeantel speaks a more vernacular variety of AAL and may also utilize some elements of Caribbean Creole English (CCE) as her mother is Haitian (though she was born and raised in Miami) (Rickford and King 2016). The defense attorney for George Zimmerman and the media seized on this fact, and challenged her credibility as a witness based on her speech and production of certain, often more vernacular, linguistic structures (even though they are rule-governed and systematic). They also go on to remark that a great deal of research on speech perception has demonstrated that much of the evaluation of any given speaker's language use is tied to the attitude of listeners, often a result of "biases from factors like race, ethnicity, geography and social status." (Rickford and King 2016: 976); the authors also point out that preconceived notions about the status/viability of AAL, Ms. Jeantel's ethnicity and language use, had an massive effect on the negative judgments by both jurors and the general American public regarding Ms. Jeantel and her testimony. At the end of their article, Rickford and King (2016) have a call to arms for linguists, who have a civic duty to communicate their research in a way that helps alleviate, or lessen, the influence that institutional racism and dialect prejudice have for speakers of non-standard and ethnic varieties of English. For example, the 2019 study by Taylor Jones and colleagues, "Testifying while black: An experimental study of court reporter accuracy transcription of African American English", found that court reporters in Philadelphia showed an average transcription accuracy below 60% when transcribing AAL utterances, well below the certification standard of 95% accurate. Such work follows Rickford and King's call for more socially relevant work on AAL.
Watch the video below where John Rickford and Sharese King discuss dialect prejudice and the George Zimmerman trial:
AAL has influenced American culture and the arts in a number of different domains, such as literature, music and film. In literature, celebrated authors and poets such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston all incorporate AAL into their works, demonstrating both the linguistic complexity of AAL as well as the cultural importance their language has for African Americans specifically and American culture more broadly. Though it would be impossible to actually represent AAL as linguists would (the vast majority of people cannot read the international phonetic alphabet, and even if they could, it wouldn’t be very enjoyable), authors such as the ones mentioned above are skilled at using eye-dialect, which is to say that the way something is written appeals to the eye rather than the ear that indicates pronunciation and grammatical structures that are indicative of a language variety, in this case AAL. This is actually quite difficult to accomplish, as too much eye-dialect can render a work incomprehensible by the reader, and too little may not demonstrate the features intended. Eye-dialect can also be used to show certain pragmatic strategies as well. Though there is no established spelling conventions for AAL in literature, there are ways in which these authors use similar strategies to represent AAL faithfully.
AAL can also be found throughout American music in genres such as the blues, jazz, rock ‘n roll and hip hop. African American Language (AAL) has a rich tradition of using language as a main tool in many cultural modes, from the Dozens to Call and Response, which can be heard in the blues by artists such as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and W.C. Handy. The blues can be traced back to the music of Africa as well as spirituals of religious music of early African Americans in the United States. Another genre of music, jazz, which can be largely comprised of instrumental music, still incorporates aspects of AAL in its structure. For example, singers such as Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald would incorporate blues structures and traditions into jazz arrangements. Another example of AAL in jazz can be seen in scat singing, where AAL syllable structures are overlaid and interplay with the musical structure of jazz, linking oral traditions with music traditions of early African Americans.
In addition to music, AAL oral traditions also are found in religious and political arenas. For instance, Barack Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. represent excellent examples. With respect to the former president, Barack Obama, much has been made about his ability to style-shift and participate in both AAL traditions and MAE conventions, based on the situation (see Alim and Smitherman 2012). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was also a leader who was able to navigate these spaces in linguistically sophisticated and important ways. A 2016 American Speech article by Walt Wolfram, Caroline Myrick, Jon Forrest, and Michael J. Fox uncovered the ways in which Dr. King used language in different social settings. In the excerpt below from Talking Black in America, Walt Wolfram discusses this research, relating the African American oral tradition to AAL and society:
Over the last almost fifty years Hip Hop has become a major music genre, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Hip Hop Nation Language has come to represent “the language and language use within Hip Hop Nation (HHN)” (Alim 2015: 850), the community whose members appreciate and practice the culture of Hip Hop (Alim 2015). Almost since the beginning of Hip Hop, researchers have been interested in the expressive nature of this variety, and over the last fifteen to twenty years, scholars have become increasingly interested in HHNL and its undeniable relationship to AAL as well as “the linguistic systems and cultural modes of discourse that both derive from and reinvent the African American Oral Tradition” (Alim 2015: 850), which is highlighted by the experiences and views of individuals in the video below from Talking Black in America.
Kendall, Tyler, Jason McLarty and Brooke Josler. 2018. ORAAL: Online Resources for African American Language: AAL in Society. Eugene, OR: The Online Resources for African American Language Project. https://oraal.uoregon.edu/society