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7/18/2005

Ebonics

A disparate pair of bloggers make a similar complaint today about a school district in California that plans on incorporating so-called "Ebonics" into its curriculum. Michelle Malkin, in a post with the racist-tinged title "Ebonics Be Back," says:
Check out the latest edu-follies in San Bernardino, Calif. Apparently, ebonics has been resurrected and is now a considered a civil right...
Oliver Willis also takes issue with this:
This is so stupid...

Black students aren’t doing well, so we should use this crappy, broken language to communicate with them. What the hell?
I don't know enough about the specifics of the proposal to evaluate it, but I don't understand why Willis regards Ebonics - properly referred to as African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE - as "crappy" or "broken." Contrary to popular belief, AAVE is not intrinsically ungrammatical or incorrect. Though its use does violate the norms of "Standard" English - e.g., the missing copula in a sentence like "He crazy" - the converse is also true: Standard English violates the norms of AAVE. Neither one is "better" or "correct." AAVE may not share the superficial grammatical rules of Standard English, but it has its own grammar that is on a par with Standard English in every way except one - socioeconomically.

Among linguists, there is little controversy about this fact. We know that children, subject to normal development - as in, they're not kept in a dark room away from human contact - and in the absence of any pathology will learn to speak grammatically. This was demonstrated conclusively by the so-called "linguistic big bang" in Nicaragua:
Following the 1979 Sandinista revolution, the newly installed Nicaraguan Government inaugurated the country's first large-scale effort to educate deaf children. Hundreds of students were enrolled in two Managua schools. Not being privy to the more than 200 existing sign languages used by hearing-impaired people around the world, Managua's deaf children started from ground zero. They had no grammar or syntax -- only crude gestural signs developed within their own families. These pantomimes, which deaf kids use to communicate basic needs like "eat," "drink" and "ice cream," are called mimicas in Spanish.

Most of the children arrived in Managua with only a limited repertory of mimicas. But once the students were placed together, they began to build on one another's signs. One child's gesture solidified into the community's word. The children's inexperienced teachers -- who were having paltry success communicating with their profoundly deaf students -- watched in awe as the kids began signing among themselves. A new language had begun to bloom.

A decade later, the children's creation has become a sensation of modern linguistics. Nicaraguan Sign Language (known to experts as I.S.N., for Idioma de Signos Nicaragense) has been patiently decoded by outside scholars, who describe an idiom filled with curiosities yet governed by the same "universal grammar" that the linguist Noam Chomsky claims structures all language. Steven Pinker, author of "The Language Instinct," sees what happened in Managua as proof that language acquisition is hard-wired inside the human brain. "The Nicaraguan case is absolutely unique in history," he maintains. "We've been able to see how it is that children -- not adults -- generate language, and we have been able to record it happening in great scientific detail. And it's the first and only time that we've actually seen a language being created out of thin air."

Managua's deaf children were stranded in school, not on a desert island. Spanish-speaking teachers were there to guide them. Yet it turns out that Nicaraguan Sign Language doesn't resemble Spanish at all. Indeed, the Managua teachers say they left hardly an imprint on the children's improvised language...

This failure to adopt a workable teaching strategy, paradoxically, gave the Nicaraguan children an opportunity to erect a linguistic structure of their own. Indeed, the frustrated Managua teachers began to notice that although the children could barely communicate with their instructors, they were beginning to communicate well among themselves, using a sign system that no teacher recognized. But what, exactly, was it?

In June 1986, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education contacted Judy Kegl, an American sign-language expert at Northeastern University. They invited her to visit the deaf schools in Managua and see if she could shed some light on the enigma.

...


It was noticeable at once that the younger children used signs in a more nuanced way than the older students. For example, the teen-age pidgin signers at Villa Libertad had a basic gesture for "speak" -- opening and closing four fingers and a thumb in front of the mouth. The younger children used the same sign, but modulated it, opening their fingers at the position of the speaker and closing them at the position of the addressee. To Kegl, this apparently small difference had enormous implications. "This was verb agreement," she says, "and they were all using it fluently."

..."What happens," Kegl explains, "is that these gestures become gradually richer and more varied. But we can't see the leap between them and the first signs of language because the grammar is inside the child. It manifests itself only as the child is exposed to this ever-richer mix of odds and ends." This ability to organize a heap of stones into a fence lies within the brain itself, and is apparently stimulated by interaction with other children.

...After more than a decade of study, Kegl and Ann Senghas have mapped out an idiom striking in its flexibility. Verbs, for example, can be stretched like a rubber band to include all kinds of nouns and prepositions. ... With all of these idiosyncrasies, it is easy to forget that Nicaraguan Sign Language is but the accidental creation of children. Indeed, adult-engineered idioms like Esperanto seem pallid by comparison. As Kegl marvels, "No linguist could create a language with half the complexity or richness that a 4-year-old could give birth to."
These are only a few excerpts; if you're interested in this kind of thing, the whole article is well worth reading. It's actually quite an uplifting story, and a reminder that just because a language develops among those who are not in a position of power doesn't mean it isn't every bit as rich and complex as whatever the "official" dialect is.

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