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COVER STORY : THE TALK WARS : Educators Say Street Language Has No Place in the Job Market, but the Issue of Correcting Ethnic Speech Has Ignited an Emotional Debate

March 07, 1993|DIANE SEO

THE LESSON FOR THE DAY IS "CASH ENGLISH," THE KIND OF ENGLISH that impresses job interviewers and helps land good jobs.

Two boys are standing in front of their sophomore English class at Crenshaw High School, trying to look cool but feeling sheepish about the conversation they're about to demonstrate.

"Hello, how are you?" one boy says, his shoulders slumping.

"I am fine, thank you, and how are you?" the other boy responds, sounding stilted and overly chipper.

"I am fine, thank you."

That exchange stands in sharp contrast to the lingo that normally rings through the halls at nearly every Los Angeles school. At Manual Arts High School, for instance, sophomore Elias Gonzalez talks to his friends using a mixture of Spanish and English commonly known as Spanglish.

"Hey man, there's going to be a party manana ," Gonzalez said. "Take your homey. Take your hermana. "

Meanwhile, Tynisa Jones, a junior at the school, slips into a language common among African-Americans when she says to her friend, "Yo' girl, what up? Hey, who dat guy over dere? Now, he nice."

In Los Angeles, where ethnic minorities make up about 87% of the school district's enrollment, educators are struggling to come up with an effective but sensitive way to deal with the thousands of students who speak black English, Spanglish, slang and other forms of non-standard English in and out of the classroom.

While most educators agree that all students should be taught standard English, the whole issue of correcting speech, particularly when it is linked to a student's ethnicity, has ignited much emotional debate.

Educators wonder whether they always should correct students' speech or whether there are more important lessons to teach. They wonder whether students speak black English and Spanglish as a way of expressing pride in their community or whether language is a reason so many black and Latino students fail academically and have trouble finding jobs. And they wonder if they are fighting a losing battle by trying to change the speech patterns of students who have grown up immersed in the talk of the streets.

"Some people feel it's the wrong way, but that's just how we talk," said Aqueelah Watkins, a 14-year-old African-American student at Foshay Junior High School. "If I feel like saying, 'Where's you going? Why ain't you in class?' that's the way I'll say it."

Black English, which is believed to come from a West African pidgin that slaves developed to communicate with one another and their English-speaking masters, is spoken by many urban blacks as well as other blacks in informal settings.

Speakers of the dialect often use the word ain't and do not conjugate the verb to be. ("I be going to school.") Words such as chair, with and this often are pronounced as, share, wit, and dis. And some words are left out of sentences or are not fully pronounced. ("She cryin.' ") While such speech is common among black English speakers, linguists say the dialect is also used by many rural and Southern Anglos.

Slang words such as diss, homey and kickin' it often are associated with black English because of the large number of African-Americans who use them. But linguists say slang, which is used by people of all ethnic backgrounds, should not be confused with black English because slang is linked almost exclusively to television, rap music and teen-age culture.

"You hear slang words when you listen to rap or when you watch comedy shows like 'Martin,' and he says, 'Whassup?' " Watkins said. "You hear it, you like it, so you say it."

Spanglish, which is spoken by Spanish-speaking immigrants and Latinos born in the United States, is less predictable than black English in that there are no distinct grammatical rules. Rather, Spanglish speakers blend Spanish words into English sentences or throw in English words when they are speaking Spanish.

While the term Spanglish is commonly used to describe the blending of the two languages, USC linguistics Prof. Carmen Silva-Corvalan believes it carries a negative connotation. "It implies that it's spoken by people who know both languages but who cannot distinguish between them," she said.

But some Latinos say they are proud to say they speak Spanglish.

In his song, "I Remember You, Homey," Los Angeles rapper M.C. Blvd., otherwise known as Robert Hijar, uses Spanglish to tell the story of his friend who died in a gang-related shooting: "I remember when we were just a couple of mocosos (bratty kids), causing trouble all the time and getting caught. We were baboso (stupid)."

"People talk Spanglish because they don't want to forget their roots," he said. "In school, some teachers would say, 'Don't talk Spanish here,' and that made me feel bad. For Latinos who were born in the U.S., speaking Spanglish is saying we're proud of who we are."

Likewise, Carl Banks Jr., a South-Central Los Angeles resident who self-published versions of a "Black Ghetto Language" dictionary in 1965 and in 1990, believes black English should be embraced rather than criticized.

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