CHICAGO — The nation's largest society of linguistic scholars on Friday strongly supported the Oakland School Board's recognition of Ebonics, as an African American speech pattern is becoming known.
The Linguistic Society of America commended Oakland's plan, adopted Dec. 18, to use Ebonics to teach some black students standard English, calling the action "linguistically and pedagogically sound."
The school board's reasoning is "not PC [politically correct], it's scientific fact," said Gregory Ward, a Northwestern University linguist who serves on the executive committee of the 6,000-member society.
Last month's move by Oakland's school board has been both roundly condemned and strongly praised. The school board has contended that it's been widely misunderstood. At least one prominent critic, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, modified his initial harsh criticisms after meeting with board members.
Now some linguistic specialists have decided to stand behind the school board.
Though there were arguments among the audience of 100 or so linguists--most of whom were white--the talk at the society's meeting here centered on where to place hyphens or commas, and what words would be the most clear. (After all, "language is their profession," observed the society's executive officer, Maggie Reynolds.)
"I'd bet my house that nobody in the room disagreed with the substance" of the resolution, said Ellen Prince, a University of Pennsylvania linguist.
Ebonics, the society agreed, should be recognized as an ordered speech system rather than as slang, ungrammatical or broken English. Black English has an internal logic, a pattern of construction "based on sound scientific principles of language," said Jerry Sadock of the University of Chicago.
Standard English should be taught to speakers of Ebonics, the society added, and "resources should be made available to all who aspire to mastery of Standard English." Linguists cited studies in Sweden as well as in the U.S. that show that placing value on the vernacular can help students learn the standard version.
"We absolutely concur," said Darolyn Davis, a spokeswoman for the Oakland school district. "Our intent has always been to provide the best possible opportunity for academic success to all our children."
But the Linguistic Society's seal of approval did not change the mind of Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction. She said she still disagrees with the idea that African American speech should be treated as a distinct language.
"I'm for strategies to help kids learn basic English, but I'm not for programs that will create more division and separation," Eastin said.
The Oakland resolution drew widespread criticism in part because it said the dialect spoken by many blacks is "genetically based" and that teachers should be trained to teach such students in "their primary language" and well as "in English."
Oakland officials later tried to qualify the "genetically based" reference, saying they meant only that certain speech patterns had their "genesis" in Africa.
John Rickford, a Stanford University linguistic professor who also serves on the society's executive committee, said Oakland's policy is aimed at making a much needed change in educating young blacks.
"The longer African Americans stay in school, the worse they do," said Rickford. "It's particularly striking in reading and the language arts. That's the kind of pattern Oakland found in their school system and decided to do something about."
The Oakland decision, Rickford noted, was the latest entry in a discussion dating to the 1960s, when black activists demanded that black English be understood as a different, but not lesser, form of English.
In 1974, the National Council of Teachers of English passed a resolution that "all regional ethnic and social dialects of American English" were valid.
And in the late 1970s, field tests were conducted in four cities and one rural school system of textbooks that provided stories in black English and gradually introduced more and more standard English. The 417 students using the texts learned six months' worth of material in four months, as compared with 1.6 months' worth of material over the same time span for students using the regular books.
But the publisher, Houghton, Mifflin, later dropped the materials "because of all the flak," said Rickford.
Los Angeles and Oakland also have experimented with programs that point out to students the differences between Ebonics, a word derived from "ebony-phonics," and standard English.
The hue and cry over last month's vote in Oakland came as a surprise to many of the linguists at the conference. "There is a positive outcome, though," said Ward. "It brings attention to the linguistic problems of inner-city kids."
Times staff writer Richard Lee Colvin in Los Angeles contributed to this story.