The other night at the dinner table one of the kids said something to the tune of “he be in my class.” in reference to another student we were talking about.
I was kind of surprised at my own quickness to correct him and the other adults around the table were just as eager to as well. “That’s not how we say that!” we echoed.
The next day I was in the school office and a student asked the vice principle “is you comin’ to lunch with me?” Again, he had 3 white women scolding him in a flat second. ” That’s the WRONG way to say that. We don’t talk like that here.” The kid hardly seemed fazed at all. But I was.
Something about those particular moments kept nagging at me. WHY? Why do my kids classmates talk the way they do? Why were black people known for communicating a certain way? Was it lack of education? Was it culture? I wanted to know more. So… you know me, yep, I started researching.
What I found out was…. what so often we think of as the “wrong way” of speaking, as uneducated talk, as a tale tale sign of a certain class…. really is part of a heritage and a blend of several cultures that have developed over time, tells a rich story and is passed down from generation to generation.
It’s called African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It is it’s own dialect. It has patterns and is rule based. It has it’s roots in French, Creole, and older Southern American English.
It’s not Ebonics as most call it, It’s not slang (though black slang exists), It’s not lousy english, and while it’s not Standard American English, it’s not “wrong”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with AAVE, but yet it is stigmatized for social and historical reasons, related to race, socioeconomic class, and prestige.
Teachers today should not spend their time correcting or marking off or shaming when their students are bringing their home dialect into their school life. But should be aware (and many incredible teachers at title one schools already are) of what AAVE is and provide them with the tools to help them switch from one dialect to another as needed…. They are doing it anyway, why not be their champion in the process!
I bet that little boy from the school office adjusts his speech to please those in majority culture around him while shifting back to the way he grew up communicating when at home. But imagine how our response of “that’s wrong” forces him to view his family? Either they are wrong and stupid and probably wouldn’t be thought of respectfully if he brought them up to his school… OR they are passing down an aspect of who they have been and who they are, even if they don’t fully realize it, because that’s what their parents did for them. What if we honored..dare I say celebrate, the latter while at the SAME TIME give them the tools to succeed in a predominantly American Standard English country?
After reading… and listening… and thinking about all this…for me…. it’s not a matter of right and wrong anymore.
It’s a matter of honoring the past, celebrating different cultures today and equipping students to engage their world in a way that teaches them confidence and deference as they navigate both majority and minority cultures around them.
I hope in the years to come, the time spent around our dinner table does just that.