A recent issue of The College Fix reported an article from the Conference of College Composition and Communication in which five professors called for “black linguistic justice” and an end to the “white supremacy of standard English.” The article reported was titled: “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!” The writers wanted to “decolonize students’ minds” to have them “unlearn white supremacy.”
Well, first, this isn’t new. There was this kind of talk way back when I first started teaching, which was about a decade after the Civil Rights Movement. Revolutionary fervor is addictive and very hard to give up, even long after the revolution is over. Self-righteousness is intoxicating, and there are those, perhaps genetically predisposed, who become hopelessly addicted. It was about this time we were forced to give up generic “man” and the abstract “he” for a revision to “humanity” and the abomination of he/she, but at least that was more accurate, logical, and distasteful as it was, we were able to swallow it.
That accomplished, the addicts began to insist on the standardization of so-called “black English.” No. No, because the reason for such a sweeping change was not, and is not, accurate or logical. There are, if I remember correctly, 14 identified dialects in Georgia alone. There are hundreds of dialects in the U.S. An African-American from Waycross, Georgia, has as much difficulty understanding a New York African-American as a white person from Waycross experiences. “Black” English is as diffuse as “white” English—if there were such a thing, which there isn’t. There is, however, such a thing as standard English, which is the mother of all the dialects.
Europeans are bilingual; the second language of most is English, standard English, in fact. Any American can understand European English, but Europeans might not understand English-speakers from the deep South, or perhaps inner-city New Yorkers because these are dialects. I used to teach my students that, unlike Europeans, who have to go only a few miles to be in a foreign country, we have huge oceans on either side of the huge English-speaking country where we live. We don’t really have to be bilingual. However, because we have such an incredibly diverse population, we do have to be bi-dialectal (a term I coined for the occasion). We have to be fluent in our own dialect and in standard English. To add another dialect is not to deprive one of the dialect with which one is familiar any more than the addition of another language causes one to forget one’s native tongue. To learn a second is not a put-down of the first. My purpose was not to “correct” their English, but to teach another dialect—standard English.
If fluency in a second language or dialect is seen as a condemnation of a first language or dialect, it is impossible to teach or learn. I believe the English learned that lesson from the Welsh. On the other hand, I doubt that one could find anyone in Wales who does not speak English, even if Welsh is used at home, in town, and elsewhere.
What was interesting—and fun, for both my students and me—was an experiment in teaching standard English in ghetto. I couldn’t keep it up for more than five minutes at a time, but it was fun and effective in what I wanted them to learn: language is a huge part of our identity; learning another language is recognizing another’s identity.